21 Aug Fear of Death/ Fear of Life
Are you afraid of Death?
When I was sixteen, a boyfriend said during one of our many debates on the existence or not of God: “What if we decide not to believe, and wake up one day to realise we were wrong all along. Maybe we should hedge our bets just in case.” I tried to do that, but I was the original “Doubting Thomas“. I went through periods of believing in a higher being; then sometimes my belief would evaporate like the morning dew, just as quickly as it had appeared. Now I realise that “the truth” might be outside of our limited human understanding. I like the introduction to the following trailer, but would take issue with it as it progresses. The conclusions are very depressing. It speaks to the head, and not to the heart, as it draws to its dark conclusions. It is not recommended that you watch the complete video, unless, of course, that you agree with its premises.
Until quite recently I was afraid of death. Bit by bit I came to realise that my fear might be linked to an inability to believe strongly in an afterlife, or at least in a continuation of consciousness after death. I made a conscious decision, then, to believe, not in God “out there”, but in something “other” that exists, quite possibly within, rather than without. I’d been studying Tibetan Buddhism and had learnt how to meditate. As a sort of experiment at the time, I took an action akin to jumping from a cliff into the void: I became a believer. With that decision my fear began to subside little by little. Today I am no longer afraid of death. Just what I believe in I’m not so sure… Perhaps it is/was a necessary fiction? But I think not.
A psychologist friend recommended recently that I watch the video from which the above trailer is taken. The underlying assumption of the film is that we, as consciously aware animals, all fear death and take part in rituals that attempt to sublimate or help us to rise above the knowledge that we must die.
If I’d watched this film at an earlier date, my belief system would have been shaken to the core. I’d have run with the premise of the film and agreed that the existence of multiple religions is proof of our thirst for immortality and our knowledge that we must die.
However, now I strive to hold together the two sides of the paradox: Yes, we must all die, but No, we continue to exist…
Are you more afraid of life than of Death?
Many people—if they’re like me—are more afraid of life than they are of death. In fact more so. There are so many things to fear in life. And so many diverse sources of fear for different people.
I find the conclusions of the video (above) too simplistic, in that it claims that religions are the cause of most of the conflict in the world today and in the past. But would things have been even worse without spiritual concepts to guide and nurture people? And isn’t religion often masking other grievances, such as those to do with territory?
I now see our time here on Earth, as a sort of education, like in a college or university, where we learn how to overcome our handicaps, and make progress towards our next incarnation. Some of us will have to fight physical illness, or deal with that of close relatives. Others of us will need to overcome psychological (emotional) handicaps, either from trauma or from endogenous dysfunction, or from losing friends or loved ones to sickness and to death. Inability to cope with physical issues often results in the burden of psychological illness, such as depression or debilitating anxiety.
I was always shy. In childhood this is quite normal between the ages of four and seven. But some of us get stuck at around that age—often through traumatic events—and are left with residual fear and anxiety that can develop into social phobia later on. This is more likely to happen in adolescence, when hormones are swirling around in the body and mind.
I remember being terribly afraid of the dark when I was little. Once I woke up screaming about a dark shape underneath the bed. Dad came running in. He flashed a torch under my bed. This didn’t help, as it gave credence to my fears. What would have helped would have been if he’d let me climb into bed and snuggle up between him and Mum. Later on, I was afraid of going to the dentist. But I’ve learnt as an adult to relax and am no longer afraid. It took longer to overcome a fear of flying, but in the end I succeeded there too.
Fear of giving speeches in front of a large audience is a common fear worse than death for many people. I also suffered from this, despite having been a teacher for many years.
Some people are afraid of spiders. I had a huntsman spider (fortunately not a funnel-web) run up and down my legs and thighs recently when taking in the washing and I forced myself to remain calm. I was partly able to do this for my young grandson’s sake, who was nearby at the time. However, having to walk into a room of people I don’t know is still anxiety provoking for me. What is it about social phobia that is so hard to overcome? For some people it reaches a level that is pathological. Sixty percent of people who stutter avoid speaking and become socially phobic as a result of their fear of having to communicate.
It is this avoidance that is often central to phobias. The DSM-5 (Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders) has opted for the name ‘social anxiety’ rather than ‘social phobia’, as it is more inclusive of diverse conditions. People with this disorder believe they are being watched and judged by others. Some become so fearful that they avoid all social interaction by staying indoors.
Cognitive behaviour therapists have many strategies to assist sufferers. These often include gentle continued exposure to the source of fear over time. Or if you’re one of those hardy types—like me—who wish to “get to the bottom of things”, you might try psychodynamic therapies that plumb the depths of childhood trauma.
These days, too, there are therapists using “energy” or “spiritually” based methods that are often miraculously effective. I have found meditation to be one of the best methods to overcome fear-based issues and generalised anxiety. Writing is another way to do this, especially memoir writing.
Another very recent perspective on phobias is to link them all to the underlying fear of death. However, this perspective seems very narrow and limiting to me. As Shakespeare said in Hamlet, “There are more things in heaven and earth, Horatio, than are dreamt of in your philosophy.” In other words, skeptics and scientists can be no more sure of the truth than anyone else.
Cognitive behaviour therapy is the preferred approach for tackling phobias in this country. Medication, combined with talk therapy, for cases of anxiety and clinical depression has superseded the widespread use of psychoanalysis compared to in the past. Powerful drugs are available for serious emotional mental illnesses, such as bipolar and schizophrenia illness, which were the scurge of psychiatrists in the past. However, many personality disorders are resistant to these surface approaches. Sufferers might benefit more from a return to an in-depth, psychoanalytical type approach.