Overcoming the fear of death

Learn how to live, and you'll know how to die; learn how to die, and you'll know how to live - Morris Schwartz
I know this is the ultimate of grim topics, but I have always been very uncomfortable with the idea of death. Not dying, that could be quite interesting, but rather being dead. Judging from Morris Schwartz's quote and many others like it, resolving this issue is quite important. Luckily there is no shortage of advice for how to solve this problem. 

Irvin Yalom argues that the fear of death comes from the fear of an unfulfilled life. (As usual the links are at the end of the post). But no, what bothers me is not what I would have left undone when I die. It is rather the thought that it will all be over.

Seneca says that we should not worry about being dead because it will be the same as before we were born. He says that he can’t remember experiencing any suffering or discomfort in the time before he was born, and that death will be the same. And, ipso facto, if there will be no suffering or discomfort in death, why worry about it? This makes sense, but it still bothers me somehow. For once not even Seneca provides me with comfort.

Saying that the ‘experience’ of being dead is the same as the experience of not being born yet, does not comfort me because I can’t remember it. Why? Because I was not aware of it. What worries me about being dead is not being aware of it, not being dead itself. You still with me?

Then I reflected on the fact that unawareness stalks me every moment of my every day. I get absorbed in work and I become unaware of my body and its surroundings. Or I become worried about my parents or financial security and the same thing happens.

If my fear of death is the fear of being unaware, then the struggle against death starts now, not when I puff out my last breath. I need to wage that battle NOW and keep it up at every moment. Consolation comes from feeling my fingers hit the keyboard as I type this. Feeling the air-conditioning of the plane hit the back of my hands. Death is not the issue. Being as aware as possible at every moment is what I want.

This is about what many call mindfulness: According to the Wikipedia definition, mindfulness: “signifies presence of mind, attentiveness to the present… Its function is absence of confusion or non-forgetfulness.” As Dylan Thomas said, we must “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The dying of the light does not happen in death, it happens in life!

Irvin Yalom – Staring at the sun
Wikipedia entry on Mindfulness
Wikipedia entry on Morris Schwartz
The complete text of Dylan Thomas's poem Do not go gentle into that good night


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