If and why we Fear Death

The first time it hit me I was watching the X-FILES as a nine year old kid sitting home alone in the dark on a Friday night. From then on the feeling caught me almost everyday, without warning. I spent so much time alone, with my thoughts and I couldn’t suppress the images and words nor the fear nor the physiological arousal. My heart would flutter, and my stomach would twist. The blood would rush to my head and I’d have to escape. I’d literally run away from the thoughts. Figuratively, I was running from my fear: Death.

To realize one’s mortality at such a young age is tragic, especially when the thoughts become obsessional and the child is isolated. My active imagination turned against me. Thoughts of an eternity of torture or nothingness or even ambiguous bliss were frightening.

It is our prospects in death and our inability to control or understand them that frightens us. Death is an unwelcome and uncertain change that brings the possibility of further suffering or lack of existence.

Laying in bed with my hands folded over my chest, I would half wittingly think about the transition. I made deals with God, bets really. “God, if I can get an ‘A’ on my test, you won’t let me or anyone I know die ever.” So, I’d make the bets and I’d win, but I’d still feel like maybe I needed to win the same bet over and over again. The challenges got increasingly ludicrous. “If I can find two matching socks with my eyes closed and put them on in ten seconds…” or “If I hold my breath and beat the entire first level of Super Mario…”

Still, people I knew and knew of would die. Of course, my bets weren’t working. I never expected them too. But they were my own little religion. My own little way of reassuring myself.

Our ancient ancestors had the same idea, but on a much larger scale. In an attempt to keep people from fearing their own demise, the afterlife was created, and a new fear was ushered in: uncertainty. Now, instead of just fearing the end, people had to face also the possibility of an indefinable afterlife. Christopher Hitchens in GOD IS NOT GREAT, HOW RELIGION POISONS EVERYTHING points out that never has any religious authority vividly described heaven.

The same is not true of Heaven’s younger counterpart Hell, which was presumably created to control the behaviors of people who were smart enough to realize their own mortality, but naive enough to cling to hope of a life after death. There have been many graphic descriptions of Hell made over the history of religion, yet all we have been told of Heaven is that it is better than Hell.

The situation has been made much worse. Death went from a frightening certainty to an even more frightening ambiguity.

As I carried my death related panic disorder into my teen years, I became increasingly aware of the ridiculousness of my bets with God and my pleading prayers for immortality on Earth. I couldn’t let my life be consumed by fear and uncertainty, but I also couldn’t rely on God for answers or exemption. And I had to admit that God had nothing to do with it, he couldn’t because he does not exist.

Most people struggle with their faith, even those who would profess to be strictly devout or completely atheistic. I am an atheist, yet I can’t help but continue to direct the occasional thought in God’s direction. I know that death will mean the end of me, yet I still sometimes imagine what Heaven or Hell might be like. This sort of creative ambivalence is one of the things that make humans unique among living creatures on this planet. Our realization of mortality is another.

As an adolescent. I turned to science for answers, dreaming up scenarios involving medicine, cybernetics and cloning that would allow me to live forever. But science wasn’t the answer either. Science dictated that because I was alive, I must die.

Our hopes of science offering immortality are as irrational as our hopes in religion.

Our awareness of death can be a weapon against death because it can motivate us to create meaning in our lives. The fear of dying and being dead is replaced by a fear of having nothing to show for our time on Earth. This is a much more productive type of fear than the that of woeful uncertainty. This is the kind of fear I have now, the healthy kind that pushes me forward to achieve my goals, to achieve immortality in name and in deed. If I can accomplish that, I will have no need to fear death at all.