Nothing To Fear But Death Itself?
Even if we are all born into a losing struggle, as Christopher Hitchens used to say about death, we can still win along the way.
Nothing makes me feel my age – and its associated aches, pains, and groaning bones – like spending time with my nieces and nephews. Whenever I visit my best friends and their twin six-year-olds, I become a human jungle-gym as the kids climb, pull, and swing from my arms, legs, and increasingly pained back. I don’t mind, and I don’t tell them to stop (usually), because I have fond memories of being their age and wrestling with my dad or being picked up on one of his seemingly indefatigable arms. With the twins, I gain newfound sympathy for how exhausted my father must have been. After ten minutes of such play, I need to sleep for the whole afternoon. As I said, nothing makes you feel old like spending time with young children.
Another wonderful way of experiencing your own decline is celebrating the birthdays of children you've watched growing up. The passage of a familiar child into their teen years is particularly sobering. With each year marked by a niece or nephew’s birthday, I become painfully aware of the onward march of ageing, the decline of vitality, and the inevitability of the grave. I don’t usually write these things in their birthday cards.
Vladimir Nabokov opens his autobiography, Speak, Memory, with the observation that “the cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness”. Joseph Campbell similarly wrote, “Full circle from the tomb of the womb to the womb of the tomb we come...” Christopher Hitchens put it most concisely by saying that we are all born into a losing struggle. The moment we are born, we begin dying. This is one of those observations that is simultaneously bracing and completely obvious, and perhaps it takes the breath away because of its banality – how, we wonder, can such a plain fact remain so hidden in most of our waking moments? More to the point, how can such a painfully inescapable truth not stop us in terror in every waking moment?
The universality of our repugnance towards death – which seeps through our psychology and runs as deep as biology – might make it seem absurd to ask why we so fear our mortality. And yet a calm analysis of our situation makes it clear that anxiety about death might not be all that reasonable. A fear of dying is understandable, fear that the act will be prolonged and painful and undignified, but death itself? Surely we should scoff along with the poet John Donne when he writes that once the dying is over, “death shall be no more”.
Beliefs about death, about the ontology of no longer being alive, fall into two very broad camps. There are those who take Donne’s view (though not necessarily in the particulars) that “one short sleepe past, wee wake eternally”, and those who take Mark Twain’s view that we no more suffer oblivion after our existence than we suffered it before we were born.
Of those who believe in an afterlife, their imagined utopias are, without exception as far as I can tell, idyllic planes of existence free from suffering. Many of these heavens are contrasted against an opposing hell, and though a person might believe others are headed for the bad place, the religious believer is almost always convinced that they themselves are destined for the good place. In which case – what is there to fear in death? It might well be that such believers truly don’t fear death; I’m not one of their happy number so I can’t be sure, but I strongly suspect (based on the cold reasoning of psychological studies and the sympathetic experience of witnessing their grief at the loss of a loved one) that many if not most believers do fear dying in spite of their eschatology.
I put down my pen at the end of that last sentence because it occurred to me – and how could I forget? – that while I am not among the devout now, I used to be. I was raised to believe in Heaven and Hell, as capitalised nouns. For the first fifteen years of my life I was convinced of the sorting system for good and bad souls as taught by mainstream evangelicalism. I can’t recall what it was like to believe in Heaven; I can remember the picture of Heaven I had in my head, largely informed by the illustrated Bible I read from a young age. But I don’t recall whether these images brought me any solace, or how I imagined spending my days (presumably one unending day) in eternity with God. Maybe Heaven was too abstract, eternity just too large or too long to get my head around.
What I do remember, viscerally, is the terror that would keep me awake at night when I, as young as seven, imagined my mother – who had walked out on both the family and the church – burning in Hell. I would lie awake, sobbing, horrified also at the thought of my non-Christian grandparents burning for eternity. This was preached at church and affirmed at home. Few can suffer the fear of Hell like a child, for whom the imagination is most vivid, whose belief is least clouded by doubt, and who is as yet ignorant of the adult practice of repression – the dual account-keeping in which knowledge of death can exist alongside living life as if it will never end.
This fear of Hell was so potent that even when, in my late teens, my Christian convictions wavered, I kept my doubts to myself in case they convinced my siblings out of their own belief and subsequently sent them to Hell. I lived for several years with a sort of Pascal’s Wager: I continued to behave as if I believed in God just in case he did, because if my private doubts were correct, no harm done, but if I was wrong in my revealed unbelief, I might be responsible for leading others into Hell.
Perhaps Hell, or at least the absence of Heaven, goes some way towards explaining the believer’s lingering anxiety about death. For the more dogmatic, it’s a fear of losing loved ones to Hell; for those who tick “spiritual” on forms and have less organised ideas about the afterlife, it is anxiety that they might be wrong, that maybe something awful is waiting after death, or even nothing at all. Which brings us to the second category of person, those who believe or assume that death is simply annihilation.
We of this second group are just as diverse as the first, with little else in common beyond an assumption that “after” life will be much the same as “before” life: an utterly value-neutral state of non-being that will be neither pleasurable nor a torment. There must be some who are placated by this thanatism, the belief that the self or soul or “I” is destroyed at the moment of death, and who get on with the business of living while fearing death no more than they fear being asleep at the end of the day. Sadly, I am not one of those people, and I honestly don’t think I’ve ever met such a person. So, what is it that I fear about death?
I won’t play coy for the sake of extending this essay: I’m pretty sure I know the origin and the nature of my own thanatophobia. Horace Mann once wrote that until you have done something for humanity, you should be ashamed to die. Before I’d ever read those words, that idea was the operating system on which the software of my values ran. I worked all day at my writing and dreamed of becoming “somebody”, one of those figures of import to history, all because of this desire to achieve something great with my life. And like the fish of the old joke – one fish says, “Water’s nice today,” and the other says, “What’s water?” – I didn’t recognise this meta-value as a value at all. I assumed everyone feared dying without having done something great, building something that lasts. As it turns out, many people – I know a lot of them – don’t measure the quality of their life by the quantity of positive difference they make to the world.
Why, then, do those who concern themselves with legacy take this as their standard? Well, vanity can’t be discounted. Nor should it be maligned. Many great people who have achieved great things and brought benefit to the world were driven in some measure by vanity and pride. Rather than simply a sin, pride is like a substance that can be either medicine or poison – it depends on the dose. But pride or vanity can never be sufficient as a motivator, because if we only strive for greatness to satisfy the ego, we’d have no defence against giving up when that striving turns to suffering, when the light at the end of the tunnel goes dark and it seems like the tunnel is all we’ll ever have.
The question of why anyone does (never mind why anyone ought to) care about legacy will undoubtedly have many answers. Those various answers will come from multiple sources, from psychoanalysis to evolutionary biology to religion and much more. This is why answering such a question is beyond the scope of any single essay, and has constituted much of what I have explored in Art Of Conversation. However, if we accept at face value concerns about wanting to improve the world and leave a worthwhile legacy, we can begin to find an answer to the question of why death vexes us as much as it does. It presents a deadline (no pun intended).
Marcus Aurelius, perhaps the best known of the stoic philosophers, advised in his Meditations that we periodically stop whatever we are doing and ask ourselves if death is so intolerable because it deprives us of this present activity. Some, if not most, of our anxiety about death is actually an anxiety that we won’t have achieved what we need and/or want to achieve before our time is up. This doesn’t look all that dissimilar to the concern of many religious believers, for whom Heaven is dependent on their behaviour in the here and now.
So, for many nonbelievers and believers alike, fear of death comes down to questions of how to live well. What is the Good Life, and how do we achieve it? What should count as success, and how do we measure it? Does a life lived well mean a happy life, and does it mean a happy life for myself, or for others, or is there no necessary divide between the two? Is happiness even the criterion by which we should judge the quality of existence?
As mentioned above, answers to such questions can and have been and will continue to be found in a multiplicity of fields. Others are doing stellar work drawing on psychology, philosophy, politics, religion and faith, art, and sociology to explore questions of the Good Life. Art Of Conversation has been dedicated to the pursuit of relevant insights from books and cinema specifically, as well as culture more broadly. All of these endeavours are essentially humanist projects, because they are all life-affirming. They don’t deny the reality of death, but they reject the nihilism that can come out of an unhealthy fixation on it. Maybe, together, we can worry a little less about death by concerning ourselves more with living life well.
• "Fire Of Love": On living and dying well, Matthew Morgan in Art Of Conversation (2023)
• Mortality, Christopher Hitchens (2012)
• Waiting for the Last Bus, Richard Holloway (2018)