To many death is terrifying. But why? As David Hume pointed out, all the years we didn't exist before we were born seemed painless enough. Why worry about future non-existence?
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.