Sunday, September 15, 2013

Fear and the Big Sleep

The fear of dying, which seems to be hard-wired into our human psyches, is as mystifying as it is universal. It is the ultimate terror.

Do we fear the end of our consciousness, the end of our singular identity, the loss of the world and our loved ones; or it is the how and the when of dying that we really fear?  This latter issue is a big part of my own fear, which underlies all other anxieties and worries.

In thinking about the self, what part of me will remain when the rest has turned to dust?  Is my true self the same as my soul?  Such questions are rarely productive except in stimulating an increased sense of mystery.

Stephen Cave, author of Immortality, says in an interview that there are ways to manage the great fear of our own death:  Think less about yourself and more about other people, he says; in other words, love thy neighbor. How else can our death come to seem less significant to us, less an indignity to be dreaded and more of a welcome release into a new dimension or at least a peaceful sleep without end?

I suppose realizing that sleep, a very long sleep, might not be unpleasant; it might even be something devoutly to be wished (the language of Hamlet, Shakespeare's great meditation on death, keeps coming back to me).  One line in that play has meant a lot to me, even though the melancholy prince of Denmark is not consoled when he hears that "all that lives must die, passing through nature to eternity."

My wife loves to walk in cemeteries, including our own "future address," as she calls the place we will be buried. She is quite happy communing with the dead; I do so at home, through reading and prayer, thinking about writers and saints who are still as alive as my loved ones.

So, if we are persons with a developed spirituality, a philosophy of life that includes death as a necessary component, we can look to an unknown new dimension that awaits us as we "pass on."  By the end of the play, Hamlet is less tormented as he comes to accept the reality of Providence and of mortality, not just as the end of the "slings and arrows" of life's misery but as a necessary part of creation, a window into a new world beyond this one.

No one knows what this other world will be like: it is the "undiscovered country from whose bourn [region] no traveler returns," Hamlet says, even though he has just had a visitor from beyond the grave: the ghost of his father.

So, like Hamlet, we remain ambivalent about what might lie ahead. It seems essential for sound health not to obsess about the afterlife (or lack thereof) but to live fully in the present, to break down the walls of the self, as Bertrand Russell said, and to think less of ourselves and more of others.

At the same time, it might be good to follow the Buddhist practice of reminding ourselves every day that death awaits in order to minimize the fear of our mortality.  This can be done without putting a skull on our desk or hanging up a skeleton in the house--unless it is Halloween and we are allowed, for once, to laugh at the ultimate dread and exorcize some of its power over us.

As a Christian, I value the words of St. John of the Cross: "I do not know what lies ahead for me on the other side; I only know that a great love awaits me."

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