October 25, 2010

Meditations on Death: Fear

fear of deathWe do not do a good job of talking about death and dying in Western culture, especially here in the U.S. Perhaps this is part of why we have so many hang-ups on the subject. This series is designed to stimulate thought and discussion on the difficult subject of death.

If atheists view death as an ending of the self, the termination of everything we call "I," does this mean it is something to be feared? For some of us, the idea of returning to nothingness does indeed provoke fear. Others find the idea of nothingness too abstract to elicit strong emotion. And still others, including me, lost our fear of nothingness somewhere along the path of life, even as we developed new and far more terrifying fears.

I was recently asked on Formspring about my views of death and the degree to which I feared my own death. In composing my brief response, I was struck by just how much my views have changed over the course of my life. As a child and well into my teen years, the prospect of death terrified me. And yet, I found myself somewhat less afraid once I threw off the shackles of religious belief and begin to explore the writings of my fellow atheists. Don't get me wrong - I was still afraid, just not quite as much as I had been previously.

But shouldn't atheism be associated with greater fear because it involves the recognition that there is no afterlife? I have heard that argument, and it does make sense to me on an intellectual level but not an emotional one. That is, I see why others might feel that way, but that has not been my experience. Honestly, I attribute the small pre- to post-atheism decline in fear of death more to maturity than to anything specific to atheism. But it is true that abandoning thoughts of hell reduced my fear to some degree.

The more time has passed since my teen years, the less I find myself fearing my own death. I have little trouble viewing death as a deep sleep from which one never awakes and in which there are no dreams. I see it more as an inevitable conclusion than as something to be feared. In fact, I have days when it almost seems welcome.

There is, however, at least one aspect of death that I do still fear: the process of dying as it often unfolds in modern America. Like most strong fears, this one is irrational. And like most strong fears, knowing that it is irrational makes little difference. So what exactly is it that I fear? I fear being confined to hospitals and nursing homes. I fear the indignity of being poked and prodded by medical staff. I fear the sort of cognitive decline that occurs in many older adults. And maybe most of all, I fear becoming dependent on others. Collectively, this all scares the hell out of me. In fact, it scares me so much that I'd prefer to avoid it all, even if it means eventual suicide.

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