Updated: Apr 6, 2021
We must first shed our fear of it.
As “Good Friday” rolls around for another year and people celebrate the death of Jesus Christ (to some, a superstar and rider of Yamahas), I thought it would be an interesting time to discuss the prevalence of “death anxiety” in our current society. However, one does not necessarily need to believe in an afterlife to accept death.
Now, to be clear, I wish to focus more on the taboo nature and anxiety surrounding discussions about death, rather than the actual clinical diagnosis of “death anxiety” itself.
Irvin Yalom, an American existential psychiatrist, modelled existential psychotherapy around what he identified as the four (4) ultimate concerns for human beings: Death, Freedom, Isolation and Meaninglessness.
Now, we’re only concerning ourselves with the first of these four, but there are some overlap in thought patterns, behaviours and how we psychologically defend ourselves against them.
Yalom believed death to be the fundamental source of our anxiety, the very first existential conflict between our awareness of the inevitability of death and the wish to continue to live. Our fear of ceasing to be can be conscious or unconscious with a common defence against the arising anxiety being repression. However, the key to alleviating the anxiety, stress or terror is to acknowledge your finiteness, not to deny it!
Human beings, for as long as we have lived, have tried to transcend death (or their mortality), and Yalom believe that to a large extent psychopathology had its origins in our failed attempts to do this. Denial, as I’ve talked before, is a common way for people to prevent thinking about death, but in the same way as refusing to look at the pile of dishes in the sink, the inevitable concern does not go away.
Other maladaptive ways of dealing with the inevitability of death include the sublimation of behaviours, for example, where someone becomes a “workaholic” and turns a deaf ear to time’s message. One can become quite narcissistic and strive for (complete) power and control over their lives. Also, one may become nihilistic (overlap – meaninglessness), in the sense that their lives don’t matter either way.
“Consider death…to observe the skulls and skeletons…and to wonder what it would be like to go to sleep and never wake up.” – Alan Watts
This can make for a gloomy contemplation, but if there’s one thing the Stoics taught us well it is to meditate on our impermanence, the transient nature of our being and “Memento Mori” (the inevitability of death) – which can be quite liberating, actually.
“Life, if lived well, is long enough.”, wrote Seneca, and his aptly short book “On the Shortness of Life” is appropriate reading for today’s topic.
I find most people I come across are not comfortable talking about death in general, let alone their own future demise (which is somewhat understandable, to be honest). They are afraid of it and you can usually see them physically shift to illustrate their discomfort or in their facial expressions. They don’t wish to think about it as they haven’t come to terms with their mortality, that there will come a point where (their) life will cease to exist despite appearing on the surface to accept that “one day” they will die. This further illustrates how they wish to put off that contemplation to a future, unknown date.
A good example of how uncomfortable people can get around death is when it comes to organising a funeral. You can see this usually in the leading up period (if there is one), particularly before an elderly person’s death, with how the family can actively avoid talking about it and/or even visiting the person close to the end of their life in an attempt to not be reminded of death itself and the anxiety, stress or terror it produces in them. Small wonder, funeral insurance is the hardest thing to sell.
The death of a loved one is supposed to reinvigorate your passion for life, not to be lost in your grief and sorrow – though I understand why and how some people end up staying in that state for a long time and it’s not like I’m unsympathetic to their loss.
When you come to have a mature outlook on death, you come to accept it like you do life. This isn’t about wishing for death or a premature one at that or not caring if you’re alive or dead – it is about resolving one’s fear and anxiety of death so you can live (and die) properly.
Death is not separate from life, it’s not even concurrent, it is interdependent. Birth is symbolic of the potential of life as is death the symbol of its finitude.
Don’t be so afraid of death that you do not live, and don’t cling to life so that you cannot die in peace, accept it. For as Epictetus said, “People are strange: They neither wish to live nor die.”
I’ll leave you with a couple of quotes by stoic Roman Emperor, Marcus Aurelius, that I think illustrate the main ideas of today’s post.
“All men die, but not all men die whining.” – Marcus Aurelius
“Think of yourself as dead. You have lived your life. Now take what’s left and live it properly.” – Marcus Aurelius