Does Fearing Death Make Sense?

Originally posted on Cafe.com

When I was three years old, I asked my parents, “What happens to my head when I die?” 

I didn’t mean my physical head, of course. I meant what’s inside my head: me, my consciousness. I was a deep thinker from an early age. 

In particular, I’ve always been troubled by the idea that one day I’ll die. Whenever I think about it (late at night before going to sleep, usually), I get this horrible feeling in the pit of my stomach, a deep uneasiness like nothing else. I remember feeling this back when I was a kid, and though I can sleep with the lights off now, that feeling hasn't gone away.

Is fear of death rational?

In a quest to better understand why I’m so afraid of death, I decided I’d look into what the world’s deepest thinkers—the philosophers—had to say about the topic. I came across Shelly Kagan, a professor at Yale University who has an excellent course on death available online through Open Yale Courses. I seriously recommend it, if this is your thing.

When discussing fear of death, Kagan begins by asking the general question: What is fear, and when is it an appropriate emotion? It seems appropriate to be afraid of a lion that’s right in front of you, but probably not to be afraid of your childhood teddy bear. Kagan argues that in order for fear of something to make sense, three things have to be true:

First, the thing you’re afraid of has to be bad, or have the potential to harm you in some way. This is why it doesn’t make much sense to fear your teddy bear.

Second, there’s got to be a non-negligible chance of the bad thing happening. If you live in New York and you rarely leave the house, it would be a bit odd to live in constant fear of being eaten by a lion. If you’re on safari in Africa and wandering out beyond the recommended areas wearing Lady Gaga’s meat dress, that fear is a bit more rational.

Finally, Kagan argues, there needs to be some amount of uncertainty about whether the bad thing is going to happen to you.

Given Kagan’s analysis, then, does it make sense to be afraid of death? It seems not. It might make sense to be afraid of the process of dying: to fear that it will be painful. Dying a painful death seems clearly bad, there’s some decent chance it will happen, and there’s uncertainty over how painful it will be. But to be afraid of being dead? Being dead isn’t inherently bad—it’s simply the absence of something good, which is different. Nor is death uncertain: Hard as it is to accept, we all know we are going to die one day.

How can you fear something you won't experience?

This argument reminded me of something I’ve heard a few people say about death. When I bring up the topic and ask how people feel about it (I’m a great person to have at a dinner party, honest), those who say they aren’t afraid often give the same explanation:

“What’s there to be afraid of?” they say. “You won’t be around to experience it! How can you be afraid of something you won’t experience?”

I get this, rationally, but somehow it doesn’t make me feel any better. Or maybe it does, very temporarily. I’m not going round every day worn down by an agonizing awareness of my own mortality. But when I start thinking about death again, really thinking about it in the dark of night (somehow everything is worse at nighttime, isn’t it?), I feel just as unsettled as I did before. Kagan’s argument had the same effect on me; it made sense to me rationally, yet I couldn’t quell the fear.

I'm not afraid, but...

It was at that point I realized: Kagan’s argument didn’t help me because it’s not death exactly that I’m afraid of. It’s the more the realization that one day I will die—the thought itself scares and disturbs me. It might even be that “fear” isn’t the right emotion to describe what I’m feeling.

To me, that I exist is the most fundamental thing; it is the one thing I take completely for granted on a daily basis. When I think about death, really think about death, it’s as if I undergo the biggest change in perspective possible—suddenly everything I know is wrong. The most fundamental thing I know most of the time—that I exist, that I am conscious—is suddenly fragile, contingent, something I can’t take as a given. I simply can’t wrap my head around that. It just freaks me out.

I’m not afraid of death in the same way I’m afraid of having some unpleasant experience. The feeling is completely different from the feeling I have when I think about singing in front of a crowd or being chased by a lion. Perhaps it doesn't even make sense to call this feeling “fear” at all. I don't necessarily feel fear in the way Kagan describes it, but I feel deeply disturbed and unsettled. Realizing that existence is contingent, that it could be over just like that, is deeply disturbing to me.

Is gratitude the only comfort?

It doesn’t help me much to be told that I shouldn’t fear death since I won’t be around to experience it, but I have found something that does help my distress: gratitude. The shift in perspective that comes with realizing you could very easily not exist at all naturally prompts a feeling of appreciation: that I am alive now, that I get to experience the world, that I ever lived at all. So now if death shows up in my mind, I still feel uneasy, but I also feel grateful. 

It seems like Shelly Kagan and I can agree on that, at least, as he ends his lecture on fear of death: "It seems to me that the right emotional response isn’t fear, it isn’t anger, it’s gratitude that we’re able to be alive at all."

© 2014 Jess Whittlestone, as first published on Cafe