General Rabbinic spirituality

Why Do We Fear Death?

I’ve been reading an article in the New Yorker about Death and Dying. It talks about people’s reluctance to accept that there comes a point when there is nothing more that can be done for them, medically. This is part of the reason why people are so reluctant to move into hospice: it means giving up on getting better.

All of this makes perfect sense: after all, death is the big bugaboo, that which we fear above all else. But why?

From a religious point of view, if one believes in an afterlife, then death should bring rewards, or at least peace (at least for those who have led good lives, and who truly believes that they have done more evil than good?). For those who do not believe in an afterlife, death should simply be seen as a cessation. I suppose for that small minority of religious believers in an afterlife who think they have done great evil, death is something to fear. Yet it is, almost universally, feared.

Is it the unknown? The fact that death is the barrier beyond which lies the great undiscovered? If so, one would expect that there would be those who would see it as an adventure, the next frontier to be explored.

When faced with death, we, as humans, twist and turn to try to avoid it. We will go to great lengths and discomfort to prolong our lives even a little bit. We accept great pain, unhappiness, physical infirmity, rarely wondering if that is actually better than death.

There is an old Jewish joke: A man is complaining about how hard his life is. How he works three jobs for just enough money to feed himself, he hurts all the time and has no hope for the future. He tells his friend, “it would be better had I never been born.” His friend replies, “ah, but how many are that lucky? Maybe one in a million!”

As humans, we seem to be hard-coded to seek life. No doubt this is good for the survival of the species. But I have to ask, is it good for us as human beings? How much suffering is created because we fear death? I don’t know what the answer is, but I believe our current attitudes aren’t serving us well.

3 replies on “Why Do We Fear Death?”

“As humans, we seem to be hard-coded to seek life” seems the closest thing to a rational explanation I have heard. Fear is reflexive and beyond rational control for most people. Pain is not injury and death is not pain. A beautiful reminder of the arguments put forward by Socrates in Plato’s Apology 40c and forward.

Reason cannot help those who are irrational but some falsehoods provide more comfort than others, I suppose. Let us be dreamless or dream of those who have gone before…

More precisely and more to the point, we are hard-coded to fear death. To borrow my father’s terminology, its a brain-stem reaction. Its one level up, cognitively speaking, from the reflex to recoil when you touch a hot stove. (That’s hard-coded in the spinal cord, seriously. It saves you the fraction of a second it would take the signal to travel another 8 inches or so.)

If you want to take a philosophical experiment too far, you can, of course, consciously decide to put your hand on a stove and leave it there. Its even possible to do it without flinching. (Nobody try this at home kids!) The thing a neurologically intact person cannot do, as far as I’m aware, is accidentally touch a stove and not recoil. In the absence of any prior higher thought on the subject you will pull your hand away.

My take: accepting death works the same way. You can do it, but it takes a very very good reason and a lot of prior thought.

Few people, of any age or state of health, want to even consider their own death. All of us, however, realize that death is inevitable. Consider its definitions: death is only the end of this life and the demise of this body. Unless you believe it is The
End, death is also the threshold of a new beginning. How many possibilities follow this life? Few people have been so good that they have earned eternal paradise; fewer want to go to a place where they must receive punishments for their sins. Those who do believe in resurrection of their body hope that it will be not be in its final form. Few people really want to continue to be born again and live more human lives; fewer want to be reborn in a non-human form. If you are not quite certain you want to seek divine oneness, consider the alternatives.

This short life is just a speck in time; it is important to us because it now seems to be our speck. Look beyond yesterday, today and tomorrow, beyond Earth’s 4.5 billion years: consider eternity.

(from my e-book on comparative mysticism at )

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