Trembling on the Edge of Eternitysam
by Alistair Conwell
Death is psychologically as important as birth. Shrinking away from it is something unhealthy and abnormal which robs the second half of life of its purpose.
– Carl G. Jung (1875–1961)
Some years ago in the west country of England, a man was found wandering the streets in a highly disturbed state. Determining that the man required medical attention, he was sent by a benevolent organisation, called the Bed Bureau, to the local general hospital. The man was of no fixed address and doctors were unable to contact any friends or relatives. He was so afraid that no information about him, or what had happened to make him so unsettled, could be obtained. Totally unwilling to answer any questions, he instead kept shouting that he was going to die and was begging for help.
The then admitting physician of the hospital, Dr J C Barker, explains what transpired: He defied all our attempts to sedate or resuscitate him and continued to cry out that he was going to die. Then to our horror and amazement he suddenly stopped crying, fell back into the bed and quickly expired. He had been in hospital for about half an hour. A post-mortem examination showed him to be in perfect health and there was nothing to account for his demise, except perhaps fear… I was quite convinced that it was possible for a perfectly healthy man to be frightened to death.
Such extreme cases as these (and this was not an isolated case that Dr Barker was involved with first-hand) highlight how strongly the fear of death can manifest in us. Psychologists have found that the vast majority of us harbour an intense fear of death. The medical profession has even coined the word thanatophobia, which is derived from the Greek word, thanatos, meaning death, for this fear.
Dr Barker believes emphatically that no one is exempt from the fear of death. In his book, Scared to Death, he describes thanatophobia as a very distinct, unique and sometimes all- consuming fear. The fear is so great and so deep that many of us deny the fear itself as a means to repress it.
A Paradoxical Obsession
But this repression is most insidious because we all know that literature, music and art have long had an obsession with death. Like the theme of romance, audiences in the main thoroughly enjoy witnessing death enacted on stage or the screen. Many operas include a death scene because, as the ultimate of tragedies, death is the perfect climax to drama. Puccini’s deeply moving Madama Butterfly is perhaps one of the best known examples. After finally realising that her unfaithful American husband has betrayed her and their son for another woman, a distraught and disillusioned Butterfly takes her own life. In this case, whether it’s a question of honour or foolishness is debatable, but in the final analysis it is also immaterial because the power of Butterfly’s actions overwhelms a cold, purely rational mind searching for reason.
Our strangely paradoxical fascination with death also goes beyond the realm of art. For instance, we’ve all witnessed the gawking crowds that quickly gather at the scene of fatal car accidents, or the angry mob that gathers at the prison gates in some countries on execution day. But this apparent display of fearlessness is deceiving. Psychologists term this disturbing reaction in the face of death ‘disinterested emotion’ or a glorious ‘I’m all right, Jack’ attitude.
American psychologist Dr Gregory Zilboorg believes this to be a denial of the danger of death combined with the false assertion that one will somehow never be touched by it.
Death is a Mystery
So, despite our paradoxical obsession, the sobering reality is that we are terribly afraid of death even though it’s something we must all one day face—and face alone. But, it’s true to say that many of us are afraid of several things precisely because we know they are inevitable—a visit to the dentist, an exam, a job interview, a driving test are only a few examples of countless things that instil stress and fear in us.
Death, on the other hand, is different, if for no other reason than because the vast majority of us have absolutely no idea what to expect at the time. And this is the second important aspect of death—it is a mystery. It is a mystery that has haunted humanity since time immemorial.
The mystery associated with death is sometimes seen as the real cause of our thanatophobia, rather than a fear of death itself. Others, rather than say that they fear death, will instead explain that they fear the pain that may be associated with death if, for example, they were involved in an accident. Others may say that they fear losing family and friends; or leaving personal commit- ments and goals unrealized.
Thanatologists have also observed that dying people dread having to face death alone, feeling they will be abandoned and vulnerable at the final moment. But surely all these reasons that purport to display a lack of fear of death itself are, in reality, symptomatic of that deeper darker fear of actually dying.
Psychologist Ernest Becker believes that ‘…the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.’
So although we can try to deny it, regardless of our social status, our influence or worldly knowledge, none of us can resist the clutches of the Lord of Death. And when that most compelling and wickedly seductive Grim Reaper beckons, none among us will have the capacity to even feign deafness. We might go kicking and screaming, and perhaps begging, but one day, go we will, for the choice will not be ours to make.
Fear is Based on Ignorance
Whether we are psychologically capable to acknowledge our thanatophobia or not, arriving at some understanding of this fear is important because all fear, without exception, is based on ignorance. There are numerous examples of ignorance instilling fear in entire societies and cultures throughout history. For instance, it was only some 500 years ago that a commonly held belief was that the Earth was flat and that anyone who sailed too far from the shore would fall over the edge! Given our modern- day scientific knowledge, we may well chuckle at this ludicrous idea but as progress continues and we acquire more knowledge, in 500 years time (or indeed earlier) our generation could well be the ones who will be the laughing-stock for our beliefs on a whole range of issues. Thankfully, men like Columbus were sufficiently courageous to challenge this flat-Earth belief and as a consequence the New World was discovered.
Like Columbus and those of his inspiring ilk, we must stand and face death—not as an enemy but as a friend. For no one succeeds in understanding an enemy simply because enmity prevails. But a friend is a friend because of an understanding, a knowing, a level of intimacy exists, whereby the two share so much that a great part of each is lost in the union. Potentially, death can be our greatest friend, but only if we learn to under- stand it and eventually master it. But while we harbour any shred of fear then it will remain our greatest foe, and, no doubt, our conqueror. As a consequence, we will be nothing more than the living dead. For our attitude to death ultimately determines our attitude to life. If we are afraid of death we will be afraid of life and, therefore, we will never truly live. Summarizing this attitude, Russian Orthodox Church bishop Metropolitan Anthony of Sourozh once wrote:
If we are afraid of death we will never be prepared to take ultimate risks; we will spend our life in a cowardly, careful and timid manner. It is only if we can face death, make sense of it, determine its place and our place in regard to it that we will be able to live in a fearless way and to the fullness of our ability.
This then is an invitation to, firstly, acknowledge the true nature of the spiritual doorway that death presents for us and, secondly, to learn what preparatory steps can be taken to open and actually enter through the door while still alive. Having done this, you will perhaps view life, which ultimately has no beginning and no end, in the widest of contexts with literally infinite possibilities.
About the author:
Alistair Conwell is author of The Audible Life Stream. The Audible Life Stream is the all-pervasive universal consciousness within everyone. Few realise there is credible evidence indicating that Jesus, Buddha, Krishna, and so on, all perfected the meditative technique of turning their attention inwards, thereby merging with the Audible Life Stream, to become adepts of dying while living. The book emphasizes the importance of it to every human being, since none of us can escape the clutches of the Lord of Death.