The Fear of Death
There’s no easy way to talk about the reality of death. Most of us live in denial of death starting from a young age and the dominant cultural paradigms reinforce this tendency. We may attempt to escape from the undeniable reality of death by engaging in countless forms of entertainment and distraction or chasing that ever-elusive future that never comes. Our culture also encourages strong identification with one’s persona or the mask we present to the world, while neglecting the most hidden, sacred parts of the psyche. We may confuse the mask with the deeper self. However, the individual may come face-to-face with a deeper self through confrontations with the shadow, unknown aspects of the self through accidents, illness, vivid dreams, a close brush with death, or the loss of a loved one.
In day-to-day life, the natural cycles of life and death may even seem foreign to us. We may unconsciously shun, judge, condemn, or look away from any sign of illness, weakness, or death. However, there are tremendous lessons to be gained from these confrontations with the other or the unknown. Professor of Native American Studies Dr. Leo Killsback comments on how Indigenous cultures have found meaning and grown through facing adversity and oppression, “Like individuals, human societies can reach a physical maturity, as well as a spiritual one through enduring violence, despair, and depression, including the pain and misery caused by the wrath of Mother Nature.” To live in denial of our precarious relationship to life and death is to strip our days of meaning. To turn towards and face the totality of life with all its suffering, hardship, and impermanence is to set out on the path of individuation and self-knowledge. Many have argued that nearly all fears in life can be traced back to this one, primal, existential fear of death. Leaning into this existential fear can ultimately lead to living with less fear, a wider perspective, more intense passion for life, and a greater ability to embrace the unknown.
My Own Confrontation with Death
Just prior to contracting the life-threatening necrotizing fasciitis, I was in my early twenties and I had been impacted and molded by the common ideals of success and social pressures. I had learned from my environment that in order to succeed or feel valued in society, I had to either sacrifice many of my core values or suppress my authentic identity. These were simple lessons learned through traditional education and being immersed in a system of reward and punishment. However, after just narrowly surviving this major illness, I felt completely transformed and finally had the courage to admit I was different. I was brought to the very brink of death and many simple things I took for granted were stripped away, including something as basic as the ability to breathe.
During the time leading up to being hospitalized, I felt time slowed down as each moment of excruciating pain seemed to stretch into eternity. I suffered from a high fever, sore throat, and pain throughout my entire body. I had already been discharged from a hospital after it was determined I simply had the flu. This period was actually the most terrifying for me, because I was certain I was going to die, but did not know exactly how I was going to die. I reflected on my life up until this point. I felt both gratitude for my entire life and also grieved for places I would never see, people I would never meet, and love I would never experience. All I could do was wait for death to engulf me. After nine days of being seriously ill, a reddish ring formed around my neck and moved downward to my chest and torso. I was terrified of what was happening to my body. Suddenly, my heart was pounding quickly, and I felt I was going to have a heart attack. My family rushed me to the hospital once more; I was kept in a medically-induced coma for nearly four weeks, suspended in a dreamworld, which seemed like another reality. While I had dreams that very closely and accurately reflected what was occurring within my body on a physical level, it was still an incredible shock to learn how long I had been asleep and just how close I had come to death.
Even after I was brought out of a coma, I still had many terrifying challenges that lay ahead of me. I experienced extreme pain, nausea, underwent constant suctioning of my lungs due to being unable to cough, couldn’t eat, was unable to talk, had a heart attack, lost muscle strength throughout my whole body, and experienced many other physical challenges. Despite these challenges, I was renewed by the possibility of living another day and regaining any abilities. After experiencing setback after setback on my recovery, I learned to put in the effort to challenge my body and regain strength, but, more importantly, I learned to let go of expectations and surrender.
I realized many things about myself and about others during this time. These were not easy lessons and I was not always gracious in learning. I often felt horror and disgust at myself and what my physical body had endured. This experience brought me closer than I had ever been to what Carl Jung referred to as the shadow, which is the unconscious part of our personality that is instinctive, irrational, and does not fit in with ego identity. Jung wrote of the shadow that “…the less it is embodied in the individual’s conscious life, the blacker and denser it is.” For Jung, the path to wholeness or individuation involved facing and integrating the shadow into one’s consciousness. I struggled to come to terms with my new self and was forced to face the shadow-side of myself and the world.
The experience of being in the hospital with my family, friends, and nurses was also the most emotionally poignant experience of my life. To be so close to death, so vulnerable, and dependent upon others—I began to feel and live like a child again. Every moment, every breath, was so precious, because I had no idea if it would be my last moment. My heart was completely open and my relationship with my family deepened. I also had to face deep-seated fears of being weak, vulnerable, and totally dependent on others.
The experience changed me on many levels, but overall, I believe that the experience made me more empathetic, deep-feeling, caring, passionate, and courageous. To confront one’s mortality is to put the whole of one’s life, relationships, culture, and priorities in perspective. I try to remember these lessons each day and try not to take anything for granted.
The Gifts of Trauma
According to the surgeons and doctors, I had a 1% chance of surviving, given the severity and location of the infection. While I did not know, moment to moment, if I would live or die, I became aware of the real value of each breath. Each moment became immeasurably significant and beautiful and contained more meaning than imaginable—each moment contained an eternity. Paradoxically, the two months I was in the hospital fighting this disease were some of the most precious moments in my life. The experience taught me how to surrender and let go and, ultimately, how to live.
While others might feel frightened, sad, or sympathetic in learning about the tremendous suffering I endured, I would not take the experience back, for it taught me lessons I could never have learned otherwise. The experience broke me down physically, emotionally, psychologically, and spiritually. It then allowed me to rebuild a more authentic and honest version of myself. I turned away from certain friendships, spent more time alone, began searching and reading about different perspectives, and found myself less distracted with social interactions and trying to get approval or stimulation from others. I also found myself feeling like an outsider in all areas of my life, which was painful, but helped me individuate and have the courage to be truer to myself.
Jungian analyst Donald Kalsched offers a different perspective and explores the relationship between the experience of trauma and the realm of non-ordinary reality or mystical experience. I found that my near-death experience paralleled the inner experiences of trauma survivors and the larger, far-reaching vision or perspective obtained from undergoing traumatic experiences, such as experiencing abuse, accidents, major illnesses as described by Kalsched and others. This wider perspective shatters the boundaries between self and other; past, present and future; and even perhaps this world and other worlds. One is forced beyond one’s cultural and societal conditioning into the experience of the other or the unknown.
Kalsched noted, “Ironically, trauma survivors are in a unique position to claim this larger vision, because they are often forced prematurely into ‘non-ordinary reality’—a spiritual and often mentalized world that helps them survive the unbearable pain of their really affect-relationships.” Many individuals who experience extreme trauma might have out of body experiences, where their consciousness separates from the physical body, which allows them access to information beyond their limited, subjective experience. Some traditional folk-healing or indigenous healing practices aim to gain access to this spiritual dimension for the purposes of healing or learning helpful information.
It is safe to say that our indigenous healers are interdimensional interceders who carry the responsibility and the directions to intervene on our behalf, with our consent and awareness, to help bring healing, balance, peace, and harmony in the present, with the Ancestors, and for the generations of the future.
Similarly, Kalsched acknowledged the boundary-effacing effect that trauma can have on the psyche of the individual and the accompanying difficulties experienced by the survivor, who now has to learn, like shamans, to live in two worlds: one confined by the limits of time and ego and the other, which is beyond space and time and taps into knowledge beyond the individual’s subjective experience.
Traditionally, within modern psychology and psychiatry, these types of experiences and gifts mentioned above have been labeled as psychotic, a disorder, or pathologized. However, Kalsched investigates these experiences of trauma survivors with an open mind, giving their stories the attention they deserve and exploring what it means when there is actually correspondence with an inner vision to external reality. He acknowledges something often overlooked in these fields, which is that the traumatic experience or experiences can often lead to specific gifts, including increased sensitivity, compassion, and awareness of one’s intuition.
For myself, the illness also revitalized me by bestowing upon me the gift of perspective and perseverance, restoring my inner strength and inner sight. I realized that I, alone, had the power to define myself, and I understood the importance of honoring my insights, intuition, emotions, and voice. Whereas before, I often judged or suppressed my emotions, intuitions, or inner world, I gradually came to terms with these experiences and saw them less and less as evidence of being flawed or abnormal. I began to place greater value on my inner world, dreams, and intuitive experiences and became less interested in living up to the standards that others imposed upon me. I became more aware of how I internalized standards from family and society to look, act, and think a certain way. My fear of death was also reduced, as a result of this experience. Regarding this kind of experience, Krishnamurti comments,
Most of us are frightened of dying because we don’t know what it means to live. We don’t know how to live, therefore we don’t know how to die. As long as we are frightened of life we shall be frightened of death. The man who lives without conflict, who lives with beauty and love, is not frightened of death because to love is to die.
Often, one may perceive love and death as something totally separate. However, I have found that love – the kind that is unconditional and totally absent of fear – requires that I let go, fully surrender, and relinquish control. To confront death and recognize one’s mortality moment by moment, day by day, is to fully engage in life and live with love in one’s heart, which is beyond possessive love or control. Many of us live our life as though we and our loved ones may never die, which deprives us of allowing us to experience that full gratitude for all of the people and experiences that have touched our life – the good and the bad. A helpful practice that I still engage in is to reflect or meditate on is how I would feel if my life were to end today. What would I change? Who would I express my love to? Would I still care about this issue if I were on my deathbed?
An Opportunity to Reconsider Cultural and Societal Values
There is nothing like having a very close encounter with the reality of death to help you radically reprioritize and re-evaluate your life. This can also lead to conflict with societal pressures, traditions, or expectations. For myself, to have had such a dramatic, life-changing experience and then to only go back to the mundaneness of working in a cubicle doing menial, robotic work was excruciatingly painful. Saddled with debt from medical bills, a radically changed sense of self, as well as my share of PTSD symptoms, I humbled myself to go back to the grind. However, a part of my heart and mind was still on fire from the experience and felt more alive than ever. I began to question not only the structure of my life, but basic assumptions and values particularly surrounding my relationship to time and money.
Author, novelist, and broadcaster J.B. Priestley asserted that if we reduce time “to a single line, then almost everything that seems to add richness, depth, and meaning to your mind and to your life becomes nothing.” I could see this numbing influence everywhere around me! Why, I wondered, have we transformed something as precious as the gift of life into something as meaningless as a race to the finish line or a contest of accumulating wealth or position? In collectively accepting this version of success, we sacrifice our ability to fully be engaged with life. Likewise, organizing our lives too rigidly around clock time can cause us to cut ourselves off from our emotions, instincts, bodies, as well as the natural rhythms in nature.
Many leaders, institutions, and organizations have employed the strategy of social engineering that utilizes methods found in behaviorism and the system of reward and punishment. For many of us, we become conditioned to sacrifice the totality of living fully in the present for a false sense of security or promise of a future reward. Jeremy Rifkin, the social and economic theorist who discusses the social impact of scientific and technological innovations explains some of the underlying principles that organize society:
Political tyranny in every culture begins by devaluing the time of others. Indeed, the exploitation of human beings is only possible in pyramidal time cultures, where rulership is always based on the proposition that some people’s time is more valuable and other people’s time more expendable.
In the dominant Western culture, which emphasizes incessant activity, becoming, doing, working, willing, and controlling, many of us struggle with letting go, being receptive, and embracing stillness. In fact, it has become quite a moral, ethical, and religious ideal to be productive and work hard. This dilemma is not only reflected in our obsession with buying and hoarding, but also how we approach work, relationships, and living. Rifkin commented on this pattern in depth.
To become ‘regular as clockwork’ became the highest values of the new industrial age… The clock conditioned the human mind to perceive time as external, autonomous, continuous, exacting, quantitative, and divisible. In so doing, it prepared the way for a production mode that operated by the same set of temporal standards.
Many people imagined that technology and computers would free the majority from the burdens of menial tasks or hard labor. However, with each passing year, the collective suffering does not decrease as large numbers of people remain trapped in poverty, indebted, enslaved, or exploited. Those at the bottom often suffer the most, being the most deprived of time for themselves, their children, and their families.
Collectively, we have elevated the qualities of efficiency and profitability into moral imperatives. Rifkin also commented, “Clearly we have had to pay a heavy price for our efficient society…The efficient society has increased our superficial creature comforts but forced us to become more detached, self-absorbed, and manipulative in relation to others.” The consequence of our current societal values seems to be that we have lost much of our sense of humanity, dignity, and depth of our relationships. “In many ways, it [money] has replaced or become a substitute for kinship systems in which reciprocity and altruism linked members and helped ensure our species’ survival for hundreds of thousands of years.” So what is the solution or way out of this cold, inhuman, and efficient society?
As I began to understand on an intellectual level how societal and cultural forces had shaped my behavior and personality, it allowed me to heal on an emotional level and have more compassion for myself and others. While I still struggle at times to maintain a balance between participating in society and honoring my own authentic needs, simply having this intellectual understanding helps me catch myself more quickly when I fall back into that trap. Most importantly, I am ever diligent about trying to not confuse my persona or place in society with my private or sacred, inner self.
Lessons from the Past and Other Cultural Perspectives
In these uncertain times, we can either try to keep running away from fears and cling to that which is known or we can turn around, face our fears, and allow ourselves to be transformed by leaping off into the unknown. There have been wise people of the past and present, as well as ancient cultures and societies that might be able to teach us more about ourselves. Does it take a near-death experience to catch a glimpse into a deeper level of reality or is it possible to experience such boundary-dissolving states during normal, waking consciousness? I believe it is not necessary to come to the brink of death to have such precious realizations, but there are certain ingredients that make it more likely. Many mystics speak of the importance of solitude, silence, or spending time in nature to help contact that part of the self that is timeless. These activities can also cultivate a change in our relationship to time itself.
According to Jeannie Patton, an educator specializing in Native American literature, “‘Indian time makes sense,” because it does not discriminate between spiritual and bodily needs but instead is “multidimensional and mythic . . . based on appropriateness of action,” whereas “chronological and linear notions of time contribute to dislocation and illness.” Traditionally, Laguna Pueblo Native Americans emphasized appropriateness or rightness of action and existed within a temporal ordering that was tied to their spiritual and bodily needs. Whereas linear time often emphasizes goal-oriented action over inaction or being, Laguna Pueblo Native Americans’ traditional conception of time allowed for greater a balance between being and doing.
Patton asserted that denying one’s own rhythm and impulses is to deny one’s autonomy and sense of empowerment. She explained how Laguna Pueblo Native Americans had several different notions of time, which placed greater emphasis on the relationship between a person and an event than on this phenomenon tied to linear chronological time. She stated, “For an Indian, if being on time means being out of harmony with self and ritual, the Indian will be ‘late.’” In traditional Native American cultures, right action, balance, self-responsibility and harmony were valued over conforming to the linear temporal system. In addition, this other temporal valued a sense of multidimensional space and timelessness embedded in spirituality. Entering into a state of timelessness is valuable and necessary for healing, integration, and experiencing a state of wholeness, whereas moving into a linear timeline creates ill health, disease, fragmentation, and conflict.
Another author Edward Hall noted that the Navajo conceive of time as more present-oriented:
To the old-time Navajo time is like space—only the here and now is quite real. The future has little reality to it. For the Hopi, stated Hall, time involves a natural sequence of events as opposed to a fixed quantity or duration as conceived in the dominant temporal paradigm. Time is, for them, “the natural process that takes place while living substance acts out its life drama. Therefore, there is a different time for everything which can be altered by circumstances.
The ideas we have about time, as well as the ideas the society at large has about time dictates how we relate to ourselves, our environment, and our relationships.
Other societies also engage with the construct of time in a more fluid manner. One example illustrates differences in how Americans and Brazilians relate to time. Rifkin elaborates on the American psychology professor Dr. Robert Levine’s experience of working at a university in Niteroi, Brazil. While it is necessary to balance following one’s inner rhythm with respect for others’ time and collective obligations, this example demonstrates how less rigid adherence to clock time can create a less hurried and hectic pace of living that allows us to be more engaging with each present moment.
The class began promptly at ten, at least for Dr. Levin. His students, however, strolled in at various intervals from shortly after ten to shortly after eleven. None of the late arrivers felt particularly uncomfortable about arriving on time. On the contrary, they appeared relaxed and unhurried. Equally surprising to Dr. Levine was what happened at the end of the scheduled two-hour session…Finally Dr. Levin had to take his leave sensing that several of the students would have stayed on for hours if he did not put an end to the session.
This example helps show drastic cultural differences in relationship to time and can begin to help many of us envision a more fluid way of working and living. One can begin to imagine how cultivating a different relationship to time might positively impact quality of life.
Integrating Lessons into Daily Life
I often try to remind myself of what I have been through and survived, so that I don’t forget these lessons or take my life for granted. Still, it is easy to be swept away by the fast pace of modern life, constant connectivity, and personal and collective dramas that arise. However, once one has had that greater awareness of one’s mortality and the fragility of life, it cannot be completely forgotten.
It takes courage, mental and emotional strength, as well as diligence to remain true to oneself and to not fall prey to the many forces that wish to capture our attention or distract us from confronting these painful truths. However, there is usually tremendous benefit, self-knowledge, and understanding that can arise from the willingness to face one’s shadow or come to terms with one’s mortality. Sometimes, there may even be negative consequences, resistance, or harsh judgements from those around us when we attempt to explore these areas of the human experience. Nonetheless, it serves to refocus our attention and prompts us to ask important questions about personal values, as well as our relationship to ourselves, our loved ones, time, society, and culture. In doing so, we can reshape society.
The conscious act of reflecting on our own mortality is a transformative tool that can create positive, collective change and help create a society that is more balanced and harmonious, because it does not perpetuate the denial of death. Just as the individual absorbs and is influenced by all the changing societal and cultural values, the collective society is also influenced by the individuals that comprise it. Individually, we have more strength and power than we often realize to not only transform our lives, but also the society in which we live.