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Embracing Thanatophobia
Peter Wicks   Dec 22, 2013   Ethical Technology  

Is there a person alive today who does not fear dying? Well yes, if they are asleep or in a coma. But most of us, while we are awake and going about our business, harbour a deep-seated fear of dying. (“Thanatophobia”, in case anyone was wondering, being Greek for “fear of death”.)

For anyone remotely schooled in the basics of evolutionary psychology, this should not be any surprise. Quite simply, it’s what helped our ancestors pass on their genes to future generations. Sometimes that fear can be overridden by other concerns, for example avoidance of pain or ideological considerations, but it seems unlikely that anyone would want to die if they were living comfortably and had not been conditioned by their experience of life to believe that death is something inevitable and desirable.

I started to fear death when I was kid. I had been told (quite reasonably, in hindsight) that if I closed my eyes after going to bed then I would go to sleep, and I had misinterpreted that to mean that that’s what sleep was. So I started to wonder why it was that when the alarm went off in the morning it felt as if only a fraction of the nine hours or so that should have elapsed had actually done so.

Eventually I figured it out, of course, and started to familiarize myself with the concept of consciousness, and it occurred to me that there was a stream of consciousness that kind of “leapt” from the moment I went to sleep to the moment I woke up. That was OK, but then I started to wonder what would happen to this “stream of consciousness” when I died, and then I started to get really scared.

Perhaps some people reading the above paragraph will find it resonates. Many people, I dare say, will find that it doesn’t. No matter. The point is not how and in what circumstances we become aware of our inherent thanatophobia, but that—with few if any exceptions—we all have it, albeit to varying degrees.

Some of us would prefer not to know about it (see my previous article on fear of knowledge), but whatever philosophical Idealists might say most of us assume most of the time that not being aware of something does not mean that it doesn’t exist. Thanatophobia does, including yours. If you are still not willing to accept this, then it’s probably best if you stop reading now, because the rest of this article will assume that you do.

Good, so you’ve accepted that you are thanatophobic. Welcome to the club. Now the question is what to do about it, the two opposing extremes being: try to repress it as much as possible, or embrace it with all your being.

Repressing it was my first strategy. I had no idea what to do with this fear, except that I wanted it to go away. And my strategy for making it go away was essentially to not think about it. And that worked, most of the time. Meanwhile I was being brought up by church-going parents, singing in the choir, playing the church organ, and generally doing what I was told. I had enough of a grasp of reality to doubt that eternal life was a real thing, but I was at least willing to admit the possibility. Eventually I started to draw more and more comfort from that idea, becoming an evangelical Christian and participating actively in church life and Christian student organizations. And that also worked, for a while.

But then it didn’t, and one of the reasons it didn’t was that the non-Christians I was associating with (“non-Christian” being how I thought of them at the time, not necessarily how they thought of themselves) just seemed more “real” than the Christians. Looking back, I guess it was simply because they were less deluded.

Eventually I figured out that I was as likely to go to hell (another thing I feared) for believing in such stupidities as I was for not believing them, and I rather abruptly broke off links with church life and many of the relationships that surrounded it. And of course, my thanatophobia returned with a vengeance.

One very good reason for repressing thanatophobia is that if we don’t it can drive us nuts. Nobody can tolerate being scared the whole time, and the risk—even, arguably, the certainty—of dying is always there. So we must suppress it. We wouldn’t have it, however, if it wasn’t serving a useful purpose, and it is also thanatophobia that makes us look before we cross the road. So while there are times when we must suppress it, there are other times when we do and must embrace it.

So far this is nothing that should be particularly shocking for anyone. What is shocking for many people, however, is the possibility that we might develop technology that extends life well beyond our current life-spans. And the reason it is shocking, in my view, is that it interferes with people’s delicate strategies for managing their thanatophobia.

Even when they allow thanatophobia to motivate them to look before crossing the road, most do not allow themselves to be aware that this is what is motivating them. Anything that reminds people that they are not only likely (perhaps even certain) to die, but that they are terrified of this prospect, tends to horrify them. So they enter what Aubrey De Grey has described as the “pro-aging trance”, in which they convince themselves that since aging (and eventual death) is inevitable it must be desirable, and that because it is desirable it must also be inevitable.

What this means, in my view, is that whatever we think of the pros and cons of radical life extension, if we are to steer ourselves as individuals and as a species through the “bottleneck” of the next few decades, we need to make greater efforts to embrace our fear of death. We need to allow ourselves to be aware of that fear, and allow it to motivate us, without completely taking over.

What this means in practice will depend greatly on each person’s circumstances, beliefs and values, and we will still find plenty to disagree on (including the pros and cons of radical life extension), but whatever we desire as individuals we will in any case be in a much better position to achieve our goals, and we are also more likely to be able to agree on common goals and resolve global conflicts.

Hence the message of this article: embrace your thanatophobia.

Images:
http://www.theguardian.com/lifeandstyle/shortcuts/2012/oct/23/doctors-death-pathway
http://www.taringa.net/posts/imagenes/16056606/
Fondos-de-escritorio-HD-nuevos-alguno-te-llevas-seguro.html
http://jessicaalbahdiphonewallpaper.blogspot.com/2013/03/
death-wallpapers-desktop.html#.Urd6EZCJDAQ
http://www.mitochondrialdnatesting.com/function-of-mitochondrial-dna.html

 

Peter Wicks was employed for 16 years at the European Commission, working mainly on environmental policy, and now works as a consultant.



COMMENTS

I don’t really fear death much. Of course I want to stay alive and healthy as long as I can, but I have persuaded myself that death is not the end of consciousness. So I guess when the time approaches I will try to be in a state of mind of curiosity and great expectations, like when you are about to start a long trip to unknown places.

I meditate, and go from alpha (the relaxed aware state), to theta (the dreaming and unaware of your surroundings state) again and again, back and forth.  In a very real sense, it is death.  Die over ten thousand times, and it doesn’t seem that bad anymore.  What happens to my fist when I open my hand?

Thanks for your comments! They illustrate well the different ways we each find for dealing with our fear of death. Giulio’s is to persuade himself that death is not the end of consciousness, dobernmanmac’s is in a sense the opposite, in that it involves distancing oneself from the notion that it makes sense to see consciousness as a continuous stream in any case.

In some ways my approach these days is the same as dovermanmac’s, but while this certainly helps me to manage fear of death, in my case it doesn’t remove it altogether. Nor would I want it to, because ultimately I think that would erode my survival instinct. While I’m meditating or discussing philosophy I indeed distance myself from the notion of continuous consciousness (or identity), but when I plan for the future and generally engage with the world I most certainly do not.

Of course, death is by no means the only thing we fear, and for me embracing my fear of death is part of a more general imperative to accept and embrace our emotions. Of course there are emotions we prefer to experience rather than fear, but fear is part of life. Otherwise why would we pay money to watch suspense thrillers?

@Peter:

Your post was along the lines of what I was trying to address in my most recent post.

I have some concerns about basing the desire for longevity on fear rather than love of life.

For one, fear is not transferable in the way love is. Someone like a fire-fighter can sacrifice their life not because they hate life, but because they love it enough to recognize value for others.

And as history shows, fear often leads us to do quite desperate things done mostly to others and sometimes ourselves. It is the logic behind the TW’s “morality is defined by the amount of time I have left to live” which isn’t morality at all rather than a justification of any step necessary to keep one in existence.

Thanks Rick, I’ll take a look at your latest.

I agree that fear is not the best motivation for desiring longevity, and you are of course right to point out that fear can lead us to do terrible things. In fact, I think one of the problems with Jethro Knights is precisely that he considers himself fearless, and fear indeed leads him to do things that (i) would be highly unlikely to lead to the outcomes described by the novel, and (ii) would not necessarily be justified, even according to a utilitarian (let alone a “non-harm”) viewpoint, if they did.

But in a sense that’s precisely my point: in my view, what makes fear dangerous is the fact that it is so often unacknowledged, and when it is acknowledged we don’t know how to handle it. Which is why I’m thinking of writing an article on why mindfulness should be made mandatory.

Here is another coping strategy:

http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Open_individualism

I found the concept that “every ‘I am’ is the same” in Rudy Rucker’s “Infinity and the MInd” first. Then I discovered Kolak’s work.

I think this is a _very_ good coping strategy, halfway between Eastern detachment and Western focus on self. I don’t adopt open individualism as a coping strategy, because mine works better for me.

Another thought on this: the more you love something/one, the more you fear losing it/him/her. So I’m not sure there’s really such a big difference between basing desire for longevity on fear and basing it on love of life. I suppose the emotional tone is different though: I guess we would all like to experience more joy and enthusiasm, and less fear. The risk in making this a goal, however, is that it tends to make us less accepting and aware of our fears, and this tends to be counterproductive in the long run.

Also, don’t forget that fear (when suitably managed) helps keep us safe. It will be a while before we have outsourced risk management to such a degree that we can safely live without fear.

@Peter:

“Another thought on this: the more you love something/one, the more you fear losing it/him/her ”

I think this confuses love with possession- which is how love often undoes itself.

I think in a way you are also confusing “fear” with “anxiety”. Fear is a quite natural reaction to an immediate danger- fight or flight- whereas anxiety is a generalized almost always present fear that is often pathological.

The way to get rid of any phobia is to get close to it- exposure, so I suppose you are dealing with that phobia in your suggestion we recognize our underlying “Thantophobia.”

What I wonder, though, is whether it’s a good idea to just accept any set of ideas that helps people deal with the fear of death, or better, anxiety regarding death as little more than matters of psychological taste or even if coming up with narratives that explain away anxieties rather than confront them directly both in what we can do and what we can’t is not a better long term solution to anxiety regarding death or anything else. 

Can we differentiate between “useful” and constructive fear, as opposed to irrational fear? Perhaps we can and should, although we should take care as fear can be promoted for the most destructive purposes - to control, and stifle progress/ forward thinking?

The Buddha says we create our own suffering through “clinging” to that and those things we “want” not to change and keep, and through “grasping” for those things we “want” to have and change - yet the “reality” is the eternal dance of change and impermanence, (anicca), that is certainly outside of our control - as it should be?

The 5 Stages of Loss and
Grief

psychcentral.com/lib/the-5-stages-of-loss-and-grief/000617


I would also add that stage 4 could also be described as abject fear/anxiety/stress?

And would also say that “everyone” finally submits to acceptance in their final throes, even mortally wounded and in severe pain - the point where “fear” is finally conquered with reason/logic?

Also, I think fear is contagious..

within the last week a colleague sprang the news they had been recently diagnosed with a congenital heart problem and will need an operation in the new year. This person is very fit and vital, and the news has caused them much worry and concerns, (as it should).

Attempting to empathise and console their fears with rationality, I then found myself later reflecting on their condition and symptoms further and comparing it with my own health condition, leading me to speculate upon my own mortality - fear? Perhaps not quite, but certainly apprehension! It has been a valuable learning exercise and prompted further contemplation and actions.

Fear/anger - both are contagious. Yet so is laughter, happiness, joy and communion?


Have a good Xmas one and all!

namaste

_/|\_

 

There are semantic issues here: what Rick calls “anxiety” I would tend to call chronic fear. (There is also recurrent fear: fear that is not always present but comes back repeatedly.)

Whether a differentiation between “useful” and “irrational” (perhaps a better word would be “unhelpful”) fear depends very much on what we want. If fear is helping us to achieve our goals (for example by helping us to avoid genuine risks) then it could be considered useful; if it’s hindering them, for example by making us obsess about phantom risks or exaggerate probabilities, then it’s unhelpful. But again, it depends what you want.

Personally I distrust approaches based on “explaining away anxieties”, because I think this can lead to self-delusion. This is my issue with much of religion. The problem is that you start filtering evidence to reinforce your favoured narrative, which can eventually lead to a hopelessly distorted view of reality. This is why I prefer techniques based on accepting and embracing the emotion itself, and then channelling it in accordance with one’s own values, rather than seeking consolation in there-there stories.

“Love” is, of course, another word that is fraught with semantic issues. It simply has too many different meanings to be a useful term to use in this kind of discussion without further clarification. Rick, what would a non-possessive “love of life” look like?

Re final throes, I would say fear is not so much overcome by reason/logic as that the life-force required to support it fades away. A corpse, after all, is not afraid, but neither it is reasonable or logical. It’s apathy that succeeds fear in that case, nor reason/logic.

CygnusX1, you are right to say that fear is contagious. I would certainly describe your recent experience as “fear”, but again that is essentially a semantic choice. Basically I see fear as something like the emotional equivalent of a primary colour: it can be more or less intense, and can be combined with others. Fear + happiness = excitement (thrill); fear + anger = frustration (specifically, anger repressed by fear). And as you say, fear can be useful: it can help you to identify risks, and take action. Also: the risk you identify doesn’t have to be related to what made you afraid in the first place. Say you’ve seen a scary movie and are therefore feeling generally a bit scared. That will make you more likely to identify risks, which you can then think about and decide whether they are worth focusing on, even though they have nothing to do with why you were scared in the first place.

Coming back to the chronic fear/anxiety that Rick describes as “pathological” (and of course it certainly can be), this has certainly been a problem for me (which is partly why I am so interested in these things), and one way it can be delibitating is by leading the person concerned to just play things too safe, resulting in boredom and frustration, leading to further anxiety (e.g. fuelled by lack of achievement) in a vicious circle. By making me more accepting of and able to handle acute fear episodes, the practice of mindfulness has helped me to break free of that trap (well, most of the time anyway).

Re “I suppose you are dealing with that phobia in your suggestion we recognize our underlying “Thantophobia.””, I don’t think that’s quite my motivation. As I say, my preferred way of dealing with fear/anxiety (whether of dying or something else, or just object-less fear) is mindfulness, plus judicious risk management. My real enemy is unacknowledged fear, since I think it leads to all sorts of problems, and as radical life extension becomes more and more recognised as a real possibility I suspect that unacknowledged thanatophobia is polluting and likely to continue to pollute the debate. Those in favour risk being unreasonably dismissive of legitimate objections, while those against may be subconsciously afraid of getting their hopes up and may therefore block progress. It was basically with this in mind that I wrote the article.

“Yet so is laughter, happiness, joy and communion?” - indeed. Happy holidays!

@Peter:

“Personally I distrust approaches based on “explaining away anxieties”, because I think this can lead to self-delusion. This is my issue with much of religion. The problem is that you start filtering evidence to reinforce your favoured narrative, which can eventually lead to a hopelessly distorted view of reality. “

This is precisely why I have problems with Giulio’s “quantum zen” and indeed am suspect of any theory which claims to be both “scientific” and the road to fulfill religious aspirations and concepts such as immortality- as opposed to merely longer life which is something we can find plenty of examples of in the physical world.

“Rick, what would a non-possessive “love of life” look like?”:

Right- minded parenthood.

I have suffered anxiety myself, Peter, and admire your quest to confront your fears in such a public fashion. Mindfulness has always seemed one of the best ways to deal with our internal contradictions.

Have the best of holidays!

rick

You too, Rick.

One last comment before Xmas..

Check this out - Joy!

Mike Dawes - Titanium - Solo Guitar (David
Guetta - ft. Sia)

youtube.com/watch?v=wAg6aphicBA&rl=yes&gl=GB&client=mv-google&guid;=&hl=en-GB

 

There’s an acoustic renaissance going on, love it!

Merry Xmas, Cygnus!

Hi Peter,

I highly recommend:

“The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life” (2015)
by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, & Tom Pyszczynski

Thanks for raising this (generally taboo) subject.

Cheers,
Chris Cherpas

.(JavaScript must be enabled to view this email address)

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