At the funeral the Italian priest addressed the mourners with a twinkle in his eye. “I’ll tell you a secret,” he said in his Mediterranean accent. “We are all here forever.” It comes as a shock to see the box containing the person we once conversed with, no electromagnetic activity inside, no emotion, no thought, only inanimate matter. Anyone who has faced death in this way, or perhaps faced their own possible extinction, cannot help but become aware of the incredible capacities of the human mind and wonder at how such a miracle can cease to exist given our relentless drive to survive.
All organisms fear being harmed. It is the most basic of instincts with its origins in the primeval soup, when unicellular organisms developed survival mechanisms against physical attack or chemical damage. Psychologists claim that we make it through life by practising denial of our ultimate fate, and that drives such as ambition and reproduction are a mask which protect us from inevitability. It is true that going through life constantly aware that we must die would prevent us from undertaking anything. The search for meaning during our short stay on earth has inspired all human action including art, religion, patriotism and education. Some sociologists go further and say that denial of death is necessary in order for society to function, for without it there would be unbridled violence against others, disregard for our peers and an absence of social solidarity.
Freud however claimed that fear of death, or thanatophobia, was simply a disguise for a deeper fear of life. In Freud’s view we cannot fear death because no one actually believes in his own death. He further theorised that the Unconscious cannot perceive of time or of the amount we have left – an interesting suggestion in the light of current quantum theories of consciousness.
There is some evidence that religious people are less anxious about death, although atheists might respond that religion itself is an expression of that fear. However, studies show that those who do not dwell on death and adopt an optimistic view of life are less prone to heart disease, and live longer. Many people go through life claiming they do not fear death at all, or they shrug it off as being inevitable and therefore unworthy of consideration, but when faced with their own demise through illness or injury become extremely anxious and even panic. Admitting to a fear of death may be seen as socially reprehensible because it suggests both cowardice, since we must all die, and pomposity, since we cannot conceive of a world without us.
Until recently the scientific, materialistic view of human life has been that we are the result of a mixture of molecules, and when we die our brain rots and only the memory of us remains in others. However, with the advent of quantum physics this is changing. Since theoretical physicists believe there is an infinite number of universes, death must therefore be an illusion. Since we exist now we must exist always, on some plane or dimension. The view that the physical reality around us is the only one is therefore not hard science, but just a belief system like any religion.
It is also beyond dispute that the moment of death may be hastened or delayed by those in their last weeks of life. Many people have flown in to be at a relative’s bedside to experience them pass finally away within hours and sometimes minutes of their arrival. People with terminal illnesses may succeed in attending a final family reunion. Death may therefore not be something that is completely beyond our control.
Those who have experienced a near death experience report the sense that the spiritual dimension is far more real than this one. In fact a consensus seems to be emerging among NDE-ers that life here on earth is a sort of playground where spirit can experience matter, where the universe can gain experience through sending parts of itself (souls) to live different lives, comparing physical existence with a cinema where we suspend our disbelief while in a dark room watching a film. Others report spiritual friends waiting eagerly to hear the story of their latest life when they pass over. Above all is the sense in NDE-ers that life should not be taken seriously, since all our experiences are of our own making, that we may savour the many tastes life here offers. Source, God, the Universe is omniscient precisely because parts of it have descended into matter everywhere it extends, to experience and learn and expand consciousness.
No one knows yet for sure, but until we have found out – and we may do just this soon enough, as more individuals who flatlined during surgery report medical conversations and procedures to resuscitate them – let us embrace the mystery, and do so with the same dose of humour with which we may one day regard the life we are currently living.
Within each of us are two opposing forces : the will to live and the will to die. Each one waxes and wanes according to life’s circumstances.
Our obsession with death is illustrated for example in Hallowe’en, the festival of Santa Muerte in Mexico and the popularity of horror films; according to Freud we live in a permanent state of desire and we therefore aspire to the end of desire because desire leads to disappointment. In Buddhism nirvana is the freedom from desire, where rebirth is no longer necessary, a state described by the Buddha as “deathlessness”. The monotheistic religions preach the overcoming of death, the ultimate expression of which is in the resurrection, but also advocate the earthly suppression of excessive desires with the promise of fulfilment in paradise. For Schopenhauer life oscillated between struggle and boredom; for him to live was to suffer and the aim and purpose of life was death. He was a grim-looking kind of guy who would probably be in therapy today.
With every day that passes the prospect of Eternal Oblivion draws nearer, a prospect that appals us; many believers as well as those who proclaim no faith are filled with fear when given a limited time to live. Put a gun against a man’s head and his fear of death will become apparent, whatever his previous bluster. And yet we are taught it is arrogant to desire ‘more than our fair share’ of life. Schopenhauer for instance felt it immoral to desire to impose oneself on the world any more than necessary.And so we sense Freud’s Death Drive within us constantly, while simultaneously longing to outwit it.
In actual fact for most people the moment of death will be gentle and the difference between life and death a matter of seconds. In the days that follow a death people sometimes report bizarre events suggesting the person’s consciousness has survived, such as the same sign being sent to family members on separate occasions, which if not necessarily proof of an afterlife is at least proof of a strong connection of minds within a group.
The fear of death while we are still alive is much worse than the moment itself, and begins to loom larger in our fifties. For the midlife crisis consists in this: I realise I have not achieved what I dreamt of achieving, and what I have achieved has given me no satisfaction. I spend my life never having time for what is important because my job takes up so much energy and focus that I have nothing left over for what matters. Signs of a midlife crisis include reading obituaries, longingly looking at old photos of oneself and going to Glastonbury. This period also often coincides with the death of parents. We feel a sense of panic and the urge to race around the world “packing things in”, but in doing so we are setting a limit on the time we have left. If when in this mindset we had to represent our lives on a graph, the midlife crisis would represent the peak, followed by a rapid decline towards zero.
In fact the midlife crisis is a myth. It is one of several moments throughout life, which can come at any time, when we pause to take stock before setting off again. Designating any moment in our life as the middle is equivalent to telling our biological clock when to stop.
There is no sin in the desire to live fully, the desire to live long and healthily. Schopenhauer was wrong when he suggested life equals suffering, since as we are here we might as well enjoy it! Let us desire to live well then, and if our consciousness survives the grim reaper, we will not have lost out, and if it does not….we will not have lost out either.