Fear of Death

We all have to die someday, if we live long enough (Dave Farber)

Yes, we all have to die someday. This fact strikes fear in the hearts of many. But some fear is both natural and acceptable, for it is a mechanism designed by nature to protect us from taking unnecessary risks. But in some people, the fear rises to the level where it becomes troubling and interferes with the enjoyment of life. And in a few cases, the fear is so overwhelming that it completely debilitates the victims, making their lives worse than death.

Those who are extremely anxious about death should seek the help of a therapist, and those with mild cases of the fear of death (Thanatophobia or Thantophobia) may be able to help themselves with a self-study program, such as "Vanquish Fear & Anxiety in 24 Hours," which is available at

This article is written in response to a reader's comments and questions. He begins by writing:

"Most people fear injury and death. Much of what people do involves the prevention or avoidance of danger. Fear dominates a great deal of people's emotional life, and it prevents them from undertaking things that could bring them great joy, if not an altogether more ecstatic life."

My opening remarks reveal that I am in complete agreement with our reader. If we were to raise the subject of our death in a conversation with friends, they would most likely tell us to "stop being morbid." But what I find morbid is not the subject of death, but our inability to talk about it.

 Blaise Pascal (1623 ~ 1662) suggests that we are uncomfortable being alone because thoughts of our own death may come to mind. In fact, he goes on to write in his Pensées ("Thoughts") that we fill our lives with diversions merely to avoid thinking about our own inevitable end. The German philosopher Martin Heidegger (1889 ~ 1976) shares a similar view; mainly, that one reason for our interest in gossip and in the latest news and fads is to keep our mind off death.

Our reader continues by adding:

"A person who considers him or herself dead in the samurai way is free of such crippling fears. A person who does not fear death (because he considers himself already dead) is able to engage in extraordinary undertakings, and thus enjoy extraordinary accomplishments. There is a real risk, of course: the possibility of premature death. But the rewards of overcoming the fear of death in terms of an ecstatic life are immense. Risking death, in other words, has its meaning in the intensification of life. "Live dangerously," Nietzsche once wrote, and his inspiration was not a morbid fascination with death, but a vision of an expanded and intensified life. It is in this sense that the samurai's meditation on death can enhance his vitality -- his supreme command of the possibilities of life."

A common mistake is to label courageous men and women as "fearless." They are not fearless, but committed to their cause and determined to act in spite of their fear. Where is the glory and exhilaration of accomplishment if we are unafraid of acting? The "fearless" samurai you write about were afraid to walk alone late at night, for they believed that demons stalked the night in search of prey (I studied medieval Japanese history in Japan). Yet, if there were a need to go out, the samurai would not allow their fears to prevent them from carrying out their duties. So, you see, we conquer death not by extinguishing fear, but by being passionately committed to life. If we are determined to live courageously and embrace life, despite our fear of death, what is there that we cannot do?

Our reader ends with these questions:

"How does one live life without the fear of death or injury? How do you meditate on death to become free?"

A man walked into a doctor's office and said, "Doctor, you've got to help me; every time I bang my head against the wall, it hurts!" "So," said the doctor, "stop banging your head against the wall." When you focus on death, you're banging your head against the wall. Stop it! When you focus on death, you are ignoring life! To expect to live without the fear of death or injury is to expect to live the life of a coward. You were made for much greater things. Your goal should not be to live without fear of death but to live with such passion, determination, commitment, and self-discipline that you follow your dreams despite your fears. You were made to follow your dreams, not to run from your fears.

Regarding your second question, and a point you made earlier, the samurai did not meditate on death, but on the nature of life, which is fleeting. Cherry blossoms, dragonflies, samurai, and ordinary men and women may have brief life spans, but they are punctuation marks that give meaning to life. The American Naturalist, John Muir (1838 ~ 1914) thought like a Zen Master or samurai when he wrote, "Let children walk with Nature, let them see the beautiful blendings and communions of death and life, their joyous and inseparable unity, as taught in woods and meadows.and they will learn that death is stingless indeed, and as beautiful as life."

True, Buddhist monks do meditate on death, but not to free themselves of fear, but to become compassionate, for Gautama Buddha (563 ~ 483 BCE) taught, "Knowing that all beings will die, how can you hurt them?" After all, if we come to realize that everyone we meet is at that moment on his or her deathbed, how can we be mean, spiteful, and hurtful?

Here's a question for our reader. How do you know death is terrible and worthy of fear? Isn't your fear tinged with arrogance when you assume you know what you do not? Consider the words of Socrates (469 ~ 399 BCE): "To fear death, my friends, is only to think ourselves wise, without being wise, for it is to think that we know what we do not know. For anything that men can tell, death may be the greatest good that can happen to them, but they fear it as if they knew quite well that it was the greatest of evils. And what is this but that shameful ignorance of thinking that we know what we do not know?"

Isn't it possible that as Rabindranath Tagore (1861 ~ 1941) wrote, "Death is not extinguishing the light; it is putting out the lamp because dawn has come." Also consider these comments of poets and mystics. "The gods conceal from men the happiness of death, that they may endure life." (Lucan, Roman Epic Poet, 39 ~ 65). "Death is the veil which those who live call life; They sleep, and it is lifted." (Percy Bysshe Shelley, 1792 ~ 1822). Finally, "I died a mineral, and became a plant. I died a plant and rose an animal. I died an animal and I was man. Why should I fear? When was I less by dying?" (Jalal-Uddin Rumi, 1207 ~ 1273).

For a broader perspective on the vast subject of death, please also check the following articles:



© Chuck Gallozzi
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