Soothing the fear of death

CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

Image credit: CC-BY-SA-3.0/Matt H. Wade at Wikipedia

The fear of death is a normal, natural, instinct that we all have.  Without it, we’d end up doing all kinds of reckless things that most of us avoid.  Some people claim not to fear it, but I suspect that all of us, when we’re honest, retain that fear to one degree or another.  After all, we’re all descendants of billions of years of ancestors that were naturally selected for their survival instinct, their aversion to death.  It wouldn’t make sense for us not to be afraid of it.  Evolution has effectively programmed it into us.

The Religious View

You may find comfort in religious beliefs that you’ll eventually be in a better place, assuming you’ve lived life right or maybe had the correct beliefs.

Many skeptics think that religion is based on the fear of death.  Most scholars and anthropologists would argue that it’s far more complicated than that, but it’s hard to ignore the role that death and purported afterlives have in modern religion, and it’s worth noting that one sign archaeologists use to judge when religion began among ancient hunter/gatherers was when they started burying their dead.

Regardless, if you’re a believer, you have some comfort in your belief that this life is only a prelude to bigger and better things.

 Ancient Thinkers

But what if you’re not religious?  The comforts of believers aren’t much help if you harbor doubts or lack belief altogether.  Is there any comfort that you could take based on a secular viewpoint?

As it turns out, Epicurus, an ancient Greek philosopher and founder of the Epicurean school of philosophy, covered this ground over 2000 years ago.  Epicurus was one of the clearest thinkers in the ancient world.  His philosophical outlook seemed to presage modern science closer than many of the other thinkers of the time.

Epicurus pointed out that death is simply non-existence.  You didn’t exist before you were born and you won’t exist after you’ve died.

If you’re like me, when you first contemplate this non-existent death state, you imagine it like being in some lonely empty suffocating darkness with no sight, no voice, and no hope.  However, this assumes that you’ll still be able to experience sensations such as being in darkness or lacking hope.  If you think about it, there’s more reason to believe that, subjectively, it’ll be more like a dreamless sleep that you’ll never wake from.  An eternal rest, which while preventing any new experiences, will also be free of any anxiety, pain, or boredom.

Indeed,  you visit this state every night.  In the early hours of the night, you sleep in a dreamless state, without consciousness.  (The dreams come toward the end of the night in REM sleep.)

Death is non-consciousness.  It is, subjectively, an eternal dreamless sleep that you awaken from at birth, visit every night, and return to at the end of life.

“I don’t fear death.  I was dead for billions and billions of years before I was born and didn’t suffer the least inconvenience from it.”
Mark Twain (although probably mis-attributed)

“Although the time of death is approaching me, I am not afraid of dying and going to Hell or (what would be considerably worse) going to the popularized version of Heaven. I expect death to be nothingness and, for removing me from all possible fears of death, I am thankful to atheism.”
Isaac Asimov

“I was not; I was; I am not; I have no cares.”
–Epicurean epithet

Nirvana?

The nothingness Asimov referred to is, in some aspects, like the state of nirvana sought in many eastern religions.  Nirvana is supposed to be a state where the self disappears with freedom from fear, anger, craving, and suffering.

Of course, nirvana also generally includes being enlightened and at one with creation.  Nirvana requires following an arduous spiritual practice and, if you fail, you continue on with a cycle of rebirths, but the nothingness or eternal rest I’m talking about comes for free and, if none of the religious predictions of an afterlife are true, is effectively every sentient creature’s birthright.

 Less To Worry About?

Other thoughts that might provide some solace is to contemplate the problems we’d have to deal with if we could live on indefinitely.

To begin with, there’s probably some nasty payback coming to our species for how we’ve treated the environment.  We probably won’t have to deal with the worst of it in our lifetimes, but the big problems may be looming for future generations.  We’ll also never have to deal with the eventual limits of population growth and Earth’s ability to provide resources.  Of course, this can be anxiety inducing when we think about our posterity, but that’s a whole different topic.

 Looking further down the road, we won’t have to deal with the inevitable natural extinction events that seem to come periodically in Earth’s history.  We’ll almost certainly never have to personally deal with a large asteroid strike, massive volcanic eruptions with global effects, apocalyptic earthquakes, or any other number of events that become more probable as the years pile up.

We’ll never have to deal with the sun’s increasing intensity that is expected to eventually boil away Earth’s oceans and atmosphere, or with it later expanding up into a red giant before it collapses into a white dwarf, making the solar system uninhabitable.  We’ll never have to deal with the long decay and heat death of the universe.

 We’ll also never have to deal with eternal boredom.  Many of us get bored in our current life.  Can you imagine trying to find something to do after millions years when you’ve learned everything, known everyone, and done everything a thousand times over? After billions of years?  Trillions?  It’s easy to see boredom eventually becoming a type of hell.  And saying that we’d be modified not to feel boredom would only mean that it wouldn’t really be us anymore.  The ability to end our existence might become the most important mercy we could have.

 While I’ll admit that I wouldn’t have the willpower to pass up eternal life if I could get, there is some solace in knowing that I’ll never have the associated problems that would come with it.

Conclusion

The fear is death is not something we can ever completely eliminate, at least not without cost to our sanity.  But pondering what it really is, something that our subjective selves will never experience, can provide some comfort in that fear, even if you can’t believe that there’s anything afterward.

For a longer treatment on this concept, you might enjoy this paper.

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12 Responses to Soothing the fear of death

  1. amanimal says:

    While not addressing whether or not anything comes after it, I find a good measure of comfort in the commonality of death. Everything, with the possible exception of some jellyfish, that divides, multiplies, sprouts, hatches, or is birthed, dies. It’s simply a part of life with the only way to exist and not die is to not have lived(eg a rock).

    From my study of Buddhism I learned of the practice of meditating on corpses in progressive states of decomposition until you get to a pile of bones. While not intended to address fear of death specifically, it made me very aware of the naturalness of the process and its ubiquity. We’re born into the universe and we return to it.

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    • I think that’s a good way of looking at it. I do feel some spirituality*, in the sense of connectedness and being part of a grand cycle, when I think of it that way, but the actual comfort from it feels thin to me. That said, I’ve heard and read enough other people who do find comfort from it to realize that I’m not typical on this one.

      * I’m usually pretty leery of the word ‘spirituality’, but it does seem the best fit here.

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      • amanimal says:

        Qualified use of *spirituality* noted – I avoid using it myself due to the supernatural connotations and it just doesn’t feel right when I imagine describing myself as a spiritual person.

        Somebody once said something to the effect of not being afraid of death so much, but more afraid of the dying part. I think Epicurus is likely correct given what we know about perception and the brain, so I don’t think I’m afraid of being dead as much as resentful that I won’t get to find out how things turn.

        The dying part is another story. I would imagine we all fear a long drawn-out painful dying. I do hope euthanasia/assisted suicide is an option when I get there. Not so much to end a painful dying(assuming they have drugs sufficient to counter the pain) though, as to relieve family/society of the burden of having to care for a non-contributing individual specifically in the case of advanced Alzheimer’s, dementia or any other condition where I’m just taking up space and consuming resources. There are far better uses for the money than extending a life not worth living.

        All that could, though, go right out the window(or not) tomorrow were I to be diagnosed with a terminal illness. I think that’s probably the definitive situation for having to be in it to know how you going to feel about it.

        “… not typical on this one.” – variation … makes natural selection work 🙂

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        • I agree. I’ve read that doctors usually don’t elect strong treatment when faced with life threatening illnesses. That said, excellent insight that actually finding yourself in the situation might change things.

          After seeing loved ones go through chemo, it’s hard for me to imagine ever submitting to it. But I’m reminded of something a WWII medic said. In training, many soldiers speculated they’d rather die than live without a limb or with disfiguration, but when it actually happened in combat, none of them turned away the medic’s treatment.

          Giving up on life is probably much harder than we can contemplate.

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  2. amanimal says:

    Strange, guess you’ll have to add the “.pdf” onto that link.

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    • Thanks. I read the conclusion section, which was interesting. I’ve often heard people say that consciousness is an illusion, but I’m starting to wonder if self awareness might be the thing that’s illusory.

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      • amanimal says:

        I’ll let you know what I find out after reading ‘The Self Illusion’ 🙂

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        • Looking forward to it. I finally swung back around to ‘The Blank Slate’. So far, it’s mostly confirming my views that we indeed have base programming, although I’m learning some interesting stuff, like that fetuses participate in their own development through limb movement which helps to shape joints, and that the eyes fire “test patterns” to help the visual brain connections develop.

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  3. Pingback: Stephen Cave: The 4 stories we tell ourselves about death | SelfAwarePatterns

  4. Steve Morris says:

    Rather than fear or acceptance, I prefer Dylan Thomas’ take on the matter:

    Do not go gentle into that good night,
    Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
    Rage, rage against the dying of the light.

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