There’s a topic I’m bringing up today that is typically tucked away into the deep corners of your mind that you wish you could just toss out altogether. Maybe it hadn’t occurred to you; if that’s the case, I apologize for shoving this thought into your existence. It’s the fear of the possibility that upon death, all consciousness ceases; we completely flatline for good.
The first time this paralyzing fear pierced through my heart and settled into my stomach, I was about five years old. I can clearly envision where I was and what I was looking at. I was sitting in the bathtub enjoying the soothing, warm water while my mother was in the bedroom down the hall putting clothes away. I was staring into the shower faucet’s distorted reflection of myself. I remember the debilitating fear just hitting me out of nowhere. I called out for my mom and she came running.
I asked her what happened when we died. She said simply, “I don’t know.” As my mother, she added sweet nothings of God bringing us to Heaven. She calmed my fears and assured me into safety.
Throughout the years, the fear would occasionally come back. They were such rare occurrences and did not stay too long to cause much concern. Then a few days ago, I had one of the worst bouts of this gut-wrenching fear creep back into the forefront of my mind; this time, for a good part of a day with remnants lingering for two more (and counting). I’m currently writing this during the aftermath of this latest instillation of fear.
Let me describe this feeling. It is an utterly helpless, panicked, desperate feeling that makes you feel shaky and the worst kind of uncertainty. The fear churns like a popcorn machine and spreads throughout your body, continuously shifting so it constantly feels new as if you’re experiencing this feeling for the first time over and over again in quick succession. There is no other moment where I’ve felt more scared, small, and insignificant. It is the ultimate feeling of hopelessness.
I sought to get rid of feeling this way, if only temporarily. I searched for websites acknowledging and discussing this topic. I come across an article of someone who described this fear just as I have and the myriad of comments that followed from others who felt the same way. I read through many of the responses and found solace in some of the answers. As the feeling started to subside a little, the disturbing fact that we can never know for sure what happens upon death until it’s happening takes a permanent seat.
I also looked up the definition of ‘die’ and found two very different meanings that pertain to this very subject I’m writing about: 1) stop living and 2) used to emphasize that one wants to do or have something very much. Within the very definition of dying is the struggle I refer to in this article. We all die (stop living) and are also dying (to live and have [eternal] life). This struggle of irrevocably coming into existence and being given conscious thought paired with the binding promise and guarantee of an end that leads to somewhere unknown and therefore potentially nowhere is very powerful and very real. Everything important to you in your life and all your thoughts fall powerless underneath this all-encompassing umbrella that looms above us and everything we “know.” That is incredibly scary.
Recognizing and acknowledging all of this is the only way to get this fear under control. Simply ignoring it only delays its inevitable return. Instead of shunning it away like it’s some sort of taboo, learn to live with it and figure out how to fit it into your life. (In my opinion, this also applies to addiction.) I would compare this to a puzzle: your life comprises of puzzle pieces; one of those pieces represents a fear you have. How did this piece come about and get assigned to one of your fears? You did when you let it into your life. (It’s important to note that I am not blaming anyone for letting anything into their lives; there are no preventative measures to be taken; it is as effortless as energy exchange between items of differing temperatures.) Once it’s in, it’s in, if only leaving the evidence of having changed you. As the puzzle pieces are permanent, it wouldn’t make any sense to throw this puzzle piece in the corner so that it’s out of your physical sight. You’re going to need that piece for your puzzle. Other pieces need it to fit into the puzzle. So it would do you no good to toss your fears or puzzle pieces into a dark corner. Doing so will only delay your own progress and prevent you from functioning at your optimal potential.
Instead, your fears need to be faced head-on. Metaphorically speaking, with how big and monstrous they are, the only way to break free of the grasp it has over you is to get up close to it so that you won’t be able to see its massive size; they’ll be too large to fully take in or see up close. At this position, it’s much easier to not have to let its sheer monstrosity intimidate and have control over you. You’ll be within range to chipping away at it and depleting its matter. Optimal strength you’ll possess and your odds of destroying your fears are at its highest.
Rather than ignoring your fears, you should figure out how to incorporate it into your life as a functioning tool for you to work with. This goes back to the positive suggestion “Make lemonade out of lemons.” There are numerous sarcastic remarks that can be made to dispute this method, but try as you might, you can’t ignore the fact that I’m onto something here. (The nerd in me goes, “Resistance is futile!”)
Now in my aftermath, I come out spinning my fear into motivational momentum. I am not and will never be perfect, but in turning this into a positive propeller, I accomplish more with my day than without this powerful mechanism of thought. (It’s all about perspective!) I periodically research this subject and anything else that would lead me to build my case of determining what is most likely to come after we die. I won’t go into my personal findings right now because what I believe is not important to this article. I do encourage anyone who identifies with this same fear I talked about to do their own thorough research, exploration, and discovery.
Harness your fear and let it motivate you instead. Focus on the positive and try your best to let go of worrying about that which you cannot control. Learn to work with your fear and let it become something that strengthens you.
[Remember, we are all on this journey together. Lean on each other for support. The least we can do is be there for each other.]
Cindi, I enjoyed reading your post. I also have experienced what I call the “primal fear of non-existence.” You described your own experience well. It’s a very personal thing, how this fear feels, and how we deal with it.
I’ve been finding that as I’ve grown older (I’m 65 now) the fear has subsided. I don’t take myself as seriously now, in part because after a bunch of neuroscience book reading, and simply living, I no longer believe that I am, or have, a self.
I’m just part of the universe, a bit of life that the cosmos has cast up with the aid of billions of years of evolution here on Earth. Life will continue after I die. Since both science and some forms of spirituality (Buddhism, for instance) tell me that I don’t have a separate distinct self, there really never has been anything for me to lose at death.
The fear of death is natural, for sure. Living beings wouldn’t survive long enough to reproduce without it. But seemingly only us humans have enough of an abstract and introspective ability to be aware that one day we won’t exist anymore. Whether this is evolution or devolution from the standpoint of happiness, I’m unsure. Often my dog seems happier than I am, lacking the sort of anxiety about the future that I have.
Regardless, I’ve come to feel that the more I can accept the fact that I’m nothing but an integral part of life, a twig of the tree of life that will break off and die one day while the tree lives on, the less I fear the notion of non-existence. This may be similar to how you feel. Or not.
Like I said, we all grapple with life and death in different ways. Thanks for sharing your way.
I appreciate the read. I’m grateful for you leaving a response. As a seeker of truth, I can sense that you might be as well. With all the reading you’ve done, have you come across and read C.S. Lewis’ Miracles? He walks the reader through the process of thought on this very subject matter that has brought us to this meeting point so eloquently and clearly that it is on a step-by-step, building block elementary and fundamental basis. I urge you to give it a read if you haven’t had a chance to read this piece of work yet. If you have, I am eager to hear your thoughts on it.
Here’s an excerpt:
“It is possible to suppose that when all the atoms of the universe got into a certain relation (which they were bound to get into sooner or later) they would give rise to a universal consciousness. And it might have thoughts. And it might cause those thoughts to pass through our minds. But unfortunately its own thoughts, on this supposition, would be the product of non-rational causes and therefore, by the rule which we use daily, they would have no validity. This cosmic mind would be, just as much as our own minds, the product of mindless Nature. We have not escaped from the difficulty, we have only put it a stage further back. The cosmic mind will help us only if we put it at the beginning, if we suppose it to be, not the product of the total system, but the basic, original, self-existent Fact which exists in its own right. But to admit that sort of cosmic mind is to admit a God outside Nature, a transcendent and supernatural God. This route, which looked like offering an escape, really leads us round again to the place we started from.”
“…of all the claims which the human mind puts forward, the claim of Reasoning to be valid is the only one which the Naturalist cannot deny without (philosophically speaking) cutting his own throat. You cannot, as we saw, prove that there are no proofs. But you can if you wish regard all human ideals as illusions and all human loves as biological by-products. That is, you can do so without running into flat self-contradiction and nonsense. Whether you can do so without extreme unplausibility–without accepting a picture of things which no one really believes–is another matter.
…The Naturalist can, if he chooses, brazen it out. He can say, ‘Yes. I quite agree that there is no such thing as wrong and right. I admit that no moral judgement can be ‘true’ or ‘correct’ and, consequently, that no one system can be better or worse than another. All ideas of good and evil are hallucinations–shadows cast on the outer world by the impulses which we have been conditioned to feel.’ Indeed many Naturalists are delighted to say this.
But then they must stick to it; and fortunately (though inconsistently) most real Naturalists do not. …Just as all the books about spiral nebulae, atoms and cave men would really have led you to suppose that the Naturalists claimed to be able to know something, so all the books in which Naturalists tell us what we ought to do would really make you believe that they thought some ideas of good (their own, for example) to be somehow preferable to others. For they write with indignation like men proclaiming what is good in itself and denouncing what is evil in itself, and not at all like men recording that they personally like mild beer but some people prefer bitter. Yet if the ‘oughts’ of Mr Wells and, say, Franco are both equally the impulses which Nature has conditioned each to have and both tell us nothing about any objective right or wrong, whence is all the fervour? Do they remember while they are writing thus that when they tell us we ‘ought to make a better world’ the words ‘ought’ and ‘better’ must, on their own showing, refer to an irrationally conditioned impulses which cannot be true or false any more than a vomit or a yawn?
My idea is that sometimes they do forget. That is their glory. Holding a philosophy which excludes humanity, they yet remain human. At the sight of injustice they throw all their Naturalism to the winds and speak like men and like men of genius. They know far better than they think they know. But at other times, I suspect they are trusting in a supposed way of escape from their difficulty.
It works–or seems to work–like this. They say to themselves, ‘Ah, yes. Morality’–or ‘bourgeois morality’ or ‘conventional morality’ or ‘traditional morality’ or some such addition–‘Morality is an illusion. But we have found out what modes of behaviour will in fact preserve the human race alive. That is the behaviour we are pressing you to adopt. Pray don’t mistake us for moralists. We are under an entirely new management’… just as if this would help. It would help only if we grant, firstly, that life is better than death and, secondly, that we ought to care for the lives of our descendants as much as, or more than, for our own. And both these are moral judgements which we have, like all others, have been explained away by Naturalism. Of course, having been conditioned by Nature in a certain way, we do feel thus about life and about posterity. But the Naturalists have cured us of mistaking these feelings for insights into what we once called ‘real value’.
…There is no escape along those lines. If we are to continue to make moral judgements (and whatever we say we shall in fact continue) then we must believe that the conscience of man is not a product of Nature. It can be valid only if it is an offshoot of some absolute moral wisdom, a moral wisdom which exists absolutely ‘on its own’ and is not a product of non-moral, non-rational Nature. As the argument of the last chapter led us to acknowledge a supernatural source for rational thought, so the argument of this leads us to acknowledge a supernatural source for our ideas of good and evil. In other words, we now know something more about God. If you hold that moral judgement is a different thing from Reasoning you will express this new knowledge by saying, ‘We now know that God has at least one other attribute than rationality.’ If, like me, you hold that moral judgement is a kind of Reasoning, then you will say, ‘We now know more about the Divine Reason.'”
And one more:
“We can admit, and even insist, that Rational Thinking can be shown to be conditioned in its exercise by a natural object (the brain). It is temporarily impaired by alcohol or a blow to the head. It wanes as the brain decays and vanishes when the brain ceases to function. In the same way the moral outlook of a community can be shown to be closely connected with its history, geographical environment, economic structure, and so forth.
The rational and moral element in each human mind is a point of force from the Supernatural working its way into Nature, exploiting at each point those conditions which Nature offers, repulsed where the conditions are hopeless and impeded when they are unfavourable. A man’s Rational thinking is just so much of his share in eternal Reason as the state of his brain allows to become operative: it represents so to speak, the bargain struck or the frontier fixed between Reason and Nature at that particular point. A nation’s moral outlook is just so much of its share in eternal Moral Wisdom as its history, economics etc. lets through. In the same way the voice of the Announcer is just so much of a human voice as the receiving set lets through. Of course it caries with the state of the receiving set, and deteriorates as the set wears out and vanishes altogether if I throw a brick at it. It is conditioned by the apparatus but not originated by it. If it were–if we knew that there was no human being at the microphone–we should not attend to the news. The various and complex conditions under which Reason and Morality appear are the twists and turns of the frontier between Nature and Supernature. That is why, if you wish, you can always ignore Supernature and treat the phenomena purely from the Natural side.”
Hi fellow truth-seeker!
These are just the blurbing words of another dude looking for answers…
Take 1%, 100%, 0%, -59392%, from anything I have to say. Regardless what you take or don’t take, I’m still going to say it, because The Truth is either true… or not.
So aside from what I wrote, in response to Brian’s response, to your wonderful meditation/revelation on death-fears… Here are some other awesome facts spoken by God.
Jesus says, “I Am the way, the truth, and the life.” John 14:6
Isn’t that cool? ((:
The Truth gave himself up to obliterate, to eradicate that sole searing fear/anxiety/concern of all humankind (what happens to me when I die?)
As the gospel or “good news” says, ” if you confess with your mouth that Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised him from the dead, you will be saved.” Romans 10:9
Saved from what?¿ Well… the second death a.k.a. hell… separation from God… separation from Love.
If Love is the single most important thing to every human that has, is, and ever will exist… why would you want to be separated from that?
So I see fear in some contexts as the opposite of Love. Essentially, the opposite of God, since it has been established that God is Love!
Fear can lead you to God… give one a desire to seek his face, seek Truth. It’s that first step toward knowledge, toward understanding that we know nothing apart from science. And Science can only forever intrinsically scratch the surface of a material universe, its lens is too dense, one-sided, blind, and limited by the fact that is operates in, well, a physical universe… its lens has no concern for the invisible, the intrinsic special qualities and value of human beings, the supernatural, the eternal kingdom of God… the place where Truth exists.
(of course all of this is spoken with faith… again invisible, but “faith is the substance of things hoped for, the evidence of things not seen.” Hebrews 11:1
So our strength can be drawn from within confronting a fear, and dealing with it one day at a time. I can see how exposure to a certain anxiety or idea or force, can cause one to grow in understanding of it, familiarized, and accustomed to it. And, as they say, knowledge is power.
My other two cents is… Well…
Is that enough?
Can you live life to the fullest spending energy fighting (or dissecting) fear? What if there is another way, a better way, a way laid out before us… The Way… YHWH…
Where you can confidently live fearlessly.
Because thanks to The Way, The Truth, and The Life, “O death, where is your victory? O death, where is your sting?” 1 Corinthians 15:55
All we have in life are choices… So it is ultimately our prerogative, and our choice as to how we grow as humans. (The end goal being that we become the best version of ourselves possible before we disappear off the face of the planet)
I personally find the task to fight fear daily too daunting on my own. The Way, The Truth, and The Life… gives my weak flesh and dissolving bones strength.
P.S. Go ahead and read All of chapter 15 of 1 Corinthans! I know you’ll really enjoy its tenacious words of truth.
Haha, Brian, I absolutely love your observation there about our best friend a.k.a. Dog. (to this day i find it to be the most fascinating scrambled word in English, the fact that dog is God backwards) Anyway, Is it just me or does man like to search for tragedy? Or at least, we create anxieties and worry about the future all the time about meaningless or transient concerns when Jesus Christ of Nazareth says blatantly “…do not be anxious about tomorrow, for tomorrow will be anxious for itself. Sufficient for the day is its own trouble.” Matthew 6:34
Here is a a glimpse at the Carpe Diem Jesus taught… we seize the day, the moment… intrinsic importance is placed on the ‘present’ God has gifted us with, to serve each other… our fellow human beings… Leo Tolstoy (as raw of a human as they come) said, “Joy can only be real if people look upon their life as a service and have a definite object in life outside themselves and their personal happiness.” What I get from that is to live like your dog. In service to the Master… in childlike or “doglike” obedience to His call. I believe selfless lives are key to dealing with a morbid fear of inevitable death… when our dust-bodies breathe in their last breath, where does one’s hope rest in?¿ I also don’t believe happiness should be one’s only striving goal in life. Happiness is like sand… just tiny little rocks that can blow in the wind (including the [metaphorical] winds of change) whichever direction it pleases… it’s not permanent, but the most meaningful (everlasting) blossoms of happiness comes from the compromises we make, (sometimes making us unhappy, or dare I say, suffer) for the happiness of someone else. Those happinesses echo eternally. (:
hmmmm…. so to conquer fear, face it, as Cindi said, “ [to] be within range…chipping away at it and depleting its matter.”
I propose another solution.
Fear is important, after all, “fear of the LORD is the beginning of knowledge” Proverbs 1:7 But that knowledge of our transience, the knowledge of our introspective potential to acknowledge our own transience and inevitable death can lead us to despair, or desire. Despair in the unknown of life after death, or desire to not die the second death, to know more and grow in closer bond with God, in order to know and have faith in the “eternal life” God Promises.
What… eternal life is God’s promise for us after death?
(spoiler alert, inserting the pinnacle response from the most famous scripture…)
“For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life.” John 3:16
What are we afraid of in death? The unknown, the ceasing of consciousness, becoming “nothingness”, the VOID???? We can attempt this daunting task to (confront our fears and chip away at them) of our own strength and get nowhere fast… or we can place our faith in, and let someOne far bigger than any of us become our strength, someOne beyond the bounds of 4 walls, 5th dimensions, all human comprehension, operating outside of space and time, yet at the same time operating within it all… SomeOne whose thoughts are higher than our thoughts and ways are higher than our ways… for certainly of writing many books [about our theories], there is no end (as the existential King Solomon has put it).
But there has been truths passed on throughout generations… revelations about God, His character, His name, one of which is Love. God is Love. And “Perfect Love casts out all fear” Here is one of my favorite excerpts… “…let us love one another, for love is from God, and whoever loves has been born of God and knows God. Anyone who does not love does not know God, because God is love. In this the love of God was made manifest among us, that God sent his only Son into the world, so that we might live through him. In this is love, not that we have loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. No one has ever seen God; if we love one another, God abides in us and his love is perfected in us.
By this we know that we abide in him and he in us, because he has given us of his Spirit. And we have seen and testify that the Father has sent his Son to be the Savior of the world. Whoever confesses that Jesus is the Son of God, God abides in him, and he in God. So we have come to know and to believe the love that God has for us. God is love, and whoever abides in love abides in God, and God abides in him. By this is love perfected with us, so that we may have confidence for the day of judgment, because as he is so also are we in this world. There is no fear in love, but perfect love casts out fear. For fear has to do with punishment, and whoever fears has not been perfected in love. We love because he first loved us. If anyone says, “I love God,” and hates his brother, he is a liar; for he who does not love his brother whom he has seen cannota love God whom he has not seen. And this commandment we have from him: whoever loves God must also love his brother. 1 John 4:7-21
That’s just my 2 cents. We can live fearless lives… it’s possible to overcome death anxieties, panic attacks induced by death-thoughts, thanatophobia.
Impossible on our own. But not impossible with the perfect Love of God.
Well… at the end of the day, you either believe it or you don’t. One can find solace in that the deepest conundrums of man can be quite simple actually. “There is no greatness where there is no simplicity, goodness, and truth.” – Leo Tolstoy