The Hidden Gift of Mortality: the lessons I've drawn from a lifelong fear of death.
January 19, 2023
This post was originally written in Dutch as has been translated with DeepL.
I want to share something with you that you would really rather not hear. Yet I ask you to read it, and take a moment to think about it. For I want to tell you something about death and what we can learn from it.
From a young age I was plagued by an intense fear of death. Not the process of dying, but the idea of the infinite and intangible "nothingness. When I was about ten years old I had my first existential crisis. I was screaming hysterically because of the sheer powerlessness and deep fear I felt.
Since then, dying has been something I think about on a daily basis.
In this piece I want to explore what role death has in our lives, how we currently deal with it, how I would like us to deal with it, and what we can learn from thinking about our own death.
I am aware that this is not the most fun topic to talk about. But it is important. So let's do it anyway.
How often do you think about death?
In a poll that philosopher and neuroscientist Sam Harris put out on his twitter, he asked people how regularly they seriously think about death.his showed that more than 30% of respondents could go weeks without thinking about death, and another 27% several days.
Of course, a Twitter poll is not a scientific study, but this result reinforced a belief I've had for years: the people around me don't think about death nearly as often as I do. And besides, they often say they have little, if any, fear of it.
For a long time, I was happy for these people and wholeheartedly begrudged sharing my fear. But as I get older, and have been confronted with (stories about) death more often, the feeling creeps up on me that a lot of people share this fear, but are unaware of it.
Dying? No thank you.
This has led to a new belief that we have collectively decided to bury our heads in the sand, and cover up dying. And I can well imagine why we do this.
Because when you are young and vital, and live in prosperous country where the whole world seems doable, thinking about the end of your life is not so attractive. After all, "rather be too fat in the coffin, than miss a party."
The problem with this is that we don't stay young forever, and the end of our lives will come at some point. This is a truth that we as a society are incredibly bad at dealing with. The fact that we take hair transplants, buy countless health products, and use a photo from 12 years ago for our online profile is testament to this.
The lessons from corona.
What testified to this many times more strongly for me was how we dealt with the corona pandemic. Whatever happened, we had to and would keep the death toll as low as possible and protect our elder.
Yes, there was talk about the risks to mental health, the shredding of our social cohesion and the gigantic strain on our economy. But the line remained the same: letting people die is not an option, whatever the cost.
Help, I'm going to die!
But there is another observation that reinforces this conviction, and one that I find many times more painful, which is how difficult individual people find it to face their own end.
In recent years, I have heard so many stories of terminally ill people who did not want to face their own end. People who left life while desperately trying to hold on to it. This pain is so deep that I feel it as I write these sentences.
Because this is my greatest fear. Having to face my own death only to be unable to accept it.
But there is a light at the end of the tunnel.
Thinking about death gives you strength.
When I was on a meditation retreat four years ago, I had a powerful insight: dying is a problem that will not happen to me, however, my fear of dying is something that can happen to me.
This insight led me to make a strong commitment to meditation, philosophy, and self-exploration. Both to improve my life in her here now, and to make myself ready for the end that will someday come.
Because this is what I wish for myself and everyone around me: to be able to die with a smile on my face and with a deep inner peace.
An example on how to die.
A few weeks ago I listened to an interview with Roland Griffiths, a leading scientist in the field of psychedelics in health care. I had been following him for several years and was very fascinated by the research he was doing.
So my heart skipped a beat when I heard that Professor Griffiths had received a terminal cancer diagnosis.
The interview that followed was one of the most inspiring conversations I have ever heard. Griffiths described in detail his experiences with the diagnosis and the impact it has made on his life.
The extraordinary thing?
He experienced this impact as positive. Confronting his own death gave him a new perspective on his life. He gained a greater appreciation for the things that are important to him, and felt tremendous gratitude for the simple fact that he is allowed to be here.
His acceptance of death filled him with life.
There is hope.
When I hear a dying man describe his own process of dying like this, spoken full of gentleness and love, and then compare it to what this process is like for many others, one of fear and suffering, it makes me sad.
But it also makes me hopeful.
I become hopeful because dealing with death is something we can learn. I become hopeful because it is not too late. I become hopeful because there is someone who shows us how it can be done.
Let's make some time for death.
The legendary philosopher Alan Watts once said, "Everybody should, sometime in their lifetime, consider death. Observe skulls and skeletons and wonder what it will be like to go to sleep and never wake up-never! That is a very gloomy thing for contemplation. "
But it's just like manure. Just as manure fertilizes the plants and so on, so the contemplation of death and the acceptance of death is very highly generative of creating life. You'll get wonderful things out of that. "
In this regard, I feel blessed with my fear of death because I learned to contemplate the end at a young age. This helped me, and still helps me, to put things in perspective, live a better life and focus on things that really matter.
In addition, it gives me courage to do scary things, under the guise of: it will never be as scary as dying. And finally, it is a strong driver for compassion, because I realize that this fear is hidden in many people and they avoid it with countless distractions; in the end, we are all in the same boat.
Towards the end.
So as we all move another day toward our end, I want to invite you to think about your own death.
What does your last week of your life look like? With what kind of feeling do you want to take your last breath? And is the life you are currently living the life you are leading there?
I'm convinced that if we ask ourselves these questions more often, we'll be a lot happier, and a lot less suffering. Both as individuals and as a collective.
In addition, it will free up a tremendous amount of energy and resources; energy and resources that we currently spend clinging to life.
Let us face this fear, welcome it into our hearts, and use the energy released to experience our time on earth for what it is: a wonderful gift.