The terror of death, and how to overcome it

30 September 2010

The title of this week’s program makes at least three assumptions that deserve to brought into the light of critical reflection:

·      That death is terror-inducing.  

·      That being terrified of death is a bad thing.  

·      And that overcoming the terror of death would be a good thing.

One can take issue with each of them. 

Is death really terror-inducing?  True, most people don’t want to die.  But most people don’t walk around seized by the terror of death.  Perhaps, people faced with the imminent and vivid prospect of death – soldiers at war, people who have fallen gravely ill, people whose aged bodies fail them more and more each day – may often be gripped by a Kierkegaardian fear and trembling and sickness unto death.  But not everybody in those situations is filled with dread.  Some are calm and serene in the face of death.  And certainly not everybody walking around, going about their everyday lives, is filled with this dread.   

Be that is it may, for most of us, on a daily basis, the terror of death manifests itself more like a low-grade, but persistent anxiety.  We mostly manage not to focus on it, but it’s always there in the background of our consciousness, shaping every aspect of our lives.   Sometimes events beyond our control can force this anxiety into the foreground of our thinking and awareness.  And then our low-grade anxiety can become an intense horror.

Well then, is terror of death such a bad thing?  It actually seems like a perfectly rational thing.  Suppose a very evil, very sadistic demon was to tell you that at some unknown future moment, he would appear out of nowhere and cut your arms and legs off.   Wouldn’t you be terrified?  You might not be seized with intense, debilitating terror at every waking moment.   Maybe your terror would mostly manifest itself as a low-level hum of suppressed anxiety.  But what would be wrong with that?  Something really bad is going to happen to you, something over which you have no control.   Don’t you have the right to be terrified?  

Still, if you allow yourself to become so terrified that you just sit there worrying about losing your arms and legs, instead of using and enjoying them while you have them, that would be utterly silly  --wouldn’t it?  It’s the same thing with life!  If dread of death drives out your embrace of life, then you’re wasting this precious and precarious gift.  Don’t waste your time dreading death, spend your time embracing life instead.  So perhaps it’s rational to fear death, but irrational to let that fear get such a grip on you that you don’t enjoy life.

Our third assumption seems to suggest that denial a better attitude toward mortality than the clear-eyed acknowledgement that the boundless nothingness of death awaits us all, that at any moment the dark abyss may open beneath our feet. But isn’t it possible to simultaneously embrace life while acknowledging and facing the reality of death?

We’ve got one the world’s leading psychotherapists,  Irvin Yalom, to help lead us through the thicket of issues that surround the topic of death.  So tune in.

 

 

Comments (13)


Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

This one has fascinated and appalled me for someti

This one has fascinated and appalled me for sometime. But your article helps, when I thought nothing ever would. I'll tell a short story to clarify my point. Up until my father's terminal illness and death in 1994, he always asserted that he was unafraid. Of anything. I believed him, on some level, but found his bravado difficult to grasp. Then, in or about May of '94, after we learned that he had terminal cancer, certain facts began to surface.
Dad was disappointed with aspects of his life. There were deficiencies, in his view, that could have had better outcomes, had he only been a better man, father and human being. He was the product of parents who had been born in the late ninteenth century---hard times folks with narrowly pragmatic views. That upbringing, coupled with a minimal education, gave him a limited worldview with which to fashion his future and the future of his family. I did not, at the time of his illness and demise, realize any of this on any conscious level. And it broke my heart. Understanding comes better late than not at all.

Guest's picture

Guest

Thursday, September 30, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Not everyone believes that death leads to nothingn

Not everyone believes that death leads to nothingness. Some believe it is just a change of state. Just a thought.

Guest's picture

Guest

Saturday, October 2, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Small comment about use of the term "rational" as

Small comment about use of the term "rational" as in above: Strictly and importantly, the propositions, assumptions or premises upon which the stated "rationality" is based should always be clear and understood. For example, "Fermat's Last Theorem" is only now considered 'rational' after several centuries and much effort by Andrew Wiles. (Although I understand all mathematicians strongly believe in such afterlife as to be able to quiz Fermat about the size of the margin that did suffice for his proof!)

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Monday, October 4, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I rather imagine that afterlife has little to do w

I rather imagine that afterlife has little to do with mathematics. I have been wrong before,---notably back in 1956. But, where were we? Death as horror or enlightenment. Don't know yet. Probably won't get back to you when I do. Ya just never know...

Guest's picture

Guest

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

I think of Hamlet who, when thinking of mortality,

I think of Hamlet who, when thinking of mortality, spoke of death as "the undiscovered country". like it ir not, it's an adventure that we all take. I think for myself (and many others) the problem of death is not one of non-existence, but we are afraid of the circumstances that will cause us to die (cancer, auto accidents, murder,etc.). If the prospect was death without pain or regret, I think many of us would greet it with less anxiety. But, if a real possibility is an end as victim #4 of some serial killer, then death is not something to look forward to.Or, at least consider it an "adventure".

Harold G. Neuman's picture

Harold G. Neuman

Wednesday, October 6, 2010 -- 5:00 PM

Good point, Kantman. However, inasmuch as we are l

Good point, Kantman. However, inasmuch as we are limited in our choices, and, inasmuch as we are painfully human and have limitations, it appears that most of us will die with some pain and/or regret, cancer; murder and auto accidents, notwithstanding.
I tried to read Kant once. To no avail. I also tried to unravel Habermas and was at a loss for his words. (Combs warned me). Others such as Becker, and later, Dennett; Hofstadter; Diamond and Talib began to make sense for me, after I had lost touch with what it was Wilber was saying or trying to say. So, thanks Kantman---and carry on

Guest's picture

Guest

Tuesday, November 16, 2010 -- 4:00 PM

One thing I'm afraid of my life is death. I always

One thing I'm afraid of my life is death. I always told myself If I'm going to die where am I going, is there a new life waiting for me somewhere else.

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