What is your greatest fear? It is a question my friend Luis asked me a couple months ago, and one that we constantly deal with and think about.
I wasn't sure what it was at the time, but I knew what it wasn't. I don't fear dying as much as some people I do, as much as I probably should. I fear more perpetuating cycles of violence and abuse I have seen in my life, much greater than I do fear death. But this article is about death, and how thinking about it in the face or absence of our fears actually enriches our lives.
I don't want to die, but I do occasionally do think about whether the world would be a better place without me. It's a nagging thought, one I have thought much especially recently, that I have tried to put away as unreasonable. But death is undeniably on the forefront of my mind, now more than ever, in a way that perhaps concerns the people around me. Memento mori is a tattoo I have on my left abdomen: remember that you have to die. And by remembering I have to die, I try to make the most out of life and impart the most impact on others in this life.
But I argue that it's not a bad thing to think about death all the time, because there is a fine distinction between death and wanting to die. I know the protocol for suicidal ideation and making sure someone is safe, but thoughts of death have gone back a long time to the ancient Stoics. William Irvine, a philosophy professor at Wright State University, once wrote that "the Stoics had the insight that the prospect of death can actually make our lives much happier than they would otherwise be."
Irvine argues that instead of neglecting the things we fear and the worst things possible that can happen in our lives, we should, like the Stoics, imagine the worst case scenarios. Paradoxically, that is how we attain happiness, and one the greatest fears in much of our society is death, that we or the people we love are going to die. Happiness lies in much in gratitude, and death inspires gratitude. Stoics pride themselves in this gratitude of knowing and thinking about death, and living with the awareness that we should live with death on the forefront of our minds.
Human societies throughout all of history have invented methods to cope with our awareness of mortality. There is even a theory in social psychology called terror-management theory, in which all human thinking and behavior can be attributed to a fear of death. "Death anxiety" drives people to believe in their self-worth and self-esteem and believe that they are meaningful to the world. Inherently, we feel the deep need to make our marks on the world before we die, so we can manage the terror of living life insignificantly. People do what they do to curb their fear of dying.
Terror-management theory also deals with the sensation of immortality: we do things that immortalize our names and actions. All religion that also guarantees the promise of immortality, in the idea of afterlives, reincarnation, of heaven. But since not everyone is religious, and because for many people, the afterlives can be so distant and far-off, people strive for symbolic immortality. Through family who will carry on the name, or work that will carry on legacy, in the words of The Atlantic's Julie Beck, "people cling more intensely to the institutions they're part of, and the worldviews they hold."
Of course, everyone likes to distract themselves from thoughts of death. I know I do. We do things to extend our longevity, such as eating healthier. But these actions only distract us so much: death is always prominent in our unconscious and subconscious minds. People feel most driven to defend their worldviews and cultures in the face of it. In a terror-management study in the book The Worm at the Core, judges were asked how much they would set bail for alleged prostitutes. The standard bail was listed at $50, but judges who were asked to think about death right before setting bail put the bail nine times higher.
"The results show that the judges who thought about their own mortality reacted by trying to do the right thing...they held the law more vigorously than their colleagues who were not reminded of death," author Sheldon Solomon writes.
It seems, then, from these data that thinking about death is not actually a good thing: we stick more closely to our own worldviews and put others down. But that is not the only way people search for symbolic immortality - it is only one of the ways. According to Beck, "looming mortality can also lead people to help others, donate to charity, and want to invest in caring families and relationships." After the terrorist attacks on September 11, 2011, there were increases in love, hope, gratitude, and spirituality. Unfortunately, fear of Arabs and Muslims also increased significantly after the attacks.
It can be said then that thoughts of death intensifies and reinforces worldviews we already hold. Empathetic people are more likely to forgive others after a reminder that they have to die. Fundamentally religious people are more compassionate after a reminder of death when their values are depicted in a religious context, so values like kindness, empathy, hope, and compassion can be cultivated if we manage the terror of death in a suitable way.
Steven Heine, a psychology professor at the University of British Columbia (UBC), says that death is a threat to our understandings of the world and how our assumptions about it works. When faced with mortality, we turn to other things to make sense of life. Death is not solvable, and something we can never resolve. But is that a bad thing? Think about if life were to never end - wouldn't it eventually lose meaning? The scarcity principle explains this phenomenon: the less we have of something, the more we value it.
But we don't live like life is finite. We don't live every day like it's our last. Laura King, a psychology professor at the University of Missouri in Columbia, says that "everybody always says life is too short, but it's really long. It's really,really long. Old people who know they are going to die soon live more in the present and forgive more.
I am speaking in paradoxes, and in many traditions, but E.M. Foster perhaps puts it best: "I don't know if there's really any salvation, but if we accept death, maybe we can just live."