“Every breath you take is a step toward death.” – Ali
Death, the one thing that comes to us all. The one thing that we keep ignoring, because don’t we all have other pressing matters to attend to? We insulate ourselves from the concept of death right from childhood. When we do come to terms with our mortality, we realize that death is the worst thing that could happen to someone. Thus, we begin living our lives, ignorant about our impending demise. One could almost say that we are ignoring our deaths, rather than being ignorant about it. But none of us can tune out that little itch at the back of our heads in its entirety. That low voice reminding us that death is creeping nearer every passing second.
But here’s the thing. We never engage ourselves in thoughts about death. We do not think about it the way we should. Our minds are like dragonflies that keep shuttling from one twig to another. When we let our minds wander, our train of thoughts might take us to think about death and mortality. But our conscious mind makes it no more than a fleeting thought, flying off to a different thought, like the dragonfly. At this point, there are two statements that we need to consider and accept as facts. One, we will die. Every last one of us. Two, most of us are scared of death, of our mortality. We try not to think about it, or somehow try to postpone it, only to fail.
So great is our fear of death, that some of us go to extreme lengths to delay or even avoid it, without any success. As Ernest Becker has written, everything we do in our lives is a way of managing our fear of death. This death denial is central to our lives and the lives of people we create. Popular culture is full of such characters mortified of their own deaths. This irrational fear of death drives them to act. By avoiding death, they become immortal, which sets them apart from everyone else. Voldemort, attempting to be immortal, creates horcruxes by splitting his soul. Even the name Voldemort translates to “flight from death”, thus foreshadowing his fear of the end.
Even as a child, Anakin Skywalker is afraid of his mortality and that of his mother. This fear clouds his judgement, which Yoda sees through. It drives him to violence, to kill, and gives him a semblance of control over death, though momentary. He is then confronted with two systems that have differing views on death. The path of the Sith, to indulge in passions and seek control over death, is tempting to Anakin. The Jedi, as we know, are more resigned to death, treating it like a friend, an inevitable event. In the end, Anakin chooses the path that he thinks gives him control over death. This tension within him, that fear of death is what drives him to the dark side.
We fear death, not because we stop existing after we die. We fear death because we know we will miss out on the future. Call it existential FOMO. It is hard to accept that there will be, in the future, conversations, events and moments that we will not be part of. As James Gleick has written in Time Travel,
The past, in which we did not exist, is bearable, but the future, in which we will not exist, troubles us more. I know that in the vast expanse of space, I am an infinitesimal mote – fine. But confinement to an eyeblink of time, as an instant never to return, is harder to accept.
But this existential FOMO is nothing more than a constructed fallacy, if you think about it. As Thomas Nagel says, if you don’t feel a deep sense of loss, at what you missed before you were even alive, why should you feel loss at what you’ll miss after you die? You have missed thousands of years of human civilisation, so why feel sorrow at missing out on the future?
But long before you and I, Socrates rejected the fear of death. According to Socrates, death was not something to be afraid of, so men should face it with calm. He proposed that death could be one of two things. Death might either be an eternal dreamless sleep, or it could be a passage to another life. If it was the former, it would be a pleasant experience, a nice rest after a long life. And that is not scary. If death was the latter, a passage to another life, then we would get the chance to hang out with other people who have already died. And isn’t that a wonderful experience in itself, Socrates thought. So either way, death was not a scary ordeal, it was just something that happened to every one, a great equalizer.
“And they die
An equal death, – the idler and the man
Of mighty deeds.” – Homer
Continue reading, with part 2 of this little meditation on life, death and everything in between.