Sigmund Freud once claimed to have thought about death every day of his life. If that was true, he was not alone. Ultimately, of course, everyone must make their own peace with death, but the following may help.
The Body as a Machine
Religious believers often look upon atheists with a mixture of bewilderment and pity. How on earth, they think, do such people get through the day? Doesn’t the belief that death is the end make them depressed? Doesn’t it make life seem meaningless and absurd? The answer, of course, is that sometimes it does. Not all atheists are happy with their conclusions – indeed, many bitterly regret them. Some, however, are quite the opposite: not only at peace with their lack of faith but actually comforted by it.
The poet Andrew Motion, for example, once said in an interview that if he really believed there was an afterlife that would upset and frighten him far more; the thought that death was the complete end, on the other hand, comforted him. For people like Motion, it is ignorance, superstition, and avoidance that create the sense of fear. Incidentally, Motion himself had a close shave with death when relatively young and said that he was pleasantly surprised by his lack of fear.
A good example of this was provided by the British director, comedian, and author Jonathan Miller, himself a former medical doctor. In the 1980s, Miller made a series of appearances on The Dick Cavett Show, a popular talk show in the United States. During one of these interviews, Miller was asked for his own views on death. He remarked that as a child he had been very afraid of dying. This, he explained, was due to a superstitious Catholic au pair who had talked obsessively about the subject. Miller exacerbated this fear with the thought of coffins, black shrouds, the silence of a graveyard at night etc. And yet when, as a doctor, he saw people die and began to think of them as machines that were closing down, all those childhood fears evaporated.
As with so many things in life, the more rational you can be, and the more scientific knowledge you accumulate, the calmer you are likely to feel. If you have no religious faith, the idea that the body is a machine really can make sense of things and reduce your fear.
Death Isn’t Important Because I Am Not Important
Part of the problem, especially for a modern Westerner, is the emphasis now placed on the individual. Of course, you do matter and your joys and sorrows, highs and lows, are as important as anyone else’s. But the self-help industry has a downside. The more wrapped up you become in your own little life, and the more attached you are to what Alan Watts called “the skin-encapsulated ego”, the more you will look upon death with resentful bewilderment. Most people’s lives are so stressful and hectic that they barely have time to consider these things. Instead, the prospect of annihilation strikes them suddenly and painfully, like a revelation. Here I am, they think, struggling so hard to grow, achieve my dreams, and be happy, and yet in no time at all I am ashes and dust!
The only answer is some form of transcendence or escape from the self. Quite simply, the more self-centered you are, the more troubled you will be. Consider those causes dearest to your heart. Maybe you lost your wife or mother to breast cancer and are determined to see it cured. How about raising money for research into childhood leukemia or the prevention of cruelty to animals? Men like William Wilberforce devoted their entire life to destroying the slave trade. The more you can immerse yourself in something bigger than you, something so important that your own survival seems trivial in comparison, the happier you will feel.
Art, Science, and the Consolations of Philosophy
Science and the arts also offer an escape. Many scientists clearly derive an almost mystical joy from their subject. A biologist, for example, will tell you that the more he studies the living world and understands how connected he is to it, the less disturbed he is by the thought of his personal end. Some have based an entire movement around this, known as Deep Ecology. Inspired by the pantheism of Spinoza, the Deep Ecologists emphasize the fact that human beings are a part of the living world and argue that by identifying with it completely, one’s own death ceases to seem important.
Finally, there are the arts. The greatest and most profound art, whether that be literature, painting, or music, links the individual’s experiences to those of the entire human race and teaches him that his fears and concerns are not his alone. When you stand before a Rembrandt self-portrait, for example, or read a few pages of Shakespeare, you realize that all has been thought, felt, and experienced before – that, in a sense, your individuality is an illusion. You may die, but humanity, with its recurrent joys and sorrows, goes on.
And of course artists are themselves fragile mortals who have struggled to come to terms with death. The same is true of philosophers. Do not be put off by the age in which someone lived and wrote. Just because an Ancient Greek or Roman knew nothing of computers and DNA, that does not mean they have nothing to say to someone living in the 21st century. Take the Greek philosopher Epicurus, for example. His conclusions about death still resonate and comfort even today, some two and a half thousand years after they were written: “death is nothing to us, since when we exist there is no death, and when there is death we no more exist. Death, then, is neither for the living nor the dead, since it does not exist for the former and the latter are no more.”
Humor and the Absurd
Humor can also help a great deal. For example, there is a popular, if rather tasteless, award known as the “Darwin Awards” for those who have died the most ridiculous death. It may seem callous and cruel, yet reading about the often absurd ways people die can be surprisingly comforting. When death is preceded by fear and suffering, or is surrounded by gothic darkness and sombre rituals, the horror seems so much greater. A sudden, comical death (as in Graham Greene’s short story about a man who was killed when a pet pig fell on him from someone’s balcony) can make death itself seem absurd.
If you are to make your peace with death, you must first know yourself. What consoles one person may horrify another. Above all, remember that you are not alone – everyone you meet has had to deal with the same thoughts and fears.