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.
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.
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.
Be good to each other,