Why I Am Afraid To Die

Ben Jonson's Lucretius
Ben Jonson’s Lucretius (Photo credit: Catablogger)

My interest in the topic of this blog arose several years ago from a conversation with a scholar visiting from China. She had studied Christianity in China and was interested in meeting Christians in the United States and learning more about their beliefs and culture. She admitted to me that she felt some disappointment to learn that a promise of a blissful eternity did not seem to decrease the fear of death for most American Christians. If life is filled with pain and challenges, why would Christians not welcome a release to a joy of eternity?

Lucretius would not be surprised by their fear. He noted that those who boast of fearlessness in the face of death will react to death in pretty much the same way everyone else does. He says:

“These same men, exiled from their country and banished far from the sight of their countrymen, stained with some foul crime, beset with disease heralding approaching death, keep going all the same. To whatever situation they come in their misery, in spite all their talk, they sacrifice to the dead, slaughter black cattle, and lay out offerings to the gods of the dead.”

Of course, we also know some turn to suicide, which may or may not reflect a loss of fear of death. It may only mean a fear of the misery of life has overtaken a fear of death, but I will return to that idea later.

On the other side, I can remember discussions with Christians describing the attitude of suicide bombers in armed conflict. I have heard at least a few people who equate a willingness to die for a cause with a lack of respect for the value of life rather than a lack of fear in the face of death. If we value our lives, must we fear death? Is there a greater moral advantage to reducing the fear of death or to emphasizing death as a loss of something of great value, life?

Epicurus
Epicurus (Photo credit: Ian W Scott)

Epicurus, who inspired Lucretius, felt our lives would be enhanced if we could extinguish, or greatly reduce, our fear of death. Epicurus said, “Death, the most dreaded of evils, is nothing to us, because when we exist, death is not present, and when death is present, we do not exist.”  Death is a harm because it robs us of the good of life, but it is a harm that is impossible to experience. Some will say that they don’t fear being dead but fear the process of dying, but Thomas Nagel points out succinctly and convincingly that we “should not really object to dying if it were not followed by death.” Both Nagel and Epicurus argue that death is bad because it deprives us of life, but no amount of life is sufficient to eliminate the harm. No matter how long we extend life expectancy, we will view death as a harm to us.

S. Collings Boswell & Johnson 448
S. Collings Boswell & Johnson 448 (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Of course, some of us face death with more equanimity than others. Scottish author James Boswell visited Scottish philosopher David Hume on his deathbed and was impressed by Hume’s serenity. Boswell mentioned Hume’s calm to Samuel Johnson, but Johnson refused to believe Hume was not covering his fear. In response, Boswell tells us, “The horror of death which I had always observed in Dr. Johnson, appeared strong tonight. I ventured to tell him, that I had been, for moments in my life, not afraid of death; therefore I could suppose another man in that state of mind for a considerable space of time.” Johnson responded, “The better a man is, the more afraid of death he is, having a clearer view of infinite purity.” Our fear of death may, indeed, aid our moral development.

Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heid...
Brush drawing of German philospher Martin Heidegger, made by Herbert Wetterauer, after a photo by Fritz Eschen (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

While he doesn’t have much in common with Samuel Johnson, German philosopher Martin Heidegger also sees some advantages to our uneasiness with death. When we contemplate our own annihilation, he says, we are filled with dread, which forces us to confront what is authentic. When we are projected into Nothing, we are transcendent. If we were not “projected from the start into Nothing,” we could not relate to “what-is” or have any self-relationship. Only through confronting annihilation do we have any hope for authentic existence.

It may be that our dread gives both our life and our actions meaning. Suicide, which is often seen as a failure to negotiate life, is not necessarily so. Indeed, Simone de Beauvoir sees suicide a possible way to will ourselves free, even in the most horrific situations. She says, “Freedom can always save itself, for it is realized as a disclosure of existence through its very failures, and it can again confirm itself by a death freely chosen.”  If we do not fear our own death, however, this act of defiance and control has little meaning. Willing ourselves free through suicide is only meaningful if it is a triumph over something, and this is not to be taken lightly.

Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April,...
Simone de Beauvoir (9 January 1908 – 14 April, 1986) was a French author and philosopher. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Fear of death propels us forward through life, even in the face of injury, disease, and extreme hardship, and as it propels us forward it also gives meaning to our struggle. By working to overcome our fear, we establish ourselves as free beings capable of making meaning of our own suffering. And if we will ourselves free and full of meaning, we will strive for others’ freedom as well. Indeed, Beauvoir says we extend our own freedom through the freedom of others.

As a final note, let me say that part of willing freedom for others is an effort to remove obstacles that make suicide seem like a triumph. It is for this reason we should work to promote human capabilities and, specifically, to relieve the pain and suffering of depression.

The Proper Way to Grieve for a Child: Cicero’s Example

Epictetus stated he would embrace death before...
Epictetus stated he would embrace death before shaving. (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

In advising us on how to respond when we encounter someone who has lost a child or suffered an equally calamitous loss, the stoic philosopher, Epictetus said, “Don’t reduce yourself to his level, and certainly do not moan with him. Do not moan inwardly either.”  These negative emotions are dangerous to us and to others, so we must be sure to keep them in check.

This sounds harsh, but Epictetus also advises us not to beat ourselves up when we do give over to grief. He says, “Some who is perfectly instructed will place blame neither on others nor on himself.” Epictetus assures us that death is not to be feared, and our terror of it comes from within, but blaming ourselves for our feelings is also pointless.

Scottish philosopher David Hume, reflecting on the nature of tragedy in art, makes a comment about the best way to comfort a parent who has lost a child. Hume says, “Who could ever think of it as a good expedient for comforting an afflicted parent, to exaggerate, with all the force of elocution, the irreparable loss which was met with by the death of a favorite child?” I’m sure Hume is right that we shouldn’t exaggerate the loss, but I would also advise against minimizing the loss in any way, which is what Cicero’s friend, Servius Sulpicius Rufus,  did after the death of Cicero’s daughter, Tullia.

David Hume
David Hume (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Sulpicius said, “If you have become the poorer by the frail spirit of one poor girl, are you agitated thus violently? If she had not died now, she would yet have had to die a few years hence, for she was mortal born.” Sulpicius sounds harsh in this instance, but this is actually offered only after he introduced the topic, saying, “If I had been at home, I should not have failed to be at your side, and should have made my sorrow plain to you face to face. That kind of consolation involves much distress and pain, because the relations and friends, whose part it is to offer it, are themselves overcome by an equal sorrow.” If he had been available, he would have comforted Cicero and perhaps avoided the need for such harsh and critical words later, apparently.

Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London ...
Cicero, Kopiezeichnung einer Büste aus London (Herzog Wellington) (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

Cicero expressed his gratitude for the comforting words laced with recrimination, but also acknowledged their ineffectiveness, saying, “For I think it a disgrace that I should not bear my loss as you – a man of such wisdom – think it should be borne. But at times I am taken by surprise and scarcely offer any resistance to my grief, because those consolations fail me.”

Cicero had also been writing consolations for himself, and he felt himself the inventor of this type of self-help. He said, “Why, I have done what no one has done before, tried to console myself by writing a book.” (This is quoted by Han Baltussen in the Nov. 2009 issue of Mortality in an essay titled, “A grief observed: Cicero on remembering Tullia.”) Unfortunately, Cicero’s Consolations have not survived the passage of time, so we can only infer what they may have said. In a letter to Titus Pomponius Atticus, Cicero remarked that he wrote in order to heal, but his writing also kept him out of public view, preserving the privacy of his grief and avoiding a vulgar display of emotion.

Cicero also took his turn in consoling others, Baltussen notes, “In the examples where Cicero aims at consoling others, we find a subtle approach, developing, as it were, a ‘philosophy of empathy,’ in which he consciously or unconsciously takes personal and political aspects into account. He shows great sensibility in narrowing or widening the emotional gap between him and the consolee.” Cicero noted that one task as consoler was to establish that he needed consolation himself, as he was grieving for his friend’s loss. I think this goes a little beyond mere empathy. Cicero actually feels his own sorrow upon hearing of the sorrow of a dear friend. He understands the friend’s pain because it is a magnified form of his own pain.

I personally feel that Cicero’s struggle with his grief highlights a social failure to deal with grief constructively. Can we not manage to express and process grief openly without fear of censure from friends and counselors? Since the time of Cicero, we have developed grief therapy, expressions of support for the bereaved, and paid lip service to the process of healing. Yet, we still criticize those who can’t “get it together” within a short time. Sadness is seen as weakness, especially for men, and we do not tolerate prolonged grieving. Cicero was lucky to have friends and the ability to spend time grieving and writing his consolations. Men with less power would have had no option but to keep working without respite.

Grief
Grief (Photo credit: tombellart)

As for me, I don’t know the best way to console others, but I’ve thought a little about what kinds of consolations have helped me in the past, and these are the things that I appreciate. First, recognize that my pain is of such a magnitude that it obscures the horizon, and I can’t see beyond it. Second, do acknowledge the enormous value of the life I have lost. Third, do remind me that the person I lost had life filled with wonder, love, accomplishments, and happiness. Fourth, remind me also that this person is in a state of peace with no more struggle, pain, or discontentment. Finally, and perhaps most importantly, assure me that I am not alone in the world, my grief is justified, and that a future is possible.

The Ethics of Caring and Seasonal Depression

I don’t know if it is the changes in the weather, the length of the days, or what, but we

The suicide
The suicide (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

sometimes find the world slipping away from us. As we reach, objects, people, and activities seem to continuously recede into the distance just beyond our grasp. We forget how to be engaged with even the most basic tasks. Seasonal changes can leave us feeling depressed and melancholy. As the poet Phillip Larken put it:

The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.

For reasons that aren’t completely understood, spring seems to bring a surge of depression and suicides, but winter gets all the attention for warnings about seasonal depression. Some researchers have noticed that suicide spikes coincide with increased pollen production.  Apparently, allergies release cytokines, which affect appetite, activity, sex drive, and social engagement. There may be a philosophical question in there as to the difference between having “depression” and having a response to allergies that looks a heck of a lot like depression. Sufferers of either will probably not worry the distinction too much.

Some theorists suggest that suicide peaks in spring because of a “broken promise effect.” When spring doesn’t bring the joy and energy it generally promises, the depressed are moved to suicide. Others have suggested that springtime brings more energy and agitation (and a corresponding drop in melatonin), especially to people with bipolar disorder, that moves them to act against their own lives.  Still others speculate that springtime increases in serotonin give people the energy to kill themselves.

I don’t want us to turn away from people who are depressed during the holidays. Rather, I just hope we can remember that some of us occasionally feel depressed and hopeless throughout the year. The extra effort we make through the holidays may be worth making year round.

Still, I know it is true that many of us mourn with greater intensity during the holidays as we count all those who are no longer with us and grieve for our losses, so maybe we should be a little extra careful during December. A little care can go a long way to avoiding a holiday crisis. But we should remember to keep caring and reaching out during the new year, into spring, and for the rest of the year. When we help each other, we are all stronger.