The Fear of Death

We all fear death. Even those who say they don’t are afraid when they are about to be massacred by a man wearing a hockey mask holding a machete. It is something inherently present in human life. Most of the time we don’t think about the absolute fact that we will all die in one way or another. Not only that, but death is also something that always happens on a random moment. We could die every moment. There might be a tumor growing in your brain as you are reading this. Still, we don’t think about death all that much and if we do we diagnose it as pathological. But what has us so afraid of death? And how do we as human beings take away this fear? Are there better or worse ways to escape this fear? In this essay, I want to take a deeper dive into these questions.

            The first thing we can say about death is that it is something every person will experience. Well, maybe experience is the wrong word, because we can ask the question if we can actually experience death. We can experience dying but the state of being dead might be a bridge too far. Anyhow, death is something we all share. In this sense, it is objective. It isn’t subjective that you will die. You will, and there is nothing you can do about it. So, in this shared experience of death, we can find some recognition within one another.

            But why fear death? Fear is something that arises when we are in an unknown situation. People are afraid of the dark because it is hard to see in the dark. There could potentially be creatures lurking in the shadows, but we cannot see them. If it would be light then we would’ve been able to see them, but in the dark, we can only imagine what might be there. Death, then, is the ultimate unknown. It is the end of our consciousness and because we have absolutely no idea how that experience will be, it frightens us. There is nothing after death, just pure emptiness, we could even say endless darkness. But it is not when we are dead that we are afraid. The fear comes when we anticipate our death. When we try to envision what it would be like to be dead.

            It is this unknown which motivates human beings to find an answer of what happens when we die. Nearly every religion as some sort of answer to what will happen when we die. We might go to heaven; we might reincarnate as a squirrel, or we might finally exit the simulation where we have been in. Finding an answer to what happens after we die, implies that we have scouted that unknown terrain (even if it might be wrong) and we might find some reassurance in that belief.

            The fear might also arise because we like living. When we’re happy, we don’t want the moment to end because the happiness fades at some point. Death would mean the eternal end of that happiness. So, another reason we might fear death is because it would end our potential for happiness.

            Heidegger claims that death is one of the fundamental aspects of life. In our time in life, death is the ultimate end and, in this way, we live for our death. We could say that death is the arbiter of our life. Our death shows what kind of life we have lived. If we die with an alcohol addiction, we have lived our life for alcohol. If we die while intensely working for a company, we have lived for that company. Aristotle claimed that we can only say if a person was good when he has passed away because only then do we know the full range of his actions. The question then becomes what are we dying for?

            Let’s examine this a bit further. We have established that we all die. In this sense we always sacrifice our life for what we have done in our lives. Commonly a sacrificial death is seen when someone sacrifices his life for something or someone. For example, when someone jumps in front of a bullet to save the person he loves, we say that he has sacrificed his life for her. But sacrifices don’t have to be that grand. A mother who gives up her time and money for her child also sacrifices something. Can we not say that in death we sacrifice our life for that which we have lived? The person who is an alcoholic, sacrifices his life for alcohol. Obviously, there is a collection of things one dies for. And we might never be able to collect all those things from a person, but we can theoretically claim that what one sacrifices his life for is the culmination of all the things he has lived for. This becomes a personal choice.

            Our death thus confronts us with our responsibility. We are responsible for the things we die for. Have you worked your whole life in a meaningless clerical job? You have sacrificed your life for that way of living. You might have wanted to do something else, but you have chosen that path. This does imply however, that we have a certain freedom in what we die for. This may be debated, but I will take it as given that we do have that freedom. Anyhow, it is easy to see how this might frighten us. We only have one life and thus if we choose wrong, we have the feeling that we have wasted our life, that we haven’t done what we wanted to do. It is here our fear of death might also arise from. What if we died and we haven’t even lived? What if we lived a passive life, where people continuously made choices for us instead of we making choices for ourselves? Maybe the fear of death is the fear of living an unfulfilled life?

Here, it is important that Heidegger claims that every life is incomplete. There is never a moment in your life where you can say that your life is complete. The fact that you are still alive implies that it is incomplete. If it was complete, one would simply stop acting and just die. A person might have the feeling that her life has been good, has been enough and that she can die in peace. But that doesn’t mean it’s complete. There is always some potentiality to actualize and thus life inherently is incomplete.

The question we then might ask is: why even bother trying to ‘complete’ your life when it’ll always be ‘incomplete’? One answer might be that something is better than nothing. When you have a paper due in a couple of weeks, you have the option to turn in nothing or something. It’ll always be better to turn in something even if it isn’t ‘finished’. In a journey you might not reach the end but the fact that you have traveled makes it at least a bit more meaningful. Still, that doesn’t really explain the ‘why’. When the sun explodes and your progress has been destroyed, what does it all mean then? The only answer we can give at this moment is that even though you might say that it doesn’t matter, you don’t believe that it does. You still act in this world. To act implies to better the situation you find yourself in in this moment. So, even though you might say nothing is meaningful, you do find things meaningful. You cannot just take out the person when we are talking about personal experiences. In order to have a subjective feeling like meaningfulness there needs to be a subject present. Does the color red exist when there is no color? Or does something taste bitter when there isn’t an organ able to discern taste? I’ll let you figure that out on your own.

We have now looked into why we might be afraid of death. Now, we can investigate how we escape this fear. Also, we can try and answer if there are good ways to escape that fear and if there are bad ways. Obviously, these are my own convictions, but I will try to ground them as much as possible.

The way we try to escape our fear is to try and neutralize it. One way to do so is by what psychoanalyst Erich Fromm[1] would call orgiastic rituals. These include using drugs, binge-watching shows, etc. These activities aren’t in themselves harmful or escapism. They become that way when there is an abundance of that activity and when the intention is no longer mindfully relaxing, but rather numbing yourself to the existential dread. Intention is here important and might be a good indicator of healthy consuming. Is your intention to stop yourself from thinking out of a fear, or is it because you want to enjoy a drink or two? Self-reflection is important here because we aren’t always honest with ourselves. That is to say that there is nothing wrong with recreationally taking in drugs (obviously there is a gradation). But the danger is that they can become problematic when used with the wrong intention.

Another way of escaping the fear of death is by conforming, according to Fromm. When you are a part of a group, you feel the sense of belonging. By conforming your whole being to the group, you can stave off the fear of death because the group keeps you alive. What I mean with that is that the group is more important than you. You are but a cog in a greater machine. Your life has purpose because it benefits that particular group. This takes away the fear of death because you believe that you will never truly die since the group lives on. In this sense you live on in the group itself. Again, here it isn’t the case that belonging to a particular group is escapism per se. Rather, it is escapism when you lose your own individuality to remain in a group. If you need to believe things you don’t believe but accept them because you want to be accepted in the group, that counts as escapism.

A positive way to lessen the fear of death is by trying to constitute things. In a way our fear of death rises from us not being there. But if you can live on in some form, the fear might lessen. Then it depends on the object being good for it to be a good way to escape the fear of death. So, you can try and become an artist and create amazing paintings for people to enjoy. Or you can go into politics and change the fabric of society for the benefit of people. Or you can become a great husband to your partner. The options are endless, but it does take a lot of willpower to push through. For Heidegger, it was important to constitute yourself as an authentic person so we don’t fall into, what he calls, ‘das Mann’, or the ordinary routine and doings of people. Only by constituting yourself as an active individual could be overcome this fear of death.

Obviously, this investigation was quite on the surface. Also, these are just some of my findings from reading Heidegger and Fromm. Death is a persistent topic in existentialist literature and I do believe it is a subject worth thinking about. It is one of those fundamental things I think everyone has thought about. In this line of thinking, the bad thing isn’t that you die but rather that you have never lived. What constitutes your life is up to any one of us. For Aristotle, our life culminates in our death. So the question remains: what do we want to die for?

[1] Erich Fromm talks about these ways of escaping in connection with freedom. We try to escape the freedom that is imposed upon us. I believe we can make the same arguments for death, because death and freedom are linked in some way. It would be too much to delve deeper into it here. So, I might write a different post concerning that connection.

By elenchusphilosophy

Philosophy student from Ghent, Belgium. I write about what I find interesting which is about nearly anything. Though my guiding question in life is how to be a good person.

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