Hannah Suzanna: "Thinking about death strips away the things that are unimportant." Founder/Artist behind BCD on Death and Considering Life
It's the first wind of Autumn, and the sky is gray. I enter the cafe to see Hannah tucked away by the window. A small cafe in the West Village. Hannah Suzanna is an artist and the founder of her digital publication, The Benefits of Contemplating Death (with whom we're collaborating with this week - 'Death Week'). Hannah explores death through her work, but more importantly, she explores how the idea of death helps us live our lives more authentically. For Hannah, death was the one constant that helped her push her out of depression and into the fulfilled life she now pursues. As the saying goes, 'We only live once, but if you do it right, once is enough." Here's our conversation.
When I was depressed in college, I read the book, The Nature and the Human Soul. He [the author] mentioned how, 'thinking about death strips away the things that are unimportant.' It became this constant in my life, to talk and read about death. I was actually working with my friend Allison, who's a Life Coach, and she pointed out how I really seemed to light up when I talked about 'this death thing'. From there I started including it into my photography, and once I moved from California to New York, I wanted to figure out a way to create my own job that was fulfilling, for me and for those around me, so I came up with Benefits of Contemplating Death. Originally it was just my Hashtag, but then I thought it would be interesting to expand on it, because we (as a culture) don't talk about death or grieving enough.
I think it [death] hauls into question everything that we think is important and I think it's a big threat to meaning, and that can be scary. There's a theory around how human actions are based on what they find meaningful, the Meaning Maintenance Model. In that belief system people see death as a threat to meaning, and that could cause [a feeling of] existential crises everywhere. It wasn't always the case that death was so hidden. The main reason why we're so afraid, is because it's kept in the dark, and of course there's the unknown of death, but it's compounded with the idea of dealing with death, because no one discusses it anymore.
A challenge I'm constantly dealing with, is this idea of doing what is expected of me by society versus doing what I feel is right. As a person, I have always valued authenticity, and so it was really weird for me going through college and leaving college, and finding myself conforming to societal expectations. I think a part of that was that I wasn't sure what the alternative looked like, and I didn't know how to break free of that routine. I went through with a major that I wasn't necessarily passionate about, and I went through a series of jobs that I was choosing to do, because I thought I should do them. Those things by themselves aren't bad, and I don't regret any of it, because I learned so much from all of the situations, but you just know that something within yourself just wasn't in alignment. And thinking about death has been one of the only things that has given me the courage to break free from that. You hear about people talking on their death beds of all the different regrets they had; 'I wish I had the courage to live for myself instead of others,' 'I wish I had spent more time with family,' 'I wish I allowed myself to be happy.' It just seems like, whatever I lose in the security of a normal job, I gain in life satisfaction.
What's interesting for me, and I don't know if I'm trying to break through, it feels like the deaths that have been closes to me, in terms of family or pets, I haven't gotten into full grieving mode for them myself, and so I think about that a lot. There's a really close family friend on my dad's side and a man in their family died, and in a sense I allowed myself to feel that more, because it wasn't as personally intense for me. I really just try to accept that, because through my research I've seen that grief happens in so many different ways and trying to force yourself to do something isn't ever really the way to go. But it is a constant examination for me.
I think when all of this research and reading comes back to me is when a friend loses someone close, and I can really listen to how much or how little they want to share. There's no judgment, and what's what I'm striving for. That the biggest gift I can give people, it's being there through deaths, because it's hard for a lot of people, we don't talk about it.
The benefits of contemplating death?
Living authentically. Authenticity is what resonates the most with me. Because I believe that living for yourself, in a selfish way is kind of the foundation for being able to be selfless. You have to be able to take care of yourself to give to other people. It strikes a good balance.
Showing other people that you care, because we can die any moment, so show them that you care.
Empathy for everybody. Everybody is going to die.
I think the biggest one for me was leaving my previous job, because it was a really good opportunity, I was the Director of Branding, and I had a lot of influence. It was a business a family member ran, so I felt this desire to use my skills to help my family, but throughout that whole process I just knew that it wasn't right, and it was really hard, especially because I didn't want to let anyone down. And when I did realize that it wasn't right for me, there was a lot of resistance to that. My mom was like, "You don't know how good you're set up here." That was said from love and from her life experience of when she was my age. I was kind of prepared for the worst, to think about all these things, like 'Why did yo leave?', but because I kept writing about death and I kept doing what I said I was going to do, I'm constantly reminded that I'm on the path that feels right for me.
In terms of fear, there's a lot of things, my biggest irrational fear is dying from being sucked out into space without a space suit, which I know how to avoid. In terms of living, my biggest fear is mediocrity, a very cookie-cutter life, where it doesn't feel like I'm living fully. I kind of get panicked when I start to feel trapped. I want to create my own meanings and values.
I think, bravery is a big one [value], the courage to step up and do what's right. It's a recognition of humanity and all the people you're interacting with. You can feel it. It just shifts how you interact with everything. Taking the time to really feel the love that you have for people and show that to them. It's one of the most spectacular things that we have, the ability to create these connections with people, and then being appreciative and try being appreciative even when you're not.
Celebrating the little wins. Because as you're starting something for yourself, it's so easy to look at all the big wildly successful things that already are and believe that what you're doing won't get you there, so I think it's this trust that you can learn that if you keep trying and adapting, then you will learn, and if you can celebrate the little wins. Like I just finished my fourth issue and you know, only four and I can look at that as not that much, but that's huge - I've written a ton of stuff, I've interviewed a bunch of people and the combination of those three things allows my moral to stay lifted, you know it helps me keep going.
Thank you Hannah! You can find her here - Instagram. And get ready for our collaboration, this week, exploring and reflecting on Death.