The Fear of Death

“I’m not really afraid of dying.”

This is what my 93 year old grandfather said to me a few weeks ago while returning from breakfast.

I just turned 21, am undergoing an existential crisis, and have thought about the inevitability of death for years. I’m not obsessed with the concept, but one of my favorite songs since middle school has been “Death” by White Lies (so maybe I’m just a bit obsessed).

Naturally, the only response I could muster for my grandfather was, “Really?” At 93, I would have to think thoughts of death are persistent. However, he then said to me, “I’ve lived a full, happy life, and I have no complaints. The Lord has been good to me.”

While I love my grandfather, there is no denying that we have very different worldviews. Whereas he believes in the “Lord,” I have no belief in a “higher power.” Whereas he’s a veteran who’s worked hard his whole life, I’m a lazy piece of shit who’s accomplished virtually nothing.

So, for those of you who may share a worldview more similar to mine, here are some thoughts on dealing with the fear of death…

Is Death Inevitable?

It seems a bit surprising that in a world where scientists have developed things like segways and nuclear weapons, there has not been more scientific research on the one ailment that affects us all: aging. But this is where Aubrey de Grey comes in…

If you have ever seen Aubrey de Grey, you know that he looks kind of crazy, and if you’ve ever heard his ideas, you know that they are even crazier.

De Grey is a British researcher on aging. According to TED, “He provocatively proposes that the first human beings who will live to 1,000 years old have already been born.” He wants to view the human body like “an engineering problem.” He compares the human body to a car: If you take care of a car, take it in for inspection regularly, and replace parts when they start to break down, that car can last a very long time.

While I don’t have the scientific background necessary to summarize all of de Grey’s work, he helps to develop SENS (Strategies for Engineered Negligible Senescence) and has identified seven types of aging damage. He put it simply in an interview with Livescience: “What I’ve done there is I’ve identified a set of things to fix, a set of aspects of aging that we have some respectable chance to repair, and I’ve realized that if we can do all of these things reasonably well, then we’re done.”

While de Grey may believe we can extend life or possibly become immortal, it doesn’t seem that many others share his optimism (I’m very skeptical of this idea, just as you probably are). At the moment, unless de Grey and his fellow researchers begin to make some serious strides, it appears that death is inevitable, meaning that, if nothing else, I probably just made your fear worse. But stick with me…

Understanding the Fear

It appears that we must accept the fact that one day we are all going to die. You, me, everyone. Since we can’t stop it, maybe we should attempt to understand it.

Napoleon Hill, author of one of the best-selling self-help books of all time, Think and Grow Rich, believed that the fear of death was one of six fears that can cloud our minds, and prevent us from thinking about our desires, which is one of the central tenets of the book (the burning desire to accomplish something, combined with faith that it can be achieved and a few other concepts, will eventually lead to that desire becoming a reality).

Hill believed that the majority of people who feared death did so because of religion. He writes on page 244, “ETERNITY is a long time. FIRE is a terrible thing. The thought of eternal punishment, with fire, not only causes man to fear death, it often causes him to lose his reason. It destroys interest in life and makes happiness impossible.”

I’m sure this is true for some, but for me, the fear lies in the first part of Hill’s idea: ETERNITY. However, it’s not eternal fire and brimstone that I fear, but a very different concept: NOTHINGNESS.

Now the question becomes this: why do I fear an eternity of nothingness? After all, I do love sleeping and being unconscious for hours at a time, and I don’t remember the last time I didn’t try to extend that state by hitting the snooze button.

This, unfortunately, is a question I don’t have the answer to. This is because eternity is an impossible amount of time to comprehend, and being and nothingness are too complex/abstract of concepts for us to truly understand (despite the fact that Satre wrote an essay with that title). The concept of nothingness is made even more difficult to understand, because we can never consciously experience it—after all, if we were conscious, then we would be being.

So it appears that not only is the root of the fear of death different for everyone, but the concepts and ideas that cause this fear may be too complex to even understand, which means we have still made no progress in dealing with the fear. But maybe we can still salvage something beneficial in the final section…

Reframing the Way We Think

Since we can’t stop it and we can’t really understand it, perhaps the best way to deal with it is to reframe the way we think about death.

The Christian perception of death is not one of an end, but of a transition. Instead of nothingness, Christians can look forward to an afterlife. This also has repercussions in the way people behave, as those with “good” (Christian) morals go to heaven, while those with “bad” morals go to hell.

If Napoleon Hill was right in that the Christian fear of death stems from fear of an eternity in hell, then it appears that Christianity could be beneficial in our reality: those who behave will not have their mind clouded by thoughts of death, allowing them to focus on their desires instead of their fear and make more money (acquire more power), while those who behave poorly must always be weighed down by their fear, not allowing them to focus on their desires as intensely.

This comfort many “good” Christians can take in their “knowledge” of an afterlife has a few problems for me, however. One of the problems is my long-term disbelief in a God. The other is the distinction between good and bad morals.

I think philosopher Friedrich Nietzsche would agree with my assertion as well. According to the Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy, “Nietzsche sees a complicity between morality and the Christian God that perpetuates a life-denying, and so ultimately nihilistic, stance.” Rather than create our own morals and use the inherent freedom we were born with, Nietzsche believed that Christianity turned people into “sick animals,” going against their natural instincts in order to conform to the Christian values.

One of Nietzsche’s goals was to redirect our attention to the reality we are currently living in, as opposed to a focus on an afterlife. To accomplish this, Nietzsche thought of the doctrine of eternal recurrence. The Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy says that it is “a doctrine that attends to how people of different levels of health are likely to react to the prospect of being reborn, over and over again, to replay life’s experience exactly as before in every pleasurable and painful sequence of detail.”

Rather than living life as a way to get to an afterlife which may or may not really exist, Nietzsche encouraged us to focus on our current reality by presenting the idea of living your life the same way an infinite number of times. Scholars have differing opinions as to whether this is a serious metaphysical theory or if it’s just an example of a possible worldview one could take, but regardless, it is an idea which can be employed in your life to focus on living in the now, as opposed to fearing the future.

Finally, we must realize that death is necessary. Perhaps the most obvious argument against the desire for immortality is that we simply would not have enough room for everyone. There would not be enough land or resources for everyone. Social progress could not be achieved. Boredom would set in. The list goes on.

Instead of resisting the inevitable, we must accept this inevitability, and make use of this knowledge by living our current lives to the fullest. Hill writes on page 245 of Think and Grow Rich, “Accept it as a necessity, and pass the thought out of your mind. It must be a, necessity, or it would not come at all. Perhaps it is not as bad as it has been pictured.”

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