Getting Over Death
Why are we so afraid of death? There are various reasons you or I might give for not wanting our lives to be over – my family needs me, my work is not yet done, I want to see whether we’ll ever get singlepayer health care or whether the Cubs will win another pennant. But reasons like these evade the more serious fear of death, one so deep, in fact, that we are afraid to talk or think about it. I can remember, both as a small boy and as a teenager, alone in bed at night feeling my heart clutched by the inevitability of my death and forcing myself not to believe it, or to think of other things. A few weeks ago,
Ira Glass, host of This American Life read from a poem by Philip Larkin that speaks of death as
…the total emptiness forever,
The sure extinction that we travel to
And shall be lost in always. Not to be here,
Not to be anywhere,
And soon; nothing more terrible, nothing more true.
Not an irrational fear, Ira comments, “for it is the realization that I will be dead forever,” that the world will go on and on in infinite time without me.
The philosopher David Hume, on the other hand, claimed to have no fear of death: He said “he was no more uneasy to think he should not be after this life, than that he had not been before he began to exist.” In other words, if I am not horrified by not having existed for countless eons before my birth, why should I be afraid of the eternity to come without me? After all, I do not actually live through all that time that happens without me.
This would not satisfy Philip Larkin, though. His poem scoffs at anyone who
… says No rational being
Can fear a thing it will not feel, not seeing
That this is what we fear – no sight, no sound,
No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with,
Nothing to link with,
The anesthetic from which none come round.
Of course, this is what we fear – nothingness for ever. But is it a rational fear? Without discounting it, let’s ask whether the fear of death really makes sense?
Look at it this way: our fear is of the unending stretch of time in which we will be dead. But being dead is not a state I will be in, for I will not be. So there will be no time after my death in which I am. The time of my life is all the time there is for me. So it cannot be the case that I will be dead forever: there is no forever when there is no me. Today I can think about the future as it will be after I die, that is I can project the continued course of human history or of the universe, but that is not real time for me, time that I will have to endure. It is time I can think, not time I will live.
The idea that I will be dead forever is incoherent from two different angles. First, it is the idea that being dead is what I will be, when in fact being dead is simply being gone, period. It is not something I will be. Second, it is the idea that there will be time after I am dead that I will have to somehow endure, when in fact there is no time for me when I stop existing. It’s not that the world goes on without me and I just don’t know about it, for there is no me to know or not know about it.
Now I think that there is real relief from the fear of death in this way of looking at it. There is for me, at least. Instead of thinking of time as infinite duration stretching to eternity and my life as this little blip within it, I think of time as being the time of my life. We have narratives of things that happened before and after, but the events of the past and the possibilities of the future take place in a time that is not for me lived time.
Now the fear of death is not just a logical error, a failure to understand the concept of death. It might be motivated by fears of abandonment dating back to infancy, reinforced by the heartlessness of a world rampant with injustice. The fear of death might even be due to the collision between the body’s will to live and the knowledge that death is inevitable. Nevertheless, it seems to me that if we can give up the image of ourselves as being dead forever, the fear of death can be to some degree alleviated.
And I’m in favor of anything that might cut the fear of death down to size. When the inevitability of death is absolutely terrifying, we take desperate measures not to think about it, to make it seem not true, to deny it. The denial of reality is always bad news; the flight from death is a major contributor to the horrors of history. What is most religion about if not the denial of death? Not only does religion teach that we never die, but it creates transcendent values in whose name people are ready to kill and risk death, and doctrines that enslave the mind to priests and ancient books. We can also see the denial of death in the monuments and careers people build for themselves -- facsimiles of immortality made of stone, of money, and of the stories that they hope will go down in history books. Killing others may be a way of creating oneself as immortal, as a god with power over life and death. If I can command the deaths of others, then I have conquered death. There are also less spectacular ways of keeping the thought of death at bay: drugs and alcohol, staying compulsively busy with work, or losing oneself in the fantasy systems offered by mass entertainment and consumerism.
What do you say we dedicate the real time of our lives, the only time of our lives, to making these shared lives as rich and beautiful as we can?