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Fear and Death

By Una J. Ada, March 15, 2018

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We often act as if fear is something to be attributed to the unknown. This, however, contradicts how we act as a society. The unknown is something that we have always embraced, be it the exploration of land or the discovery of some fundamental property of the universe. What we fear seams more often to be that which we know is to come. Yet still we argue “no, it is not that we know what is to come, it is that we are uncertain to its outcome.” Frankly, this is an insult to humans in general; it’s an assumption that we are each so incapable of determining such simple matters as the future outcome of trivial situations. People may not be able to predict stocks or the exact color lipstick a coworker will wear the next day, but these are complex matters about which we feel uneasy but certainly not fearful.

We fear death. This is fundamental to our humanity. We fear the end of our lives and yet we know that this is an inevitability. Sure there is always some hopeful dreams of immortality that are so often mocked by philosophy as lacking in that which gives life meaning (an assumption that death and impermanence are what gives time spent meaning and not the will of those who spend the time). Death is accepted nonetheless as an absolute certainty and yet we fear it while claiming it is the unknown that we fear. The rational at this point is most often that we have no way of knowing what exactly life after death will be. This is rather absurd as well given that humanity has claimed to have so many answers and yet continues on with this line of thinking.

Perhaps an issue with answers to the question of life after death is that it is so difficult to find one that is both satisfying but not incentivizing. We want each other to not spend every moment of every day cowering in the fear of anything that could possibly bring about our own demise, but we also do not want to encourage each other to view death as an escape from the horrors of our everyday reality. Some try to patch up such oversights with very unconvincing logic. In the church which I had attended in my youth this line was that anyone that would commit suicide would immediately be punished to eternal damnation as it showed their lack of faith in their god’s ability to bring them out of hardship. I call this unconvincing because eternal damnation is a hard idea to sell.

Quick clarification: I was attending a Christian church and the aforementioned ideas had been brought up many times. I was perhaps a bit too fascinated with what exactly was meant by damnation and thoroughly reviewed the Holy Bible’s text for any clues. All that I had found there was indications that hell would be a realm lacking in oversight by a god. This brings up several immediate issues: if one does not believe there to be a god, then the current conscious reality is immediately equivalent to this hell; if one believes god to be an attribute or constituent of the universe that is perceived by a consciousness, then the cessation of consciousness within said universe regardless of the state of the consciousness is immediately equivalent to hell; if one believe their god to have set the world in motion but remains only an observer and not an active participant in the reality that we perceive and so can be said not to exist in our universe but does exist in some other universe to which we will go after death, then our current state of being is equivalent to hell and we will escape to a heaven once we have died. Historically speaking, this concept of hell was eventually augmented to include some form of eternal suffering, the classic fire and brimstone sort of ideas.

The issue with the usage of eternal suffering as a deterrent is that it actually doesn’t sound so bad. This is, of course, in the context of the alternatives and how humans would generally perceive them. Suffering is relative, there needs to be some reference frame by which to define it for it to be perceived as negative by someone. Immediately after death, suffering can be defined as that which is worse than life; you flesh constantly melting off of your bones would be suffering but for many who live luxurious lifestyles having to share a 1 bedroom apartment with three roommates and working minimum wage just to support that would also be extreme suffering. However, after a long period of time, life will seem to have just been a brief flash at the beginning and all after that will overshadow it, all the supposed suffering would make up most of what you know and you will grow accustomed to it. Sure, you could every once in a while draw a parallel to that brief life you lived, but this will soon grow old. To further this point, if you enjoyed your life and death is nothing but an unending, empty void, then you could consider this to be an eternal suffering, a hell of sorts. This can be fit into the Christian narrative by considering an enjoyed life as a life full of sin and the emptiness after to be divine punishment.

Similarly, heaven does not work very well as an incentive for many of the same reasons: happiness is relative, and a life full of pain and loss will make an empty death seem wondrous.

Regardless of the narrative chosen, death remains fundamentally similar; that is to say that death is death. All we can do is to find some comfort in it before we must confront it ourselves.