Monday, February 7, 2011

Fear and Death

The other day someone made the accusation to me that religion was just a way for people to deal with the fear of death through the promise of an afterlife. I couldn't disagree more strongly.

Don't get me wrong, I understand exactly the phenomenon he's talking about, and for most people (all of us probably) it's true. But I'd argue that, while people might be inclined to phrase it or interpret it that way, "fear of death" is actually cognitively meaningless. At least, under the assumption that death is just nothingness, which is what he was positing.

There is nothing fearful about the cessation of consciousness (or consciousness of nothing; which is metaphysically different, but in practice probably an equivalent experience). If there were, we would be terrified to go to sleep each night. If we were, no one could stand to go under anesthesia or twilight sleep (which total dreamless blackout I actually enjoyed immensely when I got my wisdom teeth removed).

No, one cannot be afraid of such a state of death itself, that's simply meaningless. If you wouldn't exist, then there's nothing to fear. But, on the other hand, obviously we are afraid of that sort of death in some sense, so what do we really mean? I would posit two things.

First, I think people are afraid of dying. Which is to say, the process leading up to death. But you're still alive when you're dying. People certainly fear the possibility of pain. I think most of all I fear the fear itself. I worry that, if I were aware of the fact that I were dying or about to be killed, even painlessly...I would be overcome by some instinctive panic, that some limbic part of me would make the anticipation of death unbearable terror even if I rationally knew slipping into nothingness is just like going to sleep (I've discussed this before a few paragraphs down in this post.) Pain is bad enough, but I absolutely hate the experience of terror. There is truly nothing to fear but fear itself. But, boy, fear itself is awful. Of course, my irascible appetite tends to be much stronger than my concupiscible.

However, all this leads to my second point, which is that we are always dying. I may worry that I'd be overcome by some self-preserving fight-or-flight adrenaline rush if I thought I were about to die, but I think some people (especially the sick or elderly) are more easily able to imagine death as being just like falling asleep peacefully. And yet, even then, there is a fear in many people of the idea. In all of us maybe. What is it about dying (again, death-as-nothingness can't be feared, I don't think, that's meaningless), about the idea of the moments leading up to death, that makes us at least uncomfortable (even assuming they aren't painful or otherwise terrifying ones)?

I said to the person who was berating religion that I think the fear of "death" (ie, of dying) is really the dread that life may be meaningless. Though Existentialists and other uppity "philosophers" have tried to create systems where meaningfulness is only relative and is immanent in the choices or experiences we make in the here and now...I think most people have a distinct sense that if life ends with the cessation of consciousness, with nothingness, then it is exactly as if none of it had ever happened at all (at least for the extinct subject). And if none of this ever happened at all, none of it could be ultimately meaningful (which I think people also have an innate sense is a transcendental category).

Therefore, I have to conclude that what we fear is not actually a death of nothingness in itself (which idea doesn't even make sense; something can only be bad for you if you exist), but that such a state at the end of life would mean that life is or had been meaningless. And I think we fight against that with every instinctive fiber of our being. Even fear of "dying" becomes relative then, as every day we're dying; it's just that a sense of immediacy would make it worse, but that's only a difference in degree, not nature. So the meaning of every day is dependent on the notion that this is really happening, that it will have always have happened, that existence really absolutely exists.

To me, belief in heaven is not about a fear of death as nothingness. I wouldn't mind death as nothingness, in itself, as there would be no I to mind it. Even the concept is no worse than going under anesthesia, even the transition process itself (if a peaceful and non-painful one) would be equivalent to going to sleep. No, for me (and I think for all upon deeper examination) belief in eternity is comfort against the idea of life as meaningless. Not some fear of the state of nothingness or unconsciousness, but against the possibility that everything I do while alive will, essentially, have never been at all, not even as a past.

At that point, heaven becomes not some future reward that prevents people from living in the moment here on earth, but an affirmation of the meaningfulness of life itself. Far from being a fantasy of escape from suffering or of infinite delights, to me it actually defies the dreadful escapist doubts that one might as well just kill oneself now (or lose oneself in meaningless pleasures) to end the suffering and get it over with (if it all will just "never have been" at that point anyway). Frankly, either of those solutions would be equivalent to heaven if heaven were just the blank-slate escape or cosmic orgy that atheists accuse the idea of being.

We don't really fear death, not in the simplistic sense people who make that accusation think, at least. Nor is that what religion mitigates against. What we fear is that all these signifiers are not ultimately anchored in anything permanent, stable, or absolute. What we fear is a meaningless life.

The atheist existentialists and post-modernists might try to shame us for feeling this way, or for solving it by religiously positing an absolute. They'll say it is immature or cowardly or prevents a real "in the present" way of living "authentically." That we should take ownership and responsibility for some sort of solipsistic construction of meaning or value as the only "real" non-absurd remedy for either suicide or hedonism. But they were sad and weird and European. I, for one, will stand by the notion of absolutely meaning, and will exalt this fear not as paralyzing, but as a thrilling affirmation from the bottom of my being of all that is good and noble about the human condition: yes, this really will have happened!!
I was here, the people I loved were here, I do exist, we do exist!!! If I am absurd or pathetic for believing that, I am proud and happy to be.

1 comment:

Clara S. said...

I think you hit the nail on the head. I can remember in my excruciating junior high days thinking from time to time "Someday I'll be dead and none of this will matter" -- it was comforting at the time, but the comfort lay in the idea that once you're dead, everything that happened to you might as well not have happened. Which is a bleak, heartbreaking, terrifying thought when you apply it to all your good relationships, all the things you learned, the love you had for other people, your experience of art and beauty, and so on. You can squeeze a little immortality out of the It's-a-Wonderful-Life idea that your presence in the world had some kind of effect that will continue to be felt even when you are forgotten, but perhaps someday the entire human race will be annihilated and there will be nobody to remember anything, no lasting achievements, ultimately no meaning to anything that anybody ever did. That is what scares me about the possibility of total cessation of existence at death -- not my own loss of consciousness, but the idea that, as you said, life itself is meaningless. You said it better than I could.