A friend recently confided to me that he’s been shaken by a fear of death. It isn’t that death is nearer for him than for the rest of us mortals. Nor is he especially morbid and brooding. He’s in his mid-twenties, healthy, decently employed, accomplished in creative pursuits, and surrounded by stable, loving relationships.
Yet the thought of death has begun to haunt him in the quiet of his solitude, the last waking breaths of a day, the interstitial moments that have nothing to fill them but churning thought. And he asked me for help.
One way of trying to help — not altogether wrong-headed — would have been to grab him by the shoulders, give him a little shake, and exhort him, with smiling insistence, to think on cheerier things. He likely would have smiled back and followed me whatever I wanted to lead the conversation — all while the underlying issue lingered. Who doesn’t try that approach with themselves at least for a little while when troubled by something so deep?
A more sophisticated approach — though similar in principle — would have been to try arguing him out of the fear, laying out reasons for why it doesn’t even make sense.
An old philosophical argument that’s long been used for this purpose claims that such fear is simply mistaken.
The thing about death is that you’re not around to experience it. And it only makes sense to fear something you can experience. Being afraid of death, according to this argument, is akin to fearing pain during a surgery, when you’ll actually be knocked out with the most reliable of anesthetics. It arises from a mistaken belief about what you’re afraid of. Following this line of thinking, the ancient philosopher Diogenes, ever the connoisseur of shock value, once exhorted his students to pitch his dead body over the city wall to be devoured by beasts, because after death he would no longer need it.
To extend this argument, if we’re to fear anything, it shouldn’t be death but dying, the final violence that culminates in our end. And that’s a practical problem at least somewhat within our control — less something to fear than something to manage.
That view conceives of death as a kind of everblank, a great big nothing. But suppose one believes in an afterlife of some kind?
Another path of dismissal would be to suspect that my friend had been exposed to religious ideas designed to scare people into goodness by visions of hellfire, eternal torment even for those who had stolen a stick of gum in their youth. Depending on one’s creed, it may or may not ever be clear whether one has undertaken the correct procedure to escape this fate. But the answer to this kind of fear would be nonetheless straightforward: either get on the proper path prescribed by your faith, or jettison it altogether, finding your comfort in philosophical teachings like those of Diogenes. At any rate, what one fears here would not be death so much as life after death.
I was, however, inclined to take my friend seriously when he said he was afraid of death — not something in the neighborhood of death but death as such. These dismissals notwithstanding, there actually are good reasons why one might feel this sort of fear. And only by appreciating them can we begin to develop anything close to a viable approach of living with it.
Why would we fear death?
One reason for the fear is that death confronts being with non-being.
That’s about as abstract as explanations get, I know, but the core idea is easy to grasp. In our everyday awareness of time, we don’t just live in the moment. Our imaginations rush out ahead of ourselves into the future. (Hence the billion-dollar mindfulness industry.) We expect one thing to flow into the next, into the next, with apparent ceaselessness. But when we imagine death, we imagine a sudden and permanent break with this continuity — like imagining a river coming to a standstill when it hits a dam, neither pooling nor diverting, but simply ceasing to flow. Quite the jolt, when you think about it.
Diogenes was right that we don’t experience death as such. But that offers little comfort, because we can foresee this break. And the very fact that we can foresee it — by virtue of a built-in expectation of continuity into the future — creates something like a logical contradiction in our very being. This contradiction can erode something so basic as our confidence in the continuity of time, which can be chilling indeed.
A second reason involves a fear of insignificance.
Because we can’t experience death as such, it’s hard to imagine what it’s like to be dead. But we can imagine the world without us: Your loved ones carry on with their lives. Your job gets posted and is filled within a few months. Your possessions get distributed among your friends, Goodwill, and the garbage heap. To use another water analogy, it’s as though you dropped under the surface of a lake, never to return, and after a few ripples, it’s just as glassy as it would have been without you ever being there.
Most of us go about our lives with illusions about our importance. These illusions are obviously more developed and obnoxious in some than in others. But everyone, I’d suggest, finds sustenance amid the hardships of life by considering ourselves just a little more important that we actually are. And going back to the point about orientation to the future, we feel as though this importance holds true not just now, but will continue to hold true. Imagining the world without us punctures these illusions.
A third reason combines the first two about interrupted continuity and insignificance: Death seems to undermine the things we care about.
A thought experiment can give us some clarity on this. Imagine that someone said to you, “I love you now, but in thirty days I won’t.” I’m guessing this would strike you as odd. Unless this were some kind of manipulative threat, how could they possibly forecast this end with such certainty, if indeed they were sincere in their love?
It’s not that we expect love to prance for all time upon sparkles of sunrise, unending and unconditional. Even misty-eyed romantics would agree that love not only can come to an end, but sometimes should.
But we do expect love to be open-ended. In affirming my love for you, I implicitly claim that I will love you until whenever, the indefinite time at which I do not or cannot. We can’t simply turn love off like a spigot (last water analogy, I promise), nor predict the time of its coming or going like a sprinkler system. In fact, to say that I love you implies that — barring some unpardonable transgression — I wouldn’t turn it off even if I could.
But here’s the thing. When you imagine the possibility of death as vividly as my friend, making it present in mind if not in actual fact, it can put you in a frame of mind similar to the thought experiment. You attempt to affirm your loves even as you foresee their end, no longer just as a vague possibility but as something that feels very near.
And that nearness can drain the affirmation of significance. That isn’t because the affirmation is any less sincere, but because you believe less in its open-endedness. With a cold pang of imagination, you become all too aware of how you may be unable to demonstrate in practice what you affirm in words. Fear of death, in this case, could be understood then as a reaction to how death deflates the worthiness of our love.
This idea is a little counter-intuitive, I know. But there are others instances in which vividly anticipating the end of something makes it, on an emotional level, present already. Senioritis is one. Periods leading up to transitions of power among leaders might be another. The film Annie Hall comically depicts a little boy who refuses to do his homework because he read that the expanding universe will eventually break apart and bring an end to everything, and now he just doesn’t see the point of anything. Anticipate your death vividly enough, and it, too, will begin to work on you.
In my friend’s case, I’m not sure which of these reasons were driving the fear, or if any of them were. There are surely other reasons, some rooted in personal psychology, why one would actively feel fear toward death. And like most people in that position, he had difficulty with giving words to what was going on. But reaching clarity about possible explanations allowed us to more clearly suss out how one could most constructively respond to such a fear.
Ways we can live with the fear
The first option that may come to mind, as I suggested above, is avoidance.
It has the virtue of being extremely straightforward. You take the troubling thought of death and do what we so often do with troubling thoughts: pretend it isn’t there, or try to counterbalance it with less troubling thoughts. Or perhaps you try to be a little more sophisticated about it and apply the logic of philosophers like Diogenes to say that death isn’t your concern. Really, it isn’t your concern. Really.
There might be occasions when this approach is helpful. For instance, when people are actively in a struggle with life-threatening illness, the most productive thing to do — for a while at least — may be to focus single-mindedly on the business of living.
But this is not a long-term solution. Leaving aside the complications that avoidance can create for those who are imminently facing their end, the path of avoidance has other unfortunate side effects. For one, it erodes our tolerance for darker thoughts, which in turn erodes our ability to support others in their own times of trial. In fact, it might even erode our respect for truth, since we would be essentially be shutting ourselves off from a core aspect of existence. I don’t know about you, but that strikes me as too costly for a bit of peace.
For a contrary approach, a second option would be acceptance — not of the fear itself, but of the thing you fear, your mortality.
This option has the virtue of realism. The idea is that by staring at the inevitable and coming to accept it, you attain a peace that you may lack as long as you attempt to avoid it. You would be accommodating yourself to the most difficult of facts.
A chorus of well-regarded voices has advocated for something like acceptance. Ancient Stoics, for instance, prescribed a constant meditation on all the bad things that could happen to us, death foremost among them, so that through acceptance we can strip them of their power to terrorize us. The Roman philosopher Seneca embodies this view when he claims in his work On Tranquility of Mind that
“anyone will live poorly who does not know how to die well.”
Closer to our own time, the Swiss psychiatrist Elizabeth Kübler-Ross capped her famous (and controversial) “five stages of grief” with acceptance as its culminating ideal.
For some difficulties we face in life, acceptance seems like a healthy response that we should strive to attain. But I’m not convinced that this is true when it comes to mortality. Acceptance would essentially give a rubber-stamp of approval to the things underlying our fear of death — contradiction in our being, potential insignificance, erosion in the things we care about — thereby affirming the diminishment they bring about. That may help to alleviate the fear, but like avoidance, it turns out to be quite costly as well.
We should instead try to find approaches that combine the upsides of both avoidance and acceptance while avoiding their downsides.
A third option for living with our fear of death offers one way of combining them: symbolic immortality.
This response tries to create some sense of lastingness for ourselves rooted in our accomplishments. It’s most conspicuously the province of rich people who give money to institutions in exchange for having their names inscribed on a building for all time (or at least until a richer donor comes along with cash to fund an even grander building). But it isn’t just for the rich. Having children not infrequently contributes to this sense of lastingness. Writers and artists often regard their works in the same way.
What this comes down to is confidence that you will live on, to some extent, in the memory of others.
Symbolic immortality is symbolic in that it isn’t really immortality. And being aware of this could constitute a sort of acceptance. Yet it deserves the name immortality, if only in a more distant sense, because something like yourself (memory) really does endure further into the future than your mortal body.
Actively cultivating a sense of this immortality could potentially serve as a more constructive form of avoidance and acceptance, insofar it concentrates on leaving behind a legacy that may benefit others. (I know that I’m grateful to those death-avoiding donors of yesteryear who endowed my university and thus made my education possible.)
But like the other two, this approach only takes us so far. For one thing, the satisfaction we get from symbolic immortality is limited by the confidence we can reasonably feel that others will remember us, and that confidence can rarely be certain.
Those who now dwell most prominently in the public eye will soon be replaced by another star du jour. Even those who manage to be inscribed somehow in history will, in time, just become another name. While a name is hardly nothing (the power of monuments to historical atrocities attests to that), it is likely a thinner version of ourselves for living on in memory than we had in mind.
And then there’s the egotism involved in attempting to fixate people’s hearts and minds upon yourself long after you’re gone.
The trouble with making it your goal to have others remember you is that it’s easy to become indifferent to the reasons they remember you. Saints and mass murderers live drastically different lives, but both end up being remembered. While that’s an extreme contrast, it can open us to thinking about the less extreme, yet still objectionable ways in which an egotistical pursuit of symbolic immortality can trample on others. The very possibility of such an outcome, though far from inevitable, should press us to continue refining our response to the fear of death.
A better way
The fourth and final option that I’ll discuss is similar to symbolic immortality but flips the object of focus. For lack of a better term, I call it loving toward the future.
The basic idea is this: You take less of an interest in yourself living on, whether in memory or otherwise, than in the future of people and things you care about. You engage so deeply that you actually begin to identity with them, to regard them as your “other self.” Provided that they live on and flourish, you — in this extended sense of “you” — live on as well.
This move could seem like a cheap play of semantics, but it’s a very old idea that finds expression in different religious and philosophical traditions.
As the philosopher Mark Johnston has written, Buddhism and other eastern religions suggest that our selves, conceived as standalone entities, are illusory and that this view opens the door to a more extended concept of selfhood, one that includes the wider world we inhabit and the oncoming rush of those yet to be born.
In a similar vein, Saint Augustine described in his Confessions his response to the death of a friend,
“I wondered that other mortals should live when he was dead whom I had loved as if he would never die; and I marveled still more that he should be dead and I his other self living still…And it may be that I feared to die lest thereby he should die whom I had loved so deeply.”
Augustine sees himself, in other words, as having an extended self that includes his friend. Were their places switched and he was the one facing death, not his friend, he would apply likely the idea by saying that he would continue on through his friend, as his friend.
This way of thinking may not be universally satisfying. Some people, at the end of they day, may require assurance they they will blissfully live forever before feeling at ease with their mortality — require, in other words, assurance that they aren’t mortal after all.
Whether or not immortality of the soul and related ideas are truly viable is beyond the scope of this essay. But it isn’t obvious that they need to be viable to deal with our fear of death. If that fear stems from the reasons I described above, any response that takes care of them may also take care of the fear.
And it seems that loving toward the future does just that. It fosters a frame of mind that envisions ongoing continuity despite our death. It deals with the threat of insignificance by shifting our focus to the significance of others to us. And it supports the integrity of love by blurring the boundaries of the self in time, allowing us thereby to feel that our love can be resoundingly open-ended.
One remaining drag on the open-endedness of love, even with a mindset of loving toward the future, could be the very practical awareness that we might not be around to take care of our beloved. Death would undermine this most basic activity, core to what we value.
But the key is to see loving into the future as two-sided. Just as you identify with your beloveds, so they may identify with you. In your lives together, you make such deep impressions on each other that no separation can remove the sense, however subtle, that one continues to accompany the other.
As you arrange a vase of flowers just so, or notice outside a particular shade-loving plant that your beloved always had to point out for you, or remember their exhortation to treat people in a certain way — as you undertake your lives apart, you realize that your love creates cause for questioning the very meaning of “apart.” Through the our mutual identification in love, there is a real sense in which we will continue to take care of our beloved, no matter what.
In the end
What further recommends loving toward the future is that its practical outcome sounds, to my mind, like wise living when threatened with existential turmoil, especially in contrast with the other options.
Avoidance turns away from hard things with its best la-di-da. Acceptance grits its teeth and relaxes all striving for transcendence. Symbolic immortality attempts to build a legacy for the precious, fleeting self on a foundation of sand.
But loving toward the future — what it prescribes for our fear of death is to invest ourselves with complete abandon in our relationships, to impact people not because you want them to remember you but because you regard your fates as literally intertwined, to act on ever wider circles of affection in confidence that if we love well, many fears may remain but not a fear of death.
For come what may, the love we sow does not so easily die.