On fear of death

I heard it said that only children who do not understand what death means are not afraid of it. It was a line in a thoughtful film, and it belonged to a character dedicated enough to a cause to give up his life should there be a need. It was about courage. But it assumed what many of us consider the most universal human fear: the fear of death.

I am not sure it’s as universal as some believe. I haven’t been afraid of death for over 20 years now, but few people know that. People assume.

Many years ago I started my search for the bigger picture because at the age of ten I became suddenly and inexplicably terrified of death. I was afraid to fall asleep because I thought I might not wake up. It was then that the materialist explanation of the world stopped satisfying me: it simply did not compute that all the things we were dissipated and disappeared one day – love, music, divorce… Why would we need to be so complex if the goal is to procreate and die? That was the beginning of something of a “religion tasting” I did for many years that started with Sri Aurobindo Yoga and spliced into my personal cosmology pieces of traditions from every corner of the world. I was looking for truth, but really – I was looking for afterlife. Or so I thought.

I lost my fear of death after some years, as a teenager, because I began to fear life. I didn’t think of it that way; I thought of it as hatred rather than fear. I thought of near-constant pain, of loneliness, evil, and misery, and I acquired a death wish. But fear of life it was – constant fear that things would get worse than they already were. Every ring of the phone threw me into cold sweat. You just never know… I was always waiting for bad news.

And now… It’s been a couple of years since I lost my fear of life, but I still don’t fear death. And only now do I have peace. The reason seems obvious, and yet… worn out expressions like “life after death” just don’t explain it. What explains it to me is the bits of understanding that came flooding my consciousness of what I call “the big picture”—the understanding I was lacking and searching for madly and desperately in the dark for so long. The big picture—how it all fits together. What it’s all for. Why it all is. Where it’s all going.

I think what I feared as a child was not really death, and then later it was not really life. All through my cries and perturbations I really always feared one thing: loss. I wanted to hold on to everything I loved, but I could hold on to nothing, and I waited for all that I still had to leave me too. Shakyamuni Buddha had the right diagnosis for my suffering: attachment to the things that pass away. Except, I think he had it a little backwards. I thought they passed away when really they didn’t. For this, Advaita gives me a better image: the world of perceived impermanence is the veil of illusion. Maya. The world of eternal persistence is real. Brahman. Atman.

You see, what terrified the ten-year-old me was nothingness. Dissolution into emptiness of every achievement and value and treasure that makes a human being. A waste. I refused to belong to a species whose art and struggle didn’t matter except as a side-effect of mating and feeding. I refused to live a wasted life. But I tried and couldn’t explain why and how it would be otherwise—not on a grand enough scale, not where the reason and purpose for all that happens is revealed. And as my values and treasures were being taken away from me one by one, that life was becoming harder and harder to live. Not without a reason, not without a purpose. Not without an ordered universe. It seemed that all we had to hold on to were the little things that surrounded us—home, family, friends, shared songs and ideals, hope for the future, labors of love in professional life, talking poetry and politics over tea at the kitchen table—and impermanence of the world would take it all. It all would be lost, sooner or later. And I feared loss. And I feared life. And I no longer feared death simply because I thought it would be an inevitable conclusion to losing everything. Hitting bottom. So the sooner, the better. At least, I would rest.

In the months when I walked in a haze of my first true discovery of God, when revelation poured into my mind drop after drop, words whispered, light flashing, the thing among all things that I came to understand—perhaps the one most important thing of all—is that nothing is ever lost. There is more to it, and many details. But the reason there is the big picture is that nothing is ever lost. Loss does not exist.

It might sound profoundly silly, but God took away my fear—not fear of some specific thing but Fear—when He gave me a glimpse of the past, present, and future flowing together at some unfathomable point in time into the timeless state of Eternity, all of it together. And nothing will have been lost. Nothing that matters. Nothing that’s part of us—the network of the universe held together by the flowing Good.

Don’t get me wrong, I still get sad. I still have pain. I get angry, too—not for long, though. And I cry. People who know me will testify to the fact that my temperament hasn’t changed all that much. But what I am not is afraid, despaired, or alone. Because everything of value that we are, that we’ve done—every treasure—flows into this Creation that blossoms into what it will become when it gathers together from first to last bit of it. Everything we’ve done helps. Everything we are makes it what it will be. There are no farewells in this world, only good byes.

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1 comment

    • zakiya on June 5, 2012 at 07:37
    • Reply

    keep it up Maria Catherine! So many of us relate to this journey.

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