On Death:

What is it about death that actually scares us?

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When I was growing up, I always took great delight in the autumn season. I’m not sure if it was because my birthday was coming up, hockey season was around the corner, or simply because of the beauty of the Canadian wilderness in fall.

The ordinarily green landscapes would be stroked orange, red, and yellow by the paint brushes of the gods. Fields full of grass became oceans of amber. Bronze sunsets would tint the city gold and set the sky ablaze.

And yet, everything around me was dying.

Autumn
A Canadian Autumn [Source: canadianmusichalloffame.ca]

It’s curious to think that I don’t know of a single person who has wept for fallen leaves, or wilting flowers, or dying grass. We innately understand this is the way of things. We know that spring will come, and the cycle of life (and death) will renew itself.


Why then, do we fear death? Why do we see our own death as the end of the straight line we’ve travelled since birth? Why is it so uniformly regarded as something negative?

Whether we’re afraid of what comes next, or dying painfully, or just the thought of our lives ending, it’s the ultimate boogeyman in the human experience.

Even the Romans, as battle hardened and fearless as they were, refrained from uttering the word “death.” By doing this, they gave power to the very word.

Death is certainly a part of life, and is certainly inevitable. It comes for us all. Does this give it power over us?

Of course not. We do not fear sunsets and sunrises, we do not fear the passage of time, we do not fear breathing. Yet these things are all inevitable. Inevitability doesn’t give something strength, but fear does.


The fear of death is death’s only weapon against us. Like the monster under our bed, it grows in ferocity and size as long as it remains the great unknown. In tackling the fears that surround death, we free ourselves from its grasp.

kiss of death poblenou barcelona 3
The Kiss of Death statue in the Graveyard of Poblenou, Barcelona, Spain. [Source: http://www.kuriositas.com]

Why, exactly, do we fear death?

(1) We fear death because we don’t know when it may come.

We fear the idea of dying young. 

I think of Jimi Hendrix, Alexander the Great, Amy Winehouse, Frédéric Chopin, John Keats, Tupac, and Tutankhamun. They all died at extremely young ages. Yet I would be willing to bet they lived lives more rich and full of experience than many of us rotting away in a cubicle.

On the grand scale of time and space, the difference between living 30 years and 80 isn’t even a blip on the map. Whether we die old or young we’re only here for an infinitesimal period of time, a period of time we cannot control.

We only have the power to make those years count.


 

(2) We fear death because we don’t know what comes next.

If I’m being perfectly honest, I usually have no idea what day of the week it is without ample reminders. Every day is a surprise. I’m at peace with the fact I generally have no idea what’s coming next.

We didn’t know what came next when we escaped the womb and came into this world kicking and screaming. We didn’t know what came next when we shipped off to university.

Sure, there was a little nervous energy, but we were generally excited about that great unknown. It was all new and beautiful.

Life can change in an instant, and that’s exactly what death is – life changing in an instant.

Whether death is the start of a new life or the end of an old cycle, change is never something to be feared.

It is only our concern with what may come in the future, or what happened in the past, that binds us to the wheel of life and death. By remembering that the present moment is the only moment, we free ourselves from that ever spinning wheel.


(3) We fear death might hurt.

I think I can speak for all of us by saying life usually hurts. Breaking bones was a price of playing the sport I loved, for example, and I broke pretty much everything above my waist – twice.

We’re riddled with coughs and colds and aches and pains and pimples and gas. We battle the seasons; we’re freezing in the winters and choking on smog in the summers. The suffering of life is unavoidable.

It seems a bit absurd to worry about the suffering of death, when our suffering is constant and unrelenting in the life we’re living. As far as we know, death is a release from our daily human suffering. Death is the absence of pain.

I’ve seen many people and animals suffer in life – but have never seen one struggle in death.


Nothing can be grievous which occurs but once; is it reasonable to fear for so long a time something which lasts so short a time?” – Michel de Montaigne, How We Weep and Laugh at the Same Thing.


I often wonder if a rose would be as beautiful if it were perpetually in bloom, or if we would cherish the springs if there was no winter. Life isn’t beautiful because it is long, or painless, or safe.

Life is beautiful for the simple fact that we are mortal. Death is what makes life a special gift. Every moment can be our last. For this reason, everything we touch, smell, hear, taste, and see is magical.

Death is our constant reminder to appreciate this life that we’ve been given.

Appreciate the people around us, the things that we have, and the healthy bodies we’ve been given.

Memento mori.

Be good to each other,

– MG.

 

24 thoughts on “On Death:

  1. I don’t believe that death is a weapon, it is what it is, the only reason we see it as an over-whelming entity is because we don’t understand it. We can’t, and if you look at every concept, everything that humans have not understood properly, our base nature is to fear it, or hate it.
    But I don’t think fear of death is a bad thing, as no one knows what happens when we die, I don’t see it as an absurd idea that people worry if it’ll hurt. I know I did when I was suicidal, my fear of not understanding and that it will hurt saved my life.
    But I also watched my grandmother die, that was the saddest thing I have ever been around and the most relieving. Because she was in agony from the age of 25 with nothing but illness to follow, and a will to not upset her family, and to follow Gods plan (she was a Christian and the most caring, unjudgemental person I knew, at her funeral, 5 priests spoke and called her a Saint, the church was packed with people). 10 years leading up to her death she specified that she did not want to be revived when something happened again. She did not fear death, she welcomed it, because when you’re in that much pain then there’s no fear of the unknown because anything is better then suffering. I saw the life leave her body, it was so weird, she was a person, then she was not. But it was a relief because she was no longer trapped in a body that caused her only agony.
    I’m scared though, I’m the first to admit. Because I love the people in my life, and some days I really enjoy me and the thought of it changing by a death of either myself or someone else, scares me stupid. Change is scary. The unknown is scary. But if you are scared then that’s good, because clearly there’s some things you really are grateful for in you life.

    Thanks for putting an awesome song in my head (Don’t Fear The Reaper by Blue Oyster Cult) and also for writing this, it’s a very debatable subject.

    Liked by 3 people

    1. Hey!
      Thanks for the comment! I’m not sure I can agree with your first point for this reason: We don’t understand life. In fact, most of our time is spent trying to figure out the meaning of it all. We understand it less than we understand death as the end of what we know as life. But we don’t fear or hate life. We live it.

      I don’t think fear of death is a bad thing, on a biological level self preservation of the species is engrained in us. It’s when we give that fear power that it’s a bad thing.

      I’m glad your fear of death stopped you from committing suicide, but by the same token it can – and very often does – stop people from truly living.

      The very fact you contemplated suicide tells me you were in deep pain. That pain was real, and with life comes the real plausibility of it. Yet there is nothing in death that has ever suggested it would be painful. Life’s pain is certain, death’s is not, that is why it is absurd to fear it. If you were in a freezer you’re entire life and you knew one day you had to leave, would you worry it might be cold outside?

      Change itself – much like death or the unknown – isn’t scary. It’s our obsessive desire to cling onto the things we love that makes it scary. It’s our fear of loss that makes it scary. It’s the unrealistic expectation that we can hold onto shiny things and special people when we can’t. That’s the scary thing – not change or the unknown.

      I place a high level of importance in my family. I’m not afraid I might lose them someday – I know I’ll lose them someday. I know our time is finite. It’s why I make sure to spend as much time as I can with them, and to call and text often.

      Without expectation, we’re free of fear from the unknown, from change, and from loss. If we meet people and accumulate items with the expectation that these things are not constant we are liberated.

      Great song by the way and your comments are always in depth and interesting!

      MG

      Liked by 1 person

      1. I didn’t articulate that very well. It’s not that death itself will hurt it’s the way you die. Like suicide for example, you need to do it yourself and i thought of all the ways, would throwing yourself in front of a train hurt? Because the viewing of it sure looks like it does like in movies and such, or people that step on landmines, or being shot in the head. I know this isn’t a pleasant thing to be discussing but viewing it, all these things looks like they would hurt, even though these are pretty quick methods of death for the victim. Would you feel the initial pain of it happening? Wouldn’t your body being ripped open like that hurt? But in your first paragraph of your disagreement I then have to disagree again. Yes we understand a lot less about life then we do about the act of dying, we see death, we understand that we leave the body whether your belief is your internal organs stop working and that’s it or our soul leaves the body, we can only comprehend that, not what happens after that. We live life but everything is witnessed whether we understand why or not. It’s concrete and it’s there, but there’s no evidence at all to suggest anything about death itself, it’s not like anyone’s come back to tell us what it’s like. There are far too many people that fear and hate life, if there wasn’t then there wouldn’t be suicide, that’s the very definition of fear and hatred of life.
        I don’t see it fair to say change isn’t scary, to me it is, and that doesn’t make me stupid. That makes me scared of life, I’m fucking terrified to be honest, another reason that you can’t say people don’t fear or hate life. So life is terrifying but so is death. I agree whole heartedly that it’s crippling, it stops me from living to the extent I could be. But that isn’t a concepts fault, it’s my fault for letting it control me.
        At the end of the day, humans can put the fear into anything. And I’m scared of all the things that can happen to put me in discomfort, because if death were to happen to me suddenly, I wouldn’t realise what was going on. If I got cancer, I’d be scared of the discomfort that was ahead of me not so much dying. I’m much more scared of life, but at the same time, what if death is worse? Who can possibly say?

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        1. Well, we actually know a lot about death medically speaking and everything points to a very pleasant experience. If it’s quick – like getting hit by a train or a bullet wound to the head – our nervous system cannot relay the information quick enough to our brain before we die. It would be completely without pain – or any feeling whatsoever.

          If it was an accident where we were dismembered and bled to death over a few hours, our body naturally goes into shock until a slow but steady flooding of our brain with DMT – the dream molecule – puts us into what feels like an hour of the most blissful psychedelic trip we’ve every experienced as we’re passing.

          Suicide is not a definition or proof of hatred of life. People take their lives for many reasons. Japanese men took their lives to follow their masters into death. Romans fell on their swords because death was preferred to humiliation. It is never life itself that people hate or fear. It’s a characteristic or a situation. They broke up with their girlfriend, they lost their house to debt collectors. Suicide is a way out of a situation, or a feeling, an escape of the highest order of escapes.

          No one said you’re stupid. But again just because you’re afraid of change doesn’t alter the fact that change itself isn’t scary. Change is happening to you constantly. Your cells are changing in your body. Your RNA is replicating. Old blood is being exchanged for the new. The weather is changing. The seasons are changing. The time is changing. Is any of that scary? Of course not.

          It’s WHAT changes that scares us. It’s a combination of the expectations we place on those things and our desire to hold onto those things. We’re afraid of failing to hold onto those things and we’re afraid of things happening against expectation.

          As you read that last sentence, the entire world change. Thousands of people died, fortunes were won and lost, marriages ended, babies were aborted. That’s all massive change.

          If your wedding was on a sunny day, and unexpectedly the rain came and ruined it, you wouldn’t blame change. You would blame the nature of weather, or the weatherman, or blind luck. My point is that life, change, and death are not the culprits. It’s the expectations and desires you place around them!

          I also think it’s a very strange thing to see life and death as two separate entities, when they are not. While you are living, you are dying. When you stop living, you’ve stopped dying.

          It’s just how I look at things, because perspective is everything. Your opinion is no less valid than mine, and you’re not stupid.

          I just think my perspective gives me freedom.

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          1. It definitely gives you freedom, I would love to be able to understand the freedom that comes from thinking the way you do. I understand that everything you’re saying makes logical sense. But I just don’t comprehend it that way. But you can’t speak for me about what I fear. How do you know whether or not I’m thinking deeply about any of that? I know you didn’t call me stupid. I admire your perspective I do. But whilst you have your perspective and your interpretation of how it is makes sense to you, aren’t you also in a way being judgemental? I’m starting to not make sense so I’m going to leave it as that.

            Liked by 1 person

          2. I’m not judging you in the slightest.

            I see a lot of myself in you. I held onto the same fears for the first 25 years of my life. It consumed me. I was stuck in the quicksand that fear creates.

            So I’m just giving you as much insight into my new perspective as I can. If it helped me I thought there’s no harm trying to help. We’re coming from the same place, we really are.

            I just know how you feel, and know the weight that you can lift off of your shoulders if you break those same chains that bounded me.

            In the end I’ll never truly understand you, or comprehend exactly how you see things – and I respect that. Just trying to meet you eye to eye is all!

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          3. Every day the chains get weaker, I am breaking free. I know where I want to be I just am still not quite sure how to go about it yet. Everyday I learn and I learn everytime someone has a differing opinion. But it doesn’t change the fact that fear is real, for me. Thanks for not getting too pissed off and showing me some understanding, I do appreciate everything you say.

            Liked by 1 person

  2. Terrific post … really useful as I’m working on a life philosophy to counter the death cults, as I like to call them, or rather death-denial cults. It interesting how the current fundamentalism of many religions is stimulating the response of so many humanists. What will emerge will be artistic, I think. Thanks for your contribution.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. The true fear, I feel, is that of the unknown bread for the desire to control. All I know about death is that it is a stage of transition from one state to another in a place I haven’t been to since before I was born. I see it as another journey, another adventure, another step, a cosmic exhale after the terrestrial inhale. Thank you for sharing.

    Liked by 1 person

  4. Your post as well as responses are beautiful.

    You must have very strong faith in the continuance of the soul.

    What about fearing that death is the end of everything and not just a point of change?

    That is a fear that isn’t easy to rationalise away. It often takes a lifetime of faith, openness and exploration to uncover your beliefs. If you have the faith in life after death, then I think the fears you described come into play.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Hey Lisa,
      I guess I’ve always seen it like this: if death is the end of everything (which I obviously don’t believe it is) and just perpetual nothingness, than what is there really to be afraid of?

      I don’t think its really something I’ve ever felt necessary to rationalise away, because it would be highly irrational to fear nothingness. I wouldn’t fear a death like that any more than I fear going to sleep at night!

      It’s not something that hasn’t crossed my mind, it’s just something that I have never found a rational basis to find fear in.

      Liked by 1 person

  5. One way to get over the fear of death is to embrace nihilism: we are each an infinitesimal speck with no influence on the trillions of massive stars in our unbearably massive universe. It doesn’t matter if you suffer, it doesn’t matter if you die. It doesn’t matter what you do. So go for it: Demand a promotion; sell your house and start a travel blog; cash in your 401k and open a soup-kitchen or a foster home. The fear of death is the foundation of the fear of failure – if you fail, you lose your home, you can’t feed yourself, etc. Get your nihilism on, and get after that dream!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I definitely went through my brush with nihilism, which I lovingly call my “fight club” stage.

      I find I’ve taken my world view a bit further in terms of personal power, and I would call my approach more stoic than nihilist; but whatever works for you brother!

      Everyone has their own path to walk!

      Liked by 1 person

  6. I always enjoy your posts this one specifically spoke to me. For me personally I think that the way we see people die gives us the fear. If we all knew we would die peacefully in our beds while we are sleeping I think it would leave a better taste in our brains (haha) I think that the main thing for me personally is the fact that I can not control when, where, and how. I am coming to a more special place with the acceptance of death. I do feel optimistic of the “other side” I do feel I will feel more at peace going back to the nonphysical source of everything. Thank you for sharing this beautiful experience. It is much appreciated!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Thanks for reading and the comment! And I definitely agree, not knowing how, when, or how, makes death seem like it’s looming in the shadows.

      I just love that by the same token it should encourage us to live every day to the fullest! Thanks for the comment!

      Like

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