I received a tough one last week:
Hi, my name is C,
I’m 24, and live in … England. I was wondering if you could help me, or can offer advice.
At the age of about 14 one night I had a sudden realisation about death.
I was lying there thinking and suddenly I understood the whole concept of my life ending. Most nights this realisation comes back and I have to fight to mentally come to terms with it. Most nights (and it only happens between 9-11pm) it creeps into my thoughts despite no provoking, it makes me experience fear on an overwhelming level and my breathing increases, my spine runs cold, and I feel thrown into darkness.
More recently I reached a point where I became increasingly calm and confident but still frightened. I believe the fear got so strong for so long my fight or flight response was triggered.
I am generally a very strong minded and happy person. Either way, I’m trying to find a way to overcome it. It has led me to question everything, I have become fascinated with philosophy and theology, but none of it has helped.
I’m trying to find out if there’s any way to sort myself out.
Mr. C., I’m not a professional psychologist, most certainly not a clinical therapist. I am not qualified to offer you any help or advice regarding trauma, anxiety, or mental illness. I’m not a healer in any context or by any means, and that should be obvious since my personality is somewhat contrary rather than accepting. I would have to advise you, or anyone in similar straits, to seek professional help for any concern of this nature.
That having been said, I’m entitled to a citizen’s opinion. If you want to know what that opinion is, you should read on, but the caveat here is, it’s an opinion, not advice.
So let me start by asking you a question:
When you were born, were you afraid? Most babies are; that’s why they cry. It’s very natural. What makes you think that death should be any different? Both birth and death are like roller coasters; once you’re in the cart for the ride, you’re going to have ups and downs, lulls and rapidity, excitements and thrills… and fear.
The great Nikos Kazantzakis describes life as follows:
We emerge from one dark abyss only to pass-away into another dark abyss. The period of light that lies in between we call Life.
Our birth marks the beginning of the end. The setting-out and the return journey together. We are sentenced to death with the passing of each moment. That is why some have declared that the goal of life is death.
Yet, with our birth also begins our struggle to create and to build … to transform matter into life. We are born with each passing moment. That is why others have declared that the goal of an ephemeral life is immortality.
All transient living things are torn between these two great streams:
a) the ascending path that leads towards creation, life and immortality;
b) the descending path that leads towards matter, decay and death.
Both streams gush forth from the depths of our primordial origins. From its outset life seems remarkable, even spurious and unnatural; a short-lived reaction to those dark ceaseless fountain-heads. Yet, deeper still within ourselves, we feel that Life is nothing less than the chaotic and indestructible impulse of the Universe itself.
Consider this: whence comes that greater than human strength which slings us forth from the unborn to the born and compels us all … plants, animals and man … to struggle in our daily existence?
Though contradictory in nature, these two streams are truly sacred.
Death is inevitable, and to spend life in fear of it is truly a waste. Were you afraid before being born? Can’t remember? And yet, ‘tis true indeed, that the dread of something after death, the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveler returns, puzzles the will. It is good that each person spend some period in his life contemplating this mystery, if for no other reason than to clear their own mind as to what a blessing life is, and what duties we incur in having been blessed with such a privilege. I myself devoted eight years to this.
Is there something beyond death? I am convinced there is; I base this conviction on personal experiences I’ve had. Do I know for sure? Nope, because I’ve never died. Do I know what lies in that undiscovered country? Not a clue. For all the searching and sacrifice I’ve done, for all the exploration and dedication, no clear idea. Moreover, I can state with a great deal of certainty that in all likelihood no one truly has a clue, despite whatever they may claim.
The problem with religion is that it attempts to express Ultimate Truth rather than admitting to communicating a simple opinion or an experience. Religions exist to ensure the greatness of their followers and the prosperity of their leaders, not to implement the wishes of their originators. Let’s face it: most people don’t belong to xyz belief for altruistic reasons. They belong because they think they are getting something back in return. Follow me, Chosen One, and you shall be of the Blessed (that is to say, higher up on the totem pole), while those who oppose you shall be cast into the fires below. Yea verily I say unto thee, do as I tell you, and in the next Act, you shall be among the bosses rather than the serfs.
Sigh. The math is wrong – it can’t happen. What religions are expressing is an opinion based on the experiences of a third party or third parties regarding a specific circumstance or set of circumstances. If religious leaders admitted to expressing the Opinion of their Originators, then we wouldn’t have religious wars. Since all religions are adamant that they express Ultimate Truth, and Divine Truth at that, well then, violence is required to support that estimation. At the end of the day, though, “who’s the boss” is the name of the game. This has been the case for the past ten thousand years. There are evident cases where (even today) whole peoples think they are the Chosen Ones based on racial or ethnic criteria; seems they doctored their test scores in the evolutionary game.
I have faced the Grim Reaper myself a number of times now, once from serious disease and several times from conflict or accident. None of these is an experience I would wish to repeat. Of all of these, illness was the most frightening, because it exposed me to the possibility of degradation as well as that of cessation, and it was a long drawn out affair. I am currently experiencing middle age, and illness is reminiscent of this, in that I can see old age looming ahead, and fear it, as well as contending with the loss of youth in my present moment.
But do I wake up in a cold sweat in the middle of the night worrying about these things? No. That would be pointless. I may as well worry about the sun rising tomorrow morning. The sun will rise tomorrow. Kostas will die – it is simply a matter of when. So I accept this; I try to be prepared for death specifically regarding my responsibilities. I insure myself financially and emotionally against an end before the fulfillment of any obligations I may assume or have assumed; in short, I behave as a responsible adult whenever I can rather than as a spoiled child, so that the time I spend on earth will be positive.
Do I worry about the undiscovered country and its laws? No, I do not. The majority of world religions center around the same principles, and these are, basically, “be nice to each other, guys.” I figure that if I live a life with integrity and humanity, then I am pretty much in the ballpark regardless of doctrine. If there is an undiscovered country, then, based on the principles of common ground and universalness, I should be OK. If there is no undiscovered country, then human beings are creatures of the highest order and the highest consciousness within the space that we occupy. This imposes a tremendous obligation upon us. We should consider it our duty to live our lives with integrity and humanity and compassion and consequence. So I do.
Far greater men than I have reached this same conclusion, so I am at peace with it. Some base it on dogma; some base it on experience; some base it on logic; some base it on hope. I would counsel a more Stoic approach myself: consider dogma irrelevant. Live a fearless and truthful life for its own sake, because anything else will make you a lesser man.
My opinion then (not advice) is to live a full and passionate life with integrity as its base, and let your fears go their own way. Your death is inevitable; what will happen, will happen, no matter how much you sweat and dread. If you live a life of integrity, you should have no regrets, regardless, when the time does come for you to depart. And let that fear come and go as it wills, and dread the fear not: remember, it’s natural; you cried when you were born, too.