Why do we have this fear of our own death? Why are we scared by the thought of being annihilated as a person, of no longer existing at all? If it really is our own non-existence that scares us, it is a fear of not being there. But what exactly would that be like — not being there? Would it be like anything at all, experientally? Or isn't that rather a confused notion? After all, if you aren't there, what could it mean to experience anything?

According to a popular view, it is the sheer unimaginability of one's own inexistence that induces this seemingly unbearable fear. But this can't be quite right: we haven't existed before we were born either, and that's not something we have any bad feelings about; it's also not a quantitative matter: we wouldn't think, on reflection, that those who've been dead for decades now are in some sense worse off than those who died only recently.

And, more curiously, shouldn't there be a similar emotion directed at the sense of not being yourself, not deciding on your own actions and views? Isn't it something to avoid, to actively prevent: not being in charge of what you do, being driven (by whatever else, like cultural determinants, education, childhood experiences and so on)? So while there seems a natural fear of death, why isn't there an equally strong tendency to get in charge of our own lives and personalities, a caution not to waste that precious resource, your life time?

Some philosophers have thought that the supposed badness in death is one of deprivation: you'll not be able to enjoy the goods of life, or you'll not be able to reach those goals you still have set before you. (The latter point seems to be progressively weaker for people in high age who have already achieved much of what they set out to achieve. It's graver if someone dies prematurely, as we say: as a relatively young person, with many goals and projects interrupted that might have been completed otherwise.)

And again, if that theory is correct, and it is primarily our not receiving what we might have received from life had it been longer, why isn't there a similar emotion toward our weaknesses and faults? After all, these are responsible for many missed opportunities; quite a few spend their lives wasting days, weeks and years, and never seem to have any deep feelings regarding that (until perhaps very late, when they look back and regret).

We know we all have to die. With that fact in the background, it is reasonable to care about the actual physical process of dying, taking precautions to make it as acceptable as possible (by arranging health insurance, for instance), and obviously, avoiding mortal dangers. Moreover, it would be unwise to exclude the thought of one's own end (at some future time, of which it is unpredictable when exactly it will be) from all consideration about one's life. It's a basic element in all such reflection, and ignoring or suppressing it would be a distortion. (Of course, that's not a plea for overdoing it and falling into morbid melancholy. It would be a deficient sort of reflection that allowed you to let thinking about the bounds of your life hamper your activities and the pursuit of your goals.)

Yet from all this doesn't follow that inexistence, annihilation as a person, is something to fear, or even to be concerned about. Fear of inexistence, then, is perhaps rather about that confrontation with yourself: never having reflected and so made the best out of what in your situation was attainable, it's tempting to try to delay the final moment of truth until later rather than sooner. Had you faced it earlier, it would not just have been easier, but also better for you (there would still have been some room for change, some chance to really do something with your life). Conversely, if you make the most of your possibilities, and live a good life, there won't be any need to fear that final transition to inexistence. Take care.
Copyright © 2007-2012 by Leif Frenzel. All rights reserved.