Thursday, 2 October 2014

The Fear of Death - mindsets that might help.

I don't mean the natural (biologically-wired) drive to avoid death. Neither do I mean fears about the nature of our individual exits. I mean the sort of out-of-balance existential terror that some people feel deep down about the fact that 
(plot spoiler alert...) 
everyone dies.

"What, me? Now? But...but...but...

It seems to me natural to have some fear of death; one philosophical response is that of Epicurus: "where I am, death is not; where death is, I am not."

So the state of being dead should have no fears for us. But then Epicurus was evidently brilliant, with a strong mind, and he didn't seem to trouble himself about the ending of his consciousness, his personality, in death. What might help us lesser beings?

I have a friend whose practice is to be as close as possible to nature, all of it, natural forces, seasons, plants, animals. Not as in "oh what a lovely view," nature as a pretty backdrop.

More like Dylan Thomas' "The force that through the green fuse drives the flower/ Drives my green age; that blasts the roots of trees/ is my destroyer./ And I am dumb to tell the crooked rose/ I am bent by the same wintry fever." This helps her to see her own life and death as part of huge natural cycles, which may not ultimately be eternal but are as close to it as we can imagine. 

Another friend thinks we should make more of ancestors; our current egotiscal rage to "individualise" everything reinforces the view that we are alone and unique in time. Perhaps if we could see that we came from our forebears and pass on what we were to those who come after, we could feel readier to let go, to feel part of a pattern.

Yet another friend believes the ancestors are Right There with us. I don't, in any literal sense, but I can see the point.

I think many of us probably need something to help us relinquish our lives with the feeling that we are part of a pattern, a process, a reality greater than ourselves. There are those who say, again, along with Epicurus, "I was not; I was; I am not; I do not care." I haven't come across many who truly feel that.

I don't know if believing you have an eternal soul helps you to fear death less. I would guess that for some it does, and for some it doesn't. 

I hope, whatever you believe or think you know, that you find some way of reducing you own fear of death, because excessive death-fear can really mess your life up. Happily, it can be treated (see the excellent "Staring At The Sun," by Irving D Yalom.)


  1. Julian Barnes, to me, exemplifies a terror of death whose intensity I do not, myself, feel, so I am interested in, and sympathetic towards, his and others' strong dread. Inasmuch as it seems to derive from innate disposition rather than circumstance, it must be very difficult to moderate. A Christian I know, who died recently, was extremely anxious about what lay in store. I gather that those who sign up to a belief system which predicts an afterlife tend to be more apprehensive than those who anticipate Nothingness. As to ancestor theory, I spent some time a few years ago with the owner of an estate that had been passed down his family in an unbroken line for 700 years. Family portraits adorned the walls. He saw himself as being very much a brief episode on a continuum but, at the same time, connected in identity to those who went before and those who will follow. This was unassociated with any snobbery or sense of manifest destiny. It was, though, a completely different attitude to death from my own. For sure, terror of death must mar day-to-day living and rob life of much of its pleasure. And it really is high time I read Mr Yalom!

  2. Thanks for there thoughtful points Charles. Particularly interesting about the apprehensions of those who believe in an afterlife. I've heard that those with a firm view (heaven, oblivion, reincarnation, whatever) are less likely to be troubled by the tread of the Ruffian on the Stair than those who are uncertain, undecided, wavering - which I guess might include many a Christian.

    The family estate man supports the Ancesters theory at a certain level; more mundanely, perhaps that's why "Who Do You Think You Are?" on the gogglebox is so popular, along with computer software enabling one to track the Old Ones back to whenever. Perhaps if we know more about where we've come from, we will be less anxious about where we're going?

    From what you've written, I'd guess that Yalom would prove interesting rather than essential reading for you, but it is, I think, well worth a gander and a ponder.

  3. Interesting point about Who Do you Think You Are? Yes, acceptance of mortality is implicit. I very much like "Perhaps if we know more about where we've come from, we will be less anxious about where we're going." Dying is certainly a mass-participation activity.