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what exactly am i afraid of?

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I can’t say what scares me about dying. If not pain and discomfort at the end, what then? Material things, worldly achievements, human connections — is losing those what scares me? How can they, seeing that I’ll be dead and gone and none will matter any longer?

Boy, I realize how little I know about this “fear,” how shallow my investigation has been till now. I do know that it runs deeply, perhaps to my childhood indoctrination into a church where judgement and hell await the sinner and little was said of a loving god, one who “will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain” (Rev. 21:4)?

What else is there? Is it something reptilian, fear of the unknown, about fight and flight? I’m perplexed. So, apparently, where the ancient Greeks.*

The late John O’Donohue, a RC priest before becoming a roving philosopher-poet, suggests shifting from a fear of death to welcoming the treasures embedded in the “invisible side of life.” He writes:

“Death is the great wound in the universe and the great wound in each life. Yet, ironically, this is the very wound that can lead to new spiritual growth. Thinking of your death can help you to radically alter your fixed and habitual perception. Instead of living according to the merely visible material realm of life, you begin to refine your sensibility and become aware of the treasures that are hidden in the invisible side of your life. … Your invisible nature holds qualities and treasures that time can never damage. They belong absolutely to you. You do not need to grasp them, earn them, or protect them. These treasures are yours; no one else can ever take them from you.”

Do you fear death?

*Arnie has taken up my recent twin topics of Love and Death (Eros and Thanatos) at his blog.

text source: O’Donohue, J. (1997). Anam cara: a book of Celtic wisdom. New York: Harper Perennial, p. 222. image: “Young man meets Death,” c. 1485-90 by the Master of the Amsterdam Cabinet. Gotta love those shoes.

Click here for a modern philosopher’s take on “the appropriateness” of being afraid of death; a 48-minute lecture by Prof. Shelley Kagan of Yale University.


21 responses »

  1. If your scared of dying then you must be walking around scared most of the time.

    Think about it. If you drive you must be scared behind the wheel and a hazard to everyone else that drives.

    Standing waiting for a light to change if you crossing Douglas street on foot. Worried that one of the vehicles might lurch forward and hit you.

    Dying is as much of life as living is.

    • In fact I AM scared most of the time. Not the shaking-in-my-boots kind, more the waiting-for-the-other-shoe variety. Years of counselling and zen practice have not dimished thei phenomenon, only increased my awareness. Maybe in the next life time I’ll be less / more …

      • I’ve worked at many a job over the years and some of them most people would look at me and wondered if I was crazy. It was the fear that keep me alive and fear can be a great friend, but I don’t fear dying, I might feel better some days if I was dead.

  2. Sometimes I actually feel death would be a relief, as the limitations and pain etc of a long-term illness are hard to tolerate on a continuing basis…
    I don’t fear death, rather I am aware of a fear of ‘not living’. Of not being able to see the beauty in the world, make connections with others, express who I am creatively… but then, who knows after dying there may be even greater beauty to appreciate, more profound and powerful connectedness…
    I am not sure about the ability to express myself though. I feel that is one of the unique things about living on this planet, that we are each able to uniquely express who we are, and in that way contribute our particular ‘flavour’ to the melting pot of the world. And maybe it’s the loss of that gift that invokes a fear in me?

    • Thank you, fiona, for sharing your thoughts, grounded as they are in the experience of a long-term illness and careful reflection. Your “afraid of not living” helps a lot — why hadn’t I thought of that! It’s no longer touching my lovers skin, no more cooking and baking, no long hot baths, no opening the NY Times Review of Books on Sundays, no digging in the garden, no travelling, no waking up, no going to sleep, no being of service, no curiosity — all the precious things that make up a good day.

  3. Peter,
    the comment by varied thinking, above, probably sums up everything that I had to say but I say it anyway. My comment is far too long to put in here, but it considers your earlier posts about love and as well your newer posts about dying. If you are interested you might visit “loving and dying with eyes wide open” at my blog.

    • I read the post on your site, arnie. You helped me see the ancient connection (flip side) of eros and thanatos. Something to pursue. See also my reply to varied thinking. I live in a constant state of fear, interrupted my occasional glimpses at beauty.

  4. who said live each moment as if it might be your last?

    had this fear of dying conversation with a friend this morning and both your posts and that talk remind me of my incompleted living will and a neglected visit to the lawyer.

    one never knows… it is lingering that alarms me

    • dear nancy, do you have access to a phone or Intermnet? do you know your lawyer’s address? when does the next ferry leave your island? remember me in your will 🙂

      • LOL! yes, i know the answers to all your questions and – by the way, what do you want of mine when i am gone… shall include you in the written word…

  5. To think too long about doing a thing often becomes its undoing. ~Eva Young

  6. maybe you do live in fear, but what i love about you is that you keep digging, in spite of the adversity. you never give up that i can see. go guy.

  7. I think I am more afraid of watching those I love die than about my own death. Or at least, my conscious fear is that — being left… left alone, left to grieve, left to pick up the pieces, left behind. I’m not scared to look at my death but I find it hard to contemplate as, since I exist, I don’t know how to conceive of the “absence of,” life. And so my projected death is imbued with the intellectualization of dying… how it might happen, but also what it would be like or what I might feel. Of course, that is the unknowable. But I can imagine the loss of loved ones because it is already part of my lived experience and the thought of being the “last one standing” is, to be perfectly honest, terrifying to me. I find the exercise is to walk with that fear and allow it to inform my living in a way that helps me celebrate my life. And in those moments when I can go there, I feel overwhelming gratitude and love and appreciation for what is. The trick is to stay in that place.

    • “To walk with fear and to allow it to inform my living” is the most believable of all intellectual scenarios. it’s terrifying to watch a loved-one nearing death, while our own ego guards itself with a protective shield of “not me … yet.” The trick indeed is to hold these voices in an ever larger container of spiritual practice. May you be free from fear.

  8. I think one of the biggest hindrances here are the little attachments that I don’t notice are there most of the time. It’s only when something really serious happens, or is about to happen, that I become aware of them.

    I think the fear is also in relation to what I don’t know and can’t control. So in that sense, letting go of these things while alive might be good preparation.

    I once reserved a cheap room in a really nice hotel for one night. When I got to the room(tiny and dingy), I discovered it was also a smoking room, even though I’d requested non-smoking. I drug my too-heavy suitcase back down to the lobby and spoke to the clerk. She started typing and frowning, typing and frowning, until a few minutes later she suddenly smiled and said she had a room for me. Well, the room she gave me was incredible. Huge bed, bright, wood floors, antique writing desk, and a bathroom that was enormous. That room was so nice I utterly forgot about the first room, my dissapointment, and the hassles of dragging my luggage around. It was about a week before I even remembered about that part of my trip. I guess the moral is live a life worthy of an upgrade and don’t worry about the outcome. It will be so nice that you’ll completely forget about all the hassles that came before.

  9. boatacrosstheriver

    I have been thinking about your question since you asked it — do you fear death? I think right now what I fear is losing relationships that I have worked very hard to cultivate during life here on planet Earth. What are your thoughts, as a Buddhist practioner/teacher, on the concept of “no self”? What does that translate to, in your opinion, after “death”?

    Also, do you mind if I have a link to your site (from mine) so that I can more easily check in on what you are writing? Thx.

    • Dear friend, thank you for considering the question.I’m still so immersed in “my/self” and wonder what’ll happen after I’m dead. Will it just end with”me” and linger on in the memory of others?

      please link — also consider clicking on the “subscribe” button to receive a notification whenever a new post appears.

      with a bow,

  10. i have read backwards from the most recent blogs on your trip and family to this point–your musings have got my musings bubbling-thank you. hmmm–yes–i do fear death–and i also just deal with fear on a daily basis in some form or other…lol–though i say i have got better at allowing those fears to wash over me and not fight the feeling–and so the fear kind of goes down the sink drain…lol-but they still are there alas–sigh…-as for death–maybe an americao chat at the bakery someday….lol

    • welcome jo, i’m glad you found your way to the blog … and let it bubble you.

      letting fears wash over — what a sensation when that happens. ever so often, the so-called “small self” does go into a panic and keeps me from a good night’s sleep. my teacher calls nightmares “wake-up calls.”

      may we share many cups under the horse chestnut tree at bubby rose’s.


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