Along with the rising death toll due to coronavirus complications, a usually latent aspect of our fear becomes harder to ignore. Despite the fact that it is the only certainty we all share, realising that our own end is a reality we might need to confront sooner than we had thought leaves many of us fervently searching for consolation.
What can soothe the thought that, sooner or later, all that will be left of everything we ever loved and cherished, of ourselves even, will be only a memory, at best? Epicurus, the Greek philosopher whose creed was that the fear of dying is the root of all human neurosis, resorted to the symmetry argument to prove that our fear of death is unjustified. Epicurus said that our state in death is no different to the state we were in before we were born. This idea also appealed to writer Vladimir Nabokov who said: ‟Although the two are identical twins, man, as a rule, views the prenatal abyss with more calm than the one he is heading for (at some forty-five hundred heartbeats an hour).”
Like Epicurus, today’s stoics try to heal their fear of death with the idea that death is never present. For when death is present, we are not. Our “not being” would thereby compensate for its cruel definition by sparing the affected one of the awareness of them not being there anymore. The dead do not know they are dead. And the living, aware of their imminent death, are encouraged to take joy in their current existence, in all its shapes and colours, letting the finitude of things amplify their impetus.
Existentialist psychiatrist Irvin Yalom is one of the most recent supporters of this idea. In his book, Staring at the Sun, Yalom advocates for a life full of accomplishment and free of regret, a life lived not in the shadow of ignoring our own finitude, but surrounded by our most precious values, which we would be unable to appreciate other than in the light of their own impermanence.
Yet the remedy which Yalom included, like a red string, in his book The Shopenhauer Solution, cannot fully satisfy the emotional needs of those pondering their own end. To Albert Camus, the mere fact that life is to end in death makes an absurdity out of anything that is liveable. Among all things absurd, surrendering oneself to life’s pleasures, to forget for one moment that we are fleeting, is the most absurd of all. Camus did not rise to his own high standards, though. The alcohol-infused parties he would organise along with existentialist Jean-Paul Sartre and feminist Simone de Beauvoir are legendary to this day.
Having to die
An existentialist himself, theologian Paul Tillich was convinced that the anxiety derived from ‟having to die” is always present, like one’s heartbeat, even if one is not always aware of it. ‟The dramatic description of the anxiety of Jesus in having to die confirms the universal character of the relation of finitude and anxiety.” The theologian – who some would argue is not Christian at all – thought that anxiety about death permeates the whole human being, shaping the soul, the body and determining the spiritual life.
Interesting for this COVID-19 quarantine context of ours, Tillich saw our fear of dying as something closely related to time and space. From a time perspective, death is a transport to the negative side of temporality. From a spatial perspective, death is a denial of our innate need to have a place in the world (both physically and socially). For Tillich ‟to be” means having space; ‟not to have space is not to be.”. In a quarantine, we self-impose space limitation, thus debilitating our social identity. Individuals lose the freedom to invest their time in any activity their heart desires. Therefore, through its limitations, quarantine alludes to the ultimate limitation: death.
One last game of chess
Showing more compassion for the human heart whose fears might be immune to the abstract gimmicks of philosophy, Presbyterian pastor Timothy Keller acknowledges that it is not realistic to claim being able to live a deeper, fuller life as a result of being aware of your own death. Just imagine (he wrote in his most recent book On Death) someone breaks into your house, ties you up and then tells you he is going to kill you. But before doing so, he asks you what you enjoy doing in life. You reply that you love chess, and he offers to play a game with you before ending your life. ‟Your impending death would drain all the satisfaction out of a game,” concludes Keller.
In defence of his assertion, the pastor cites cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who makes a number of thoroughly accurate observations in his Pulitzer-winning book The Denial of Death. First is that fearing one’s own death is a fear that is reserved exclusively to humans. ‟Animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. … The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They [experience death as] a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.”
Becker’s second insight is that, compared to previous societies in history, our current, secular society has a harder time finding its meaning when facing its own demise. The need to compensate for this lack of meaning is the force that drives people to disproportionately value things like sex, romance, money, career, politics and social causes. ‟People seek”, Keller concluded, ‟to get a feeling of significance in the face of death without having recourse to God and religion”.
Getting rid of God
Friedrich Nietzsche anticipated that Western societies would give up relying on God and announced the ‟death” of the God who judges the world and finds it guilty of its sin. To the German philosopher, abandoning God was a unique chance for humankind to restore its innocence, through atheism. But Nietzsche was wrong, says historian Wilfred McClay, who wrote an insightful essay on the ‟strange persistence of guilt”.
Even today, many people think that the religious man is someone enslaved to anachronistic prescriptions and bound to a life of self-punishment to appease an eternally unappeased Lord.
People thought that, by getting rid of God, their consciences would find peace. Even today, many people think that the religious man is someone enslaved to anachronistic prescriptions and bound to a life of self-punishment to appease an eternally un-appeased God. Rather than refuting the fairness of this definition, many have instead chosen to approve the definition and to disapprove of God. As a consequence, the peace they expected proved to be an illusion.
Rather than finding peace, people have only managed to demoralise guilt and change its focus from religion to other realms. People now feel guilty for ‟colonialism, slavery, structural poverty, water pollution, deforestation”—a list of items for which no logical ending is to be found. ‟Indeed, when any one of us reflects on the brute fact of our being alive and taking up space on this planet, consuming resources that could have met some other, more worthy need, we may be led to feel guilt about the very fact of our existence.”
God’s exclusion from our moral equation had the impact of disconnecting us from our life-support. Our essential needs stayed the same, yet we disregarded all the remedies that have proven their viability and we ended up overwhelmed by an epidemic of anxiety.
A world that dismissed its ultimate Decision Maker decided to appoint psychology as the manager of our guilt. Psychology was generous enough to suggest we forgive everything pertaining to functional behavior (i.e. biologically compliant and useful, abiding, of course, to state law). To the psychologist, confined to a naturalistic approach by virtue of science, forgiveness is not a solemn act, proclaiming justice by its mere existence, but a wellness habit, freeing the mind of the forgiver and allowing them peace. God’s exclusion from the moral equation had the impact of disconnecting us from our life-support. Our essential needs stayed the same, yet we disregarded all the remedies that have proven their viability and we ended up overwhelmed by an epidemic of anxiety.
Some that are fearless
Guilt and anxiety in the face of death share a complex interdependence that extend beyond the explanatory reach of this article. But it is in the context of this relationship that it becomes reasonable to re-invite God into the conversation about our fear of death. Authentic religion is still an essential resource for some people who, it seems, are able to relate to death in a less fearful way, and their attitude towards guilt plays a pivotal role, researchers say. Individuals who exercise more trust in God tend to more readily believe that He forgives their sin. Those who believe God forgives them, are less prone to anxiety about death.
What does this imply for someone who is terrified by the idea of having to die? To begin with, it could mean that diminishing fear is possible if we reverse the aforementioned progression: if I am scared of dying because I do not feel forgiven, maybe I do not feel forgiven because I do not trust God enough. And, if I do not trust God enough, it could mean that I do not know Him enough. Consequently, I could work towards knowing Him better, towards allowing Him to reveal Himself to me just the way He is.
The Bible is a tool God uses to reveals Himself. Therefore, my first step towards freeing myself from the fear of dying should be rediscovering God through Scripture. As regressive as this may seem, especially when the one fearing death has been a Christian for a long time, this need is far more common than we might imagine. Milton Vincent shares his own experience when he writes:
‟Over the course of time, preaching the gospel to myself every day has made more of a difference in my life than any other discipline I have ever practiced. I find myself sinning less, but just as importantly, I find myself recovering my footing more quickly after sinning, due to the immediate comfort found in the gospel. I have also found that when I am absorbed in the gospel, everything else I am supposed to be toward God and others seems to flow out of me more naturally and passionately. Doing right is not always easy, but it is never more easy when one is breathing deeply the atmosphere of the gospel.”
The word angst that translates as ‟anguish”/”anxiety” in psychology has the same linguistic root as the German word Angust, meaning ‟rage”. This connection exposes the fact that the fear of death encapsulates a revolt against the order of things that does not come naturally to us, that we cannot naturally accept. Modern poet Dylan Thomas said it more beautifully:
Do not go gentle into that good night,
Old age should burn and rave at close of day;
Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
Though wise men at their end know dark is right,
Because their words had forked no lightning they
Do not go gentle into that good night.
Timothy Keller found a similar profoundly human, yet at the same time profoundly instructive blend of feelings in the words of the apostle Paul: “Do not grieve like the rest of mankind, who have no hope. For we believe that Jesus died and rose again, and so we believe that God will bring with Jesus those who have fallen asleep in him” (1 Thessalonians 4:13-14).
If we were to believe one thing about God, and one thing only, it would be safe to believe that He is love.
Sadness is unavoidable in the proximity of death – whether the death of a loved one or our own. But the biblical advice is that in the midst of suffering we try to strengthen and nurture our hope with God’s own truth. Our hope is that “[Jesus Christ] too shared in [our] humanity so that by his death he might break the power of him who holds the power of death—that is, the devil—and free those who all their lives were held in slavery by their fear of death” (Hebrews 2:14-15). This is the good news that we need to remind ourselves of every day, lest we forget.
If we are to believe one thing about God, and one thing only, it is to believe that He is love. It is a non-negotiable truth. An axiom. Because He loves us, He is willing to forgive us. His forgiveness is necessary to make his righteousness shine. His forgiveness is always costly in proportion to the weight of His justice. But God’s mercy is so rich, and He is so willing to forgive, that he gave Jesus as proof. Therefore, His encouragement is well grounded:
“Do not fear, for I have redeemed you;
I have summoned you by name; you are mine.
When you pass through the waters, I will be with you;
and when you pass through the rivers, they will not sweep over you.
When you walk through the fire, you will not be burned;
the flames will not set you ablaze.
For I am the Lord your God, the Holy One of Israel, your Savior” (Isaiah 43:1-3).
Alina Kartman is a senior editor at ST Network and Semnele timpului.