We’re going to be getting dark today, as we talk about maybe the greatest fear of them all: the fear of death.
I want to start by congratulating you for even facing this issue, because that is horrendously difficult to do. It’s a horrible thing to first ask yourself about death and to face up to your fear of it.
I know that I can’t run away from this death issue because it’s the only thing we’re certain of. If I’m going to have an enjoyable and meaningful life, I have to square up to this thing.
I first noticed the fear in myself when I was about the age of 18 years old. I hadn’t really thought about it in any meaningful way before this. A friend of mine and I got really stoned and somehow conversation escalated until eventually we started talking about this idea that everyone’s gonna die, and you have no choice. We realised that you can’t do anything about it.
Both of us started just hysterically laughing about the hopelessness of it, like how unfair it was that this train is coming towards you and you’re tied to the tracks you. You can’t do anything to stop yourself from dying. It seemed incredibly bizarre and unfair, and particularly cruel that we were aware that this was going to happen
Before you can deal with your fear of death you have to understand it. What I’ve come to understand is that the fear of death is actually an accumulation of three distinct separate fears.
Fear #1: the fear of being alone. We understand that transitioning into death will be a lonely process. We die in our own arms. Our fear of abandonment and our fear of being lonely I think stems from this.
Fear #2: the fear of the unknown. Despite what many people theorize, the one thing we’re never really going to know is what happens next – what happens after the lights go out. That confusion about what happens cripples us – we hate the unknown.
Fear #3: the fear of being out of control. As you develop skills and so on in your life, you come to believe that you can control a lot of things. But no matter how skilled you get, you know you’re never going to be able to stop death.
So understand as you go on in your mission to overcome your fear of death (and trust me this one post I ain’t gonna do it for you) that it’s really about overcoming those three fears. Can you overcome the fear of being alone? Can you overcome the fear of the unknown? Can you overcome the fear of losing all control?
If you can overcome these three fears then there’s really no other element left regarding the concept of death.
What about heaven and stuff?
I’ll get this out of the way: I don’t have any religious beliefs about death. This post isn’t gonna go anywhere near that.
I believe that the promise of the afterlife is a cop-out; a scam used to sell a product where nobody can hold the seller to account for failing to deliver. When a religion promises you the afterlife, understand that you can never get your money back if they’re wrong. That’s how their business model thrives.
I don’t believe in an afterlife – there’s no evidence for it.
Why are we afraid of… nothing?
Before going too deep into your fear of death, you gotta ask yourself “Why am I afraid?”
If you are of the science/atheist persuasion like myself, you’ll have an understanding that death is the same as before you were born – a complete absence of existence.
You have no pain left over from before you were born. You have no memory of it. There is no ‘before you were born’ in your universe, so there will be no ‘after you die’ either.
Ask yourself: “If I’m not terrified of the idea that there wasn’t me before I was born, why am I terrified of the idea that there won’t be me after I die?”
Knowing we’re going to die is a questionable death, isn’t it? It seems that no other animals are really afflicted with this particularly cruel awareness. So it comes down to a question – if this is a mistake – i.e. if we’re not supposed to know that we’re going to die, like there was some era in our evolution that led to this awareness – how are we going to make the most of it?
I go through the rest of this post, I want you just to start thinking “What does knowing we’re going to die give us?”
Current views of death
Let’s have a look at some of those popular views on death, starting with science.
Science essentially says that an organism like ourselves is a collection of atoms that – through determinism and randomness – came together, and for some reason we don’t yet know formed conscious awareness. The way I interpret this is that these atoms were floating around doing nothing, then got together for a little party to have a look at the universe, and then they dispersed again through entropy.
There’s really nothing threatening in that picture. These guys got together, had a good time, then went their separate ways. There’s really no suffering in that story.
Ironically, science is coming ever closer towards describing reincarnation: matter arises and connects, create something new, and then diversifies and spreads out to create other things. The idea is the atoms that make up who you are have been something else before you and they’ll become something else after you go.
Buddha is quoted as saying that life is all about “joyful participation in the suffering of the world.” There’s something he inherently seems to understand: if we’re all going to die, let’s at least have a party. Once you start thinking about embracing the suffering of being aware of death, life becomes a kind of enjoyable party, the death party you might say, as a form of living joyfully.
“It’s only after we’ve lost everything that we’re free to do anything.” – Tyler Durden, Fight Club
The Stoics and even early Christianity and Islam talk about going from dust to dust. This idea of something being formed and then forgotten. There’s a kind of peace in that.
So many of us strive to leave a legacy, to leave our mark on the world, to be memorable, and yet given enough time we’re all going to be forgotten.
Some people are terrified by that idea, like they don’t really matter. I see it more as a relief of the burden of having to matter, of having to be significant. Instead you can just have your little party because the end result is the same either way.
In fact, not only are we going to die as individuals, the whole human race will go extinct – all life in the solar system will eventually die, regardless of what we do about climate change or anything. Something’s going to wipe us out. So we don’t need to put much effort into trying to prevent our own death, because it’s just preventing the inevitable (i.e. not preventing anything).
This isn’t to say we shouldn’t care about the environment or politics etc., it’s just to say we can put our effort towards having a meaningful life rather than avoiding death.
Game of Thrones
For me, most recently, what clarified my collection of thoughts and understanding about death and overcoming the fear of it was actually Game of Thrones, when the character Arya Stark is taught:
“What do we say to the God of Death?”
That’s how I’ve started viewing my life. Rather than trying to run away from death, every day – sometimes consciously, sometimes in a more subconscious way – I face up today to death in the morning and say “Not today” or more like “Bring it on! Try your best!”
It’s this kind of challenge I issue to death every day – I’m gonna go out and try to make the best of life, you do your best to try and stop me.
Because death isn’t just about the end of my physical body. Death is also when I’m too afraid to go for what I want. When when I’m too cowardly to say what I feel. When I miss out on opportunities because I’m lazy. Those are all little deaths. My soul, who I am, dies in those moments.
So my battle with death goes all day long. I’m constantly fighting this desire to give up and sit out and just kind of walk away from life. Death isn’t something you wait for at the end; He is there every day. He is your competitor.
You’re essentially boxing against a better opponent. One day, He’s going to knock you out. It’s destined that He’s gonna win this fight. But how many rounds can you go? How many licks can you get in before you go down?
You can face death every day instead of running away.
what does death give us?
Knowing we’re going to die gives us three distinct things.
#1: The mission
We each get a purpose – to fight death every day. You get to decide what death is for you.
Is death being dishonest? Being too lazy to go to the gym? Is death procrastination?
Your mission, if you can’t think of a better one, is to beat death in every one of those competitions, as often as you possibly can. And yeah: you’re going to lose sometimes. But pick yourself up, wipe the blood off, and have another swing.
I’ve found that the people who do not face their fear of death are also the ones who suffer with the least amount of gratitude.
The ultimate gift that we have in knowing that we’re going to die is the opportunity to appreciate being alive. If every day you are reminded of death – as people are only occasionally reminded when they go to a funeral – every 10 minutes, the important things start to become clear.
If you’ve ever been deprived of food for a long period of time, notice how good that meal tastes. If you’ve ever been deprived of hot water, notice how good it feels to have a shower. If you’ve ever been deprived of friendship, notice how good it is to have someone listen to you.
Well if you’re constantly reminded that death is one day gonna deprive you of life, maybe you won’t be so blah about the life you’ve got right now.
People often say YOLO! – you only live once – when actually you live a lot, you only die once!
I see people neglecting their friends and family even though that’s the most important to them. I see them neglecting their bodies. I see them working jobs they hate. I see them living in places they don’t like to live. I see them skipping their hobbies, and so on and on and on.
I see people place the stuff that’s most important to them on the very bottom of their priority list. They can fill their time with mundane bullshit. They act like they’re not gonna die. They just do everything, with the important stuff left to last because “Hey, I’m gonna live forever, I’ll do it sometime,” rather than living like somebody who’s gonna die soon.
are you next?
Some of you reading this are going to die soon, and you don’t know it.
Maybe it’s me. Maybe it’s one of you. But within a few weeks of this post being published, it’s almost certain that one of you is dead – and none of us know who it’s going to be. It could be any of you – no matter how healthy you are or how safe you’re living.
Death has no weaknesses, it will find you eventually.
Now, if that were true, what would that change about your priorities? Would you still be putting off their coffee with a friend? Would you still be procrastinating on starting your business? Would you still be putting off the gym yet another day and binging on chocolate in front of Netflix for six hours? Would you do that if death was looming?
One of the best questions I ever got asked by a former coach of mine was:
“What would you do differently if you only had a year to live?”
I wrote down everything I do now – my normal week, my normal month, the whole list of activities – and then I wrote down what I’d be doing if the doctor gave me 12 months to live.
I was lucky; there’s a lot of things that were on both lists and they made me feel good, like “Yeah I am spending enough time with my family and and doing work that I love.”
But there’s stuff on the list that doesn’t sit well with me even to this day, like spending too much time on Facebook.
One of the things that stood on the list was if I was gonna die I would travel more. Since writing that list I have traveled more and it feels right!
The more I travel, the less afraid I become of death, because I’ve discovered the true secret to overcoming your fear of death:
have a clean slate
Leave nothing unsaid. Leave nothing important undone. Make sure everything you want to express and do is at least attempted, to the best of your ability, as soon as you’re able to, so the moment where you open the door to an assassin pointing a gun between your eyes you can go “Well I’m up-to-date, we’re all good.”
I think a lot of us fear death because we think there will be regret on the other side of it, that we’ll be aware of what we didn’t do. What we’re really saying is we’re aware of it now. We already know what we’re not doing. We know what we’re missing out on.
You already know how you’re not living and that’s why you’re afraid of death. So in the Shawshank words of Morgan Freeman:
“Get busy living, or get busy dying”
Thank you so much for reading. For those of you who are afraid of death, I want to hear more from you about what you need to know to overcome this fear. What’s holding you back? So that I can continue to develop something a bit more comprehensive and understandable.
Share it around if you enjoyed it and of course if you want more specific help get in touch (firstname.lastname@example.org) and I’ll see what I can do.