Thursday, September 22, 2011

Fear of Death

Cheery topic, huh?

The thing is, I don't really feel it.  Fear of death, that is.  I have not for a long, long time.  I think I started questioning things like God and religion and the afterlife and so forth right around the time my parents divorced and I was uprooted from my life.  I was 13.

I draw no line of causality here, I just note that this was the time when I went from being fairly religious (christian) to firmly agnostic; I do not know if there is a God or not, nor do I believe it is ultimately knowable.  I certainly do not believe in organized religion as the arbiter of any truth on the subject.  I feel as Christopher Hitchens does; I don't know if there is a God or not, and I don't think the Pope does either.

As part of this shift I confronted the notion of death, and what I felt about it.  Even though I was quite young, the line of reasoning I will offer here was one I quickly developed, and it has remained largely unchanged ever since.

When we die, there are two possibilities, only two.  Either we cease to exist entirely, or we do not.  I cannot think of a middle ground.

If we cease to exist, I see nothing to fear in that.  How can I fear a thing that I will never experience?  It is like worrying about theoretical volcanoes on another planet.  I will never see, feel, or in any other way experience "not existing", so to me this is a purely abstract thing.  In fact, prior to October 27th, 1959 (or up to nine months before that, depending on your point of view) I did not exist as far as I know, and I did not suffer at the time.  "Scott Bain does not exist" is actually the normal state of affairs; it has been true for most of history.  My life span is the incredibly brief exception.

If we do not cease to exist, then we must continue in some other way.  In other words, death is simply change.  Change can be scary, I suppose, but it's nothing new to me.  That 13-year-old Scott Bain changed into something else, then something else, and so on until he became me.  My infant son is long gone, having changed many times over the years.  Change happens all the time, to everyone, and sometimes we don't like it but it evokes no terrifying, primal fear.  Life is change, after all.

Some people say they do not fear death, but dieing:  that it will be unpleasant, painfull, and horrifying.  First of all, this is not certain; some people die in their sleep, or are killed in a sudden way with no opportunity to suffer or even know about it.  But even if a prolonged death is to be my fate, here again it is nothing particularly new.  I have had terrible illnesses and painful injuries before, times when I was so sick I thought it might be better to die.  Most people have.  I know this could happen again, and I certainly do not look forward to having the flu I had in 2010 ever again... but once more, this is not a deep-seated, Nietzschian fear.  It's just something I don't look forward to.

The fear of death is to me, therefore, an irrational fear; which does not mean it is not real.  Irrational feelings are real feelings, and should not be discounted as somehow less important.  But because it is irrational you cannot reason someone else out of it, and I have no intention of trying.  It is a phobia, like fear of heights, and you either have it or you don't.  I don't.

My mother died when I was 29, just as we discovered that I was about to become a father.  My son never got to know his paternal grandmother, nor she him.  Her death, to me, was a terrible loss.  That is what I fear; not my own death, but my own life continuing after losing friends and family, and even beloved pets that are so important to me.  The prospect of life in loss is frightening to me, and for good reason; I've felt that before, too, and it was far worse than any illness, injury, pain, or painful change in myself.

My mother is either gone entirely, which I am sure does not trouble her, or she is somewhere else in some other form.  Either notion is acceptable, as far as my own fate is concerned, to me.  When people talk about wanting to live to be 100 years old or more, I greet that concept with the idea that this would likely afford me the opportunity to watch most of my friends suffer and die, and then having to deal with the loss as I went on.  That someone would want this simply baffles me.

I also wonder why so few people point out the obvious about extending human life.  If we could change ourselves so that we lived 150 or 200 years, the over-population of this planet, already a huge problem, would become massively worse.  I feel that I am taking my turn on this world, and that when my turn is over I have to bow out and make a space for someone else.  Otherwise we will simply extend our time living in a human nightmare, making our earth into the hell that the religious groups fear may be their fate if they do not follow the rules set down by their priests.  I would prefer almost anything to that.

-Scott Bain-
September 2011