I’m afraid of dying. I suspect most people are, but it’s not something we talk about much. I find that every time I’m forced to think about death, it makes me more eager to think more intentionally about life.
There’s nothing in this world more certain than death, but there are few things that most of us would more strongly prefer to avoid even thinking about, at least for ourselves. I presume it comes from the unspoken fantasy or delusion that we’re going to live forever. Nobody really believes that, but we sometimes act as though death doesn’t exist if we don’t acknowledge it for ourselves.
Two things made me think strongly about death over the weekend.
First, I saw a movie over the weekend that deals with death and the afterlife, and it left me thinking a lot about the subject. The movie was “Heaven is for Real.” If you believe in an afterlife, you might enjoy the film. If you only believe in a material world and that consciousness ends with death, you would have no interest.
Second, I finally listened to last week’s episode of the public radio show, This American Life, which was about death and taxes. The segment about death dealt with what it’s like to be around those in hospice care — what’s it like to be the dying person, what’s it like to be family of those people and what’s it like to work with them. The stories were sobering. (I encourage you to listen to the segment.)
As a Christian, it’s easy for me to say, “Yeah, I believe I’m going to heaven and there’s nothing scary about death,” but that’s far too simplistic. It is for me, anyway.
There’s nothing that could be more terrifying to me than the idea of ceasing to exist. If I believed that I would cease to exist — my consciousness would be no more — I would find life and morality to be pretty empty in whatever time I had left. Other people believe in a purely material world and accept the idea of the end of their own existence and find ways to say life and morality have meaning. I don’t understand their way of thinking — as they don’t understand mine — but I only point it out to say that we all find beliefs that give us whatever we need to continue to exist where we are.
Materialists would say that those who believe in life after death have fooled themselves in order to give our lives meaning so can live today. Those of us who believe in the spiritual world see the materialists as contradicting themselves, because if there’s no ultimate meaning and no life after the human body dies, everything here is meaningless, in our view.
I’ve always found it interesting that in Paul’s letters to churches in the New Testament, he referred to us as having “hope” of a life in heaven after death. Although I’ve heard it interpreted in various ways, it always struck me that maybe Paul wasn’t so certain about exactly what happened after we died. If that were the case in some way, I’m with Paul. I don’t know what happens.
Over the years, Christians — and various others of spiritual faith — have filled in the gaps and invented stories. Our mythology and even popular religious imagery are filled with ideas from literature about what heaven and hell will be life — Peter at the gates of heaven, for instance, checking a book to see whether a person gets in or not.
Near-death experiences have given us different images, but since those people have all “come back,” it’s hard to know whether to trust their experiences, especially when neuroscientists work so hard to explain such things away — to say, “We think we can replicate this, so this must be what happened.”
So we’re filled with images and hints — from religious scriptures, literature and subjective experiences. What do we choose to believe?
I don’t know for sure, and that terrifies me. Although I still plan to live many, many more years, I’m old enough to start wondering. And as I wonder more about what happens, I can’t help but think about what I’ve done with the years I’ve had — and worry about not having used them as I wish I had.
About 15 years ago, I took a personality test that was the most accurate I’ve ever taken. In about 10 pages, the ANSIR profile described me in ways that left me amazed that a series of questions could have produced these insights. (The name was an acronym for “a new style in relating.”) The test is no longer available, because the author died and the site seems to have died with her, but there are still copies of a related book available, although I don’t know how useful the book is without the test.
The ANSIR profile gave you a type in each of three areas: thinking, working and emoting. For me, it was “visionary” in all three. For each type, there’s a “life purpose” listed. (Mine was, “To be the practical humanitarian dreamer, who sees what others cannot and does what is said cannot be done.”) But it also listed the Achilles’ heel of each type.
According to the test, my Achilles heel is “the fear of not doing something meaningful in your lifetime.” The first page of the profile says, “Visionary is born with a burning need to do something significant with their life; something meaningful and people-bettering. Others can imagine what ringing in the ears is like, but only Visionary knows what an internal clock sounds and feels like. From birth to death, tick-tock is their pulse-close, persistent companion. It won’t be ignored, can’t be drowned out by noise, and through thick and thin, it beats strong and steady. For Visionary, time is always running, always winding down.”
The author was right about this in my case. I constantly hear a ticking in my mind and I constantly fear that I’m not doing something meaningful. And as I contemplate my own death, I hear that tick-tock even more strongly. What am I doing that matters? Am I loving anyone? Am I helping anyone? Am I doing anything that will matter and make the world better?
I’ve lost a lot of time in my life — where did it go? — but I have a lot more time left if I use it properly. As I look at what’s left, I feel fear. I think it’s a fear of death — and a fear of exactly what happens when we die and whether I’m even right about what I believe — but maybe more of the fear is about life. Maybe I’m less afraid of actual death than I am of not doing enough that’s meaningful.
I can’t decide for sure, but I know I don’t like being afraid.
I don’t suppose there’s anything I can do to be more certain about what happens at death. Anyone who says he’s sure about that is speaking from some form of faith, not from experience or certainty.
But I can do something about life. I’ve talked before about the need to reclaim someone who I once was — someone I somehow lost along the way. I started making some changes last year and I’ve made another huge one just in the last month. But I’m moving too slowly. The tick-tock is getting louder in my ears. I need to change more quickly and face my fears more rapidly.
My priorities have strongly shifted in the last few years, but I still don’t know exactly where it’s all leading. I only know for certain that I’ll be less afraid to die if I can be less afraid of doing some of the things that can ultimately give my life meaning.
I don’t want to be afraid to die, but I’m going to keep being afraid to die if I continue to be afraid to live in the ways I need to.
It’s no fun to face fears — for me, anyway — but I feel as though I don’t have a lot of choice. The only way to become less afraid of dying is to stop being so afraid to learn how to live in ways that are consistent with the constant tick-tock of a clock winding down in my head.