Today we live in a fear of death or rather a death-denying culture. People live as if death did not exist. Doctors and hospital personnel generally think that death is something that should not happen. Regardless of how miserable people may feel, they usually respond to “How are you?” with an artificial smile, saying: “Just fine.” When we can no longer maintain the facade, we begin to wonder, “What is going to happen to me now?”
Death anxiety is the morbid, abnormal or persistent fear of one’s own mortality. One definition of death anxiety is a “feeling of dread, apprehension or solicitude (anxiety) when one thinks of the process of dying, or ceasing to ‘be’”.
Interestingly enough, we fear death so much that we react to fear as if it was death. In our heads and minds, we replace the completion of fear as death. And it’s this fear that kills us every day of our dreams and ambitions, of who we want to become in this world. In these moments of fear we “cease to be” our true selves. We experience anxiety and we do whatever our mind rationalizes to keep us “safe” as if we have something to loose.
Let’s get to the root of our discontentment in life. Let’s give it a thought, why are we lead by so much fear? Why are we so good at running away from our problems? Why does our appearance to others bother us so much? What’s holding us back from taking risks? Why do we end up taking comfort with any situation life puts us in? Why do we endlessly keep trying to find fulfilment in pleasure? You get the picture.
We know of countless stories where people come out way stronger, driven and purposeful after a near death experience. So it’s interesting to ask the question, what happened here? How did all the wiring of thought patterns and behaviours change after an experience that lasted a few mins? What changed, was the meaning of death changed for these people. It’s the meaning people attach to things/people/situations that gives it the real meaning. This shapes our outlook towards the world and hence massively influences our reaction to daily life situation.
Reframing The Fear of Death
We fear death cause we are born only knowing life.
We as humans have an idea of death. There is no real context to access the nature of death. Its interesting to thnk about the question
“Why should the absence of life after death be any different from the absence of life before you are born?”
As creatures of mind and meaning that we are, who have deep attachments to art, to love, to the people around us and the places in which we dwell. We are a breathing piece of defecating meat destined to die, ultimately no more significant than a potato as described by Ernest Becker in his book Denial of Death.
So what do we do? How do we level with the angst of being temporary beings? Niel deGrasse Tyson suggests, that the art, the love, the creatively are what give meaning to life that we will live only once. And for us to live forever, what motivation will there ever be to do meaningful work. The knowledge that we will someday die gives us focus and meaning to live life fully everyday when we are alive. The way to rage against the dying light, is to be as alive as possible while you are, so its not about the last moment where you are fighting your way into the cascade cause you were fighting everyday when you were alive and that gives us meaning.
I assume most of you have practiced gifting flowers to our loved ones. When we give a flower to someone, why not give them plastic flowers? They’ll last longer! But we dont, we give them real flowers, cause we know that real flowers will die. So the measure, the value of that gift manifests in its temporality. On the other hand, Ray Kurzweil says, “Its not death that gives meaning to life but life that gives meaning to life”. Meaning, what we do with life like creating art, pushing limits of humanity, conquer outer space etc which gives meaning to life.
Its interesting to realize at this point that of course life gives meaning to life but knowing that we will die someday focuses that meaning you give to life. If you knew you were never going to die, then how to you decide where you heart is? In anything? “Oh I’ll look for a job in a couple of weeks” “I’ll do that one day” “I will talk to that person one day” If you knew you could live forever, you might not ever cross the street cause you would fear dying then live another billion years, which would totally change the dynamics of how we think, make decisions and the risks that we take. Horace Mann an educator of his time once said:
Be ashamed to die until you have won a victory for humanity. – Horace Mann
And that should be the measure and evaluation that we should all bring to everyday life. People often ask “Where can I find meaning?” as if its hidden beneath a rock or something. We create meaning, we give meaning to things we see, depending on how our brains rationalize them to see it. We keep telling ourselves that we have something to lose. While the truth is we are our own worst enemy and that the only way to win at the game of life is to get out of our own way. So blow the dust off your old drawing box, sign yourself up for pole dancing lessons, put on that weird-ass hat that you love, ask your high school crush out on a date, give the startup idea your absolute best, stop giving a banana about Justin Bieber’s relation with Selena Gomez. You’ll inevitably get punched in the face every once in a while but you’ll live, isn’t that what life’s all about?