Tuesday, 17 May 2011

The Fear of Death

OK, so having sorted out the meaning of life, sort of, I'd like to turn my over-simplifying attention next to the fear of death...well, I never said it would all be snowflakes and kittens. Never mind, I'll soon turn back to funerals, for a bit of light relief.

It's surely a biological function, an evolutionary priority, to seek to preserve one's life. Sometimes, people have managed to put that function aside and either risked or actually given their lives seeking to protect other people. We call them heroes, and are moved and astonished by their ability to put a moral choice and a willed action in front of their natural human fear.

They themselves tend not to use the word "hero," but say things like "I just found myself doing it," or "seemed what had to be done," or "just doing my job." Self-preservation can be put aside, but for most of us much of the time, it's a priority. In a comparatively safe society like ours, self-preservation can give rise to all sorts of neurotic stuff - the so-called "worried well," and if I catch myself thinking like that, I try to remember that the human body at any age is not perfectable and totally stable; health is relative, and OK at the moment is OK.

So most of the time most of us want to keep on living, unless we are very ill, profoundly unhappy and distressed, or just tired out and resigned. Because mostly, people fear death, or if they don't fear death, they fear dying.

"Staring at the Sun," by Irvin Yalom, opens with these enlightening words:

"Self-awareness is a supreme gift, a treasure as precious as life. ...But it comes with a costly price: the wound of mortality. Our existence is forever shadowed by the knowledge that we will grow, blossom and, inevitably, diminish and die."

That awareness, he explains later, can lead to various death-fears and anxieties which, if not looked at and faced, can cause all sorts of personal problems and tensions. And yet looking into one's own mortality, looking into death itself, is like staring at the sun - you can't do it for long.

His words quoted above linked, for me, to another insight from Dorothy Rowe: it is not so much a fear of death that haunts many people, it is much more the fear of the annihiliation of the self - in fact, the loss of self-awareness. Some people would say they would rather die than lose all sense of their own identity, (i.e. face the destruction of their personalities, their memories, their egos.) They might describe such states as a living death. (Sorry - but I said, no snowflakes and kittens...)

So maybe, with respect to Yalom (it's a tremendously worthwhile and helpful book, I've found) but maybe sometimes self-awareness is not as precious as life, it's more precious to us than life, since without it we don't see ourselves as fully alive. And Rowe looks at the way people will defend themselves against a perceived threat to their sense of identity (even if the threat is hardly or non-existent.)

So maybe to accept our own mortality, to deal with the dread death holds for us, we need somehow to come to terms with losing our self-awareness. (I'm beginning to find "dread" a more useful word than "fear," in this context.) I'm going to hold that idea, and come back to it in a moment.

Yalom uses the insights of Epicurus, who points out that death is a non-state. There is no individual awareness after death, just as there wasn't before life. We didn't exist before we were born, and (in a literal and basic sense) we won't after we die. So, nothing to fear about being dead. There's nothing there, and no "me" to know that there is nothing there. Or, like the Venerable Bede quoted in a recent Good Funeral Guide post, we simply cannot know anything about before and after life, even if - like Bede - we believe in an immortal soul. So, still, there is nothing to dread about being dead. There's no point in dreading a state of non-being.

Except - we have to come to terms with losing our self-awareness, our very selves. (Even if you believe in a soul, you will still surely have to say goodbye to yourself in this life as you are now.)

You've been waiting for that second boot to hit the floor, if you've read any of my meanderings before, so here it comes. For many of us - well, for me and I hope maybe for you one day - some reconciliation with mortality, with acceptance of the prospect of the end of me, some resignation, can come from mindfulness meditation. (Other kinds of meditation too, I'm sure.) And that's because while you are meditating, you achieve some relief from the demands of the ego, all the "what ifs," the "should haves," the "I'm gonna.." and you exist, as far as possible, just in the present. And when you return to the usual flow of thoughts, plans and worries, you may find an increased acceptance of your life, and of its inevitable end.

I'm pitching the mindfulness thing fairly low today; I could say that a meditative state puts one into contact with non-rational, profound states of mind (what non-believers still call "spiritual," lacking another term, or what some sorts of believers might call God) and that these states of mind are deeply rewarding, and yield calm, compassion and general well-being, even back in the onward flow of the old hurly-burly.

And this may help you to a view you'll find in a comment on my last posting, from Comfort Blanket, where she says: "What I do know for sure is that if there is one thing that gives life meaning, then that one thing is death. Because it puts things into perspective, brings them into focus, sharpens us up, gives us a limit on how much/how long...
So perhaps the meaning of life is death? Can it be that simple?"


Only death can give life its meaning. We are here to be, we are not here "because"....or "so that"....
It is only not being here that makes being here possible, significant, capable of creating meanings.

The meaning of life is death, the meaning of death is life.

The other meanings, we create for and between ourselves.


  1. Bravo GM. You can't see me but right now I am giving you a standing ovation. My bud of a thought has blossomed into a fuller and deeper meaning thanks to your insight. I feel very emotional.
    For years, I have been trying to pin point exactly what my own particular 'fear' of death is. And all I kept coming back to was the fact that I wouldn't 'be' anymore. Was that what scared me? But dead people can't think or feel or do anything at all, so, as you say, how can you dread a state of non-being? But now I know what I really feared was being aware that I was no more - it was the pain of 'knowing' that made me fearful.
    What a truly significant posting GM - for me, you have answered the unanswerable. Thank you.

  2. By heavens, GM, you've got me in the blue corner here (or is it the red?). Please give me a little more time to respond -- which I very much intend to do!

  3. I'm so pleased you found it useful, CB, and your words I very much value.

    Thus encouraged, I shall continue trying to stagger through difficult stuff - it seems to help me along, and if it helps anyone else at all, then I'm well chuffed.

    I might risk a look at my own feelings of dread about mortality, though don't want to get too anecdotal and personal. But it would relate to becoming a celebrant.

    Anyway, look, thanks very much.

  4. Charles, please take as long as you like, words from your corner are always valued and mulled over, red or blue!

  5. You haven't considered, GM, that some might find your musings morbid, and even wonder if there wasn't something wrong with you. And I say that because, now I've dug it up and held it to the light (grubby little thing that it is), that word 'morbid' looks odder and odder. And yet it is still very much current.

    I also find myself thinking of a favourite word of Ken West (especially when talking about burial grounds). He talks of vanity. He's a good old socialist atheist from way back, a rigorous thinker seemingly quite at ease with the prospect of his own annihilation. The urge for ostentatious memory preservation is, reckons Ken, a symptom of vanity.

    I envy him his lack of vanity; it's a great reconciler.

    The Catholics, I believe, are great ones for getting ready for death. They teach it to the young, then keep on teaching. Religions have always been good at helping people to die happy. It wins converts. At the same time, they don't shirk it.

    But they do like to hold up the prospect of eternal life hereafter. And it's possible that a long contemplation of the unendurable ennui of everlasting life is a good antidote to the fear of death.

    Death goes with dying, and that mayn't be nice. It also goes with the indignity of deadweight, and that's not a good look. But the not being? As Epicurus him say, we shan't know anything about that.

    It's a bit frightening, the last bit. And then there are those we shall leave behind (the ones who'd rather we'd stayed, that is). And then there's the next day's play at Lord's (which we'll miss). It's not all about self.

    It fills me with a sense of urgency. But it sure as hell doesn't deter me from smoking.

    And if everlasting life makes no sense at all (how can you say you're there for a purpose?), then, yes, it's only death that does give life any meaning. Is the extinction of self so terrible? As Ken might say, Vanity!

    Can we reach a settled and stable state of equanimity? Some can. The rest of us just have good days and bad days.

    Thank you for all this, GM. Excellent brain food!

  6. How interesting Charles, thanks.

    It is indeed not all about self. One can, for example, worry ahead about how Loved Ones will suffer bereavement when one chucks it in. That is an anticipatory worry, which it seems to me can be at least partially assuaged by practical things (don't leave LOs with a big mess to clear up)and partly by presentmomentness. Love 'em now, be with 'em now, say the things that need to be said in the present, not in the possible one day when I remember future.

    Because of course when we're not here, we won't be here to suffer from the separation. And perhaps we can try to trust them to come to terms with their loss, just as we've done in turn, somehow or other. Although aspects of our culture conspire to make that harder than it need be, perhaps.

    Of course, all this pales into insiginificance with regard to the Test Match,it's true...

    I agree that religions help people prepare for death, but some of the ways they do it seem to me slightly problematical. It's not too long ago, I'm told, that Catholic children were frightened into being good by fears of hellfire and punishment, or at worst a long time in Purgatory! Maybe the Buddhists do it better.

    Is Epicurus's point scary after due consideration etc, or is it scary in a kind of visceral, almost biological or instinctive way, i.e. it's part of our equipment for staying alive? Irvin Yalom doesn't pretend that he's got it cracked, or that he doesn't suffer from some dread about dying, but he does discuss ways in which that dread can be lessened, especially for people who suffer disabling symptoms from it.

    I think there probably is something wrong with me, Charles, because like Vic Reeves, I "would not let it lie." But I don't think I'm what people usually mean by "morbid." Most of the time I'm fine with getting on with life, and being a minibrant doesn't depress me; but I do need to work through this stuff and find a way of accepting our mortality fully, not just intellectually, because I understand and feel way down inside that it is truly grasping the finite nature of life that makes it qualitatively different for us, enhances it. Memento mori is also memento, er, vivo? (My Latin always was dodgy...)

    Writing about these things risks suggesting that one is in a steady state mental universe, whereas your "good and bad days" is very much the norm. But maybe we can lessen the impact or the frequency of the bad days.

    Ain't got no snake oil, just a few thoughts to work through...

  7. Oh, well, there certainly ain't no snake oil! And I wasn't meaning to suggest you are morbid; only that some (a lot) of people would, and that says everything about them. As to the readiness being all, yes and yes again to putting things in order for the LOs. And (I do this) talk about my death quite a lot so they can imaginatively rehearse coping strategies and moving on strategies well in advance.

    As children we exclaim 'It's not fair!' each time we encounter some fresh fault with the way the world is and the ways of adults. At the end we do the same as we see the buffers rushing towards us (and contemplate our treatment at the hands of the young). Understanding that, unfair as things seem to be does not actually make them unfair is perhaps another factor at the heart of acceptance.

    But no, there's no steady state. Which is why we should never let it lie!

  8. Your thoughtful eloquence makes plain yet again why the GFG has been so valuable to us Charles.

    As for people thinking such discussions as these are morbid - yes, maybe, but I'm heartened by the number of people who seem genuinely interested when I tell them I "do" funerals, and want to talk about it, at least a bit. I suppose funerals represent the easy end of the whole thing, but at least it may be a start!