A healthy dose of mortal fear can be highly motivational. Scores of psychiatrists assert this, but is it correct? Is there evidence for this philosophical conundrum?
A common belief is that rationality is the antithesis of emotion, yet fear can be both rational and emotional. If a tornado is spotted heading towards someone’s home, no one would blame the habitants if they scream as they run towards the bunker. Here we see both a fear of death, and rational planning taking place. This is because in Tornado Alley, there is a certainty of destruction, and the residents prepare for it with bunkers or reinforced basements.
Inversely, fear of a potential loss of life can be destructive. Believing that a solar flare might burn out electronics and lead us into an apocalypse, without any evidence, might lead to unnecessary stress and wasted resources. Death is like a tornado, not the solar flare.
“Death does not concern us, because as long as we exist, death is not here. And when it does come, we no longer exist,” said the ancient Greek philosopher, Epicurus.
Epicurus was an atheistic absolutist. His proverbs do have their basis in truth. If there WAS evidence for the previously mentioned solar flare and nothing we could do about it, perhaps forgetting and living life in the now is recommended. It is important to note that in his days, there was no life insurance, no mortgage payments and the rich tended to simply be born rich, then remain that way. Naturally there are other aspects of dying that are worth fearing, such as disabilities, diseases and the grief or emotional strife of people who love and/or depend on you. But from the philosophical perspective that there is no life after death, death itself is nothing to fear.
We avoid the topic…
The topic of dying is uncomfortable, there’s no doubt about it. Probably because we are the only earthly creatures who are sentient of our demise. We go as far as keeping ourselves alive with painful and incapacitating medical techniques and devices at the cost of living fully in the present. It is good to fear death, but embracing it has its value.
“Whatever we avoid, whatever we don’t face in life enhances our unconscious fears, serving to feed our shadow selves, amplifying our fears ten-fold. Such is the case with death,” says Mateo Sol, of lonerwolf.com.
Fear makes us grateful.
Having the end in our mind can sometimes help us understand the journey. A study that showed that our sense of gratitude can increase when we reflect in a personal way on our own death.
“That the scarcity of objects enhances their value is a widely known principle in the behavioral sciences. In addition, research has demonstrated that attaching high value to an object produces biased perceptions of its scarcity. Three studies applied this bidirectional link between scarcity and value to the meaning of death, testing the prediction that death represents the scarcity of life.” – Death, Life, Scarcity, and Value by Laura A. King, Joshua A. Hicks, and Justin Abdelkhalik.
The authors of this study attributed the phenomenon to the “scarcity heuristic,” whereby we value things more when they are not permanent or harder to find. So when we’re faced with death, there is an increase of value in our livelihoods. Essentially, knowing life can end makes it exotic, like a hard to find gem.
Death, the mirror…
When we think of death, we think of where we’ll be and what we’d done. This means that whatever we dedicated our lives to, whatever we prioritized is exposed. Did we pursue materialistic wealth, passions, art? Was our lives worthwhile to others? These questions are mirrors into our present. Ergo, sometimes thinking about the end motivates us to do better in the now.
Many people fear death because they’ve never really felt fully alive. They’ve never felt full of ecstasy and joy, experienced life beyond temporary happiness, or moments of complete harmonious unity and bliss.
The end as the beginning…
Much like preparing for the tornado mentioned above, there are things that remind us of our mortality while still giving us tranquility. Making sure that you have fulfilled – or are in the process of fulfilling – your bucket list gives a sense of completion and acceptance. Also, leave things in order to minimize the suffering of those around you. Anything from forgiving those who’ve hurt you, ending feuds and purchasing life insurance will provide a sense of peace that the world will remain in order. Everyone grieves differently, even for their own death.