Fear of death is so prevalent in our psyches that it can be argued that it governs much of the way we think and react to our environment. It is the underlying cause of dependence on security and one-another, and drives us to cling to conditioned identities in order to give us some permanence. It is behind the idea of 'legacy', that we wish to leave a part of ourselves behind after we die, which causes us to fixate on an 'idea' rather than feeling who we are in each and every moment. In fact it is my perspective that it is possible to link ALL of our fears in some way to the fear of death. So, why is it so prevalent, what happens to us when we are conditioned this way and how can we overcome it? Here is the first in a two part series on overcoming the fear of death.
Fear of Death in Society
I have worked with a number of medical and caring professionals from doctors, nurses and paramedics to therapists, carers and social workers. And over time I have noticed that when at work, most of these professionals (especially medical ones) have a between a moderately strong to extreme fear of death, which dramatically affects the way they work. Each and every time I heard someone bring up the subject of death to a paramedic, the response, without exception was "I don't want to hear that" - This is literally what people said! In fact this has been a major influencing factor for me to go into the work that I now do - the look of relief on peoples faces when they said to me "I think I might die soon" and the response was "Okay. Talk to me about it" was quite literally life changing for me.
This is not by any means an attack on medical professionals. It is very understandable that when one comes to a job that has a primary function of preventing death, that one may see death as a 'failure', and that when confronted regularly with people dying in front of you that emotional reactions will continue to influence the way that medical practice is approached.
So, where does this conditioning come from?
From an early age, we strive to discover our unique place in the world. Through positive feedback ("That was very kind of you, well done" or "Aren't you good at drawing!") and negative feedback ("That wasn't nice!" or "why can't you be more....?") we begin to build up a web of conditioning and a picture of who we think we are. Then we go out into the world and are taught that one has to be secure to be happy. To do this, we have to provide for ourselves and our dependents, and the most secure way to to this is to get a job and a house. We see homeless people on the streets - people who have not been able to meet societies expectations - and we become afraid that that could happen to us.
Thus, we seek some form of legacy. As Ernest Becker postulates in his book, 'The Denial of Death' the function of society is to help us believe that we can transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
And, we don't just seek security in the physical world, but also in who we are. We like to say 'this is me'. We attach ourselves to identities, and when these identities slip away we are confronted directly with the fear of death. This is why all fear can be linked to a fear of death, because all fear is, is a reaction to a challenge to this web of identity, that we see that we may lose some part of ourselves. Fear of pain - because we identify with the body, fear of failure because it challenges our self-esteem (the desire to be 'good' at something), fear of loosing status, a job, a partner or a treasured possession - all because of an underlying fear of death. It is a fear of the unknown. It is a fear that we are not permanent. It is a fear of obliteration.
Belief in life after death can help, but the fear of death as a concept extends beyond this and affects everyone, no matter what spiritual beliefs you may have. Death is not just a state we enter at the end of our life - it manifests itself every day as something that challenges our patterns and conditioning. It is in the person who disagrees with you, it's in the mistakes that you make, it's in your lack of self confidence. It is a direct manifestation of every time you have an expectation that doesn't get met; of every time you cling to something that is comfortable and known when given the option to go forth into the unknown.
Why are we Wired this Way?
Essentially, we are caught between two opposing 'pulls' to our being. On one hand there is the desire for unity; the pull to be 'at one' with the universe, which can be called 'love'. On the other hand, there is the overwhelming need for individuality and uniqueness. It is the apparent opposition of these two forces which causes our denial of death, and thus denial of life. And, it is in this conundrum that we have the answer to the question, 'how can we overcome the fear of death?'
In the second part of the series, we'll look more closely at identity and how it plays a major role in our ability to embrace death, as well as a further explanation of the question, 'what is the self?'
My name is Richard. I love to write, and here you can find my general musings, observations and articles. Enjoy!
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