philosophy is for everyone
and not just philosophers

philosophers should know lots
of things besides philosophy

Philosophical Connections

Electronic Philosopher

Feature Articles

University of London BA

Philosophy Lovers Gallery

PhiloSophos Home

International Society for Philosophers

Is it Reasonable to Fear
the Death of Life?

by James Martin

And what I know of death
I took from her last breath.
Cold to the touch, an
Essence not before be known.
I do not fear my death,
Or will ever die alone.

That's the best I can know of death. From observation no less. Secondhand. The observer it seems. All else is foolishness: speculation, rational explanations, or reasonable expectations. Almost at least. Yet, being near or close to death helps, you might say. Perhaps seeing down that mystic funnel filled with a warm, beckoning glow of acceptance and even anticipation that a glory awaits. Not merely a chemical glow. I know. I've been there. And welcomed death at 21. Nearly floated away by it one afternoon in April. But thankfully,I didn't. It's easy when one pint of blood remains. Easy to feel light-footed, dancing on clouds heaven-sent perhaps. But then years later I was told that the sensation of near death was a chemical reaction, a feeling of well-being setup by the closing down of vital systems, to lull us to final sleep. How thoughtful. It worked. Death-dealing was easy then. When I was 21. My mind and body again in perfect harmony even at the almost-end.

Experience is lean — yet wins again easily. At least over the past 36 years I have known. That time of nearly losing myself for all time, yet returning again. What a lovely surprise! Even a revelation. If you consider a revelation worthy of promoting an awareness of what it means to live out a life with some purpose and meaning that would suit me, myself and I. For those who are terrified of death — let them not become petrified and rage at that dying light. I felt no terror on my death bed, and saw no terror in the eyes of my beloved on hers. And so these events of near-death, and then to its full completion,lay the foundation for what is to come within my own conscious perception of finality's place for me. This is my practical reality. And all I really need to know. Yet there is no romantic notion here. Not in last breath. Only loss and longing for what was once so bright and beautiful that the heavens would sing it home. That is my remembrance and my knowledge of death. Limited. But limitless.

I would not consider a 'soul' be known. One that is self-contained and lives on after me. Too often, death and morality wind up in a big brawl because of the necessity of most fundamental religion that tells us Immortality vs. Immorality. Good vs. Evil. Man vs. God. God vs. Man. Nature vs. Man, Man vs. Nature...a very funny religion. Everybody and everything is in opposition to the other. 'You better be good for goodness sake'. Even Santa Claus is bitching the message: fear. Fear of human behaviors labeled forthwith by sad parents, molesting Catholic 'fathers', and prudish diminished teachers. And fat-assed old hypocrites from the religious right. It appears most of us do not have the luxury of inquiring into the 'fear of death'. It's already been done for us. With the exception of Henry VIII — and a few others. If you 'f*** up' too much in life, death is going to bite you in the ass. And it will hurt forever. So be good for goodness sake. That's Morality talking. Not philosophy, so-called logic, or experience. That's fundamental religion. All over the place. That's what happens when the natives were forced to betray their own gods.

Nature is natural. What is not natural is belief in the unknown, the irrational, the not-now, the never-was, and the 'isn't it so' version told by the 'believers' we are told to listen to as children. Children believe anything. Almost anything, anyway. Worst of all, anything that is told by adults, or anyone two or more years older than we were as children. Would 'fear of death' be part of our psyche without a morality tale? Told by the fearful who do nothing but fear most things: strangers, races, religious varieties, abstract cultures. Ask your dog of 'death and fear'. Most should be so lucky. Most fear death because they have been 'bad' examples on Earth. Or at least that's what they have been told. 'Imperfection is the fear of humanity as is.'

One of the big problems in philosophy is making it, or attempting to define its structures in scientific language which drones like endless constipation over a fertile field of manure-rich roses (which is the substance of our lives). By the end of the process of definition and defining, there are no more roses to clutch close to the heart. Have all been driveled on by pseudo science? Descartes was a lovely man perhaps, but mathematicians seem not the most clarified in the language of words. One takes what he knows best (numbers, mathematics) and attempts a parallel complement: philosophy. Constipation is painful when it is never-ending. And that's what happens in the discourse of the love of language. It becomes an impersonal object and forgets its subject. Hence, what logic need there be in 'death to fear'? What exaggeration is there in comprehending immortality? We simply can't comprehend what we have not experienced. Observation first hand is the best we have. We take our cues from our experience of death of others. Past and present. Do we or do we not?

It seems a long life is better than a shortened one. Nature's full cycle and all that. Be careful and not offend too much and you will live long and be fulfilled. Rewarded for doing 'right things'. You need not fear death if you 'obey' someone, something. But never yourself. You only need fear 'life'. The no-risk version. The Platonic one. Hands off. Don't touch. Or feel too much. Or stand up for yourself against the rest. 'Fear. Fear. Fear. Fear of Death is here.' So we spend our days looking for the rational way to live. And believe that life is a good thing because we are in it. Maybe even contribute to it. Someone somewhere needs us. Father, Mother, Sister, Brother. Respect is due. Don't tread on you. The less we tread on you, the more sacred our mission here. Right? Not.

I once read that 'what we don't experience positively we will experience negatively'. Wow. I wish I said that. If we experience the negative in a positive way we prove to ourselves and moreover the world, that we belong in it. And have overcome our fear of what can hurt us by denying that it ever did. Moreover, the more we do what we are told, the better it is for us, our mortality,our morality.

The best way to defeat a 'fear' is to deny it has ever been here. So we 'put off our fears' of death, or of living creatively. Or attempting to. But it (fear) never goes away. I think that's why the old demented woman at 85 tells me she is 'not done living yet, and wants more of the experience to come.' Though blind, blabbering, loose-bowled and wheelchair bound. It seems acceptance of death is paramount to 'giving up' on life to her. That's the story I hear. Life is precious, and a miracle, we better do what we are told. Or it's all going to fall down around us like a 'death'. That's morality talking. Not our common humanity. Not our better natures. Or our chaotic ones. Fear is an unwelcome gift bestowed by all those people, groups and institutions instilled by the same ethos. But hopefully not by all poets and philosophers. All that follows from that fear is 'fear and loathing of fear'. A never-ending cycle. Or so it seems.

Emerson said it best. He often did:

Our housekeeping is mendicant, our arts, our occupations, our marriages, our religion we have not chosen, but society has chosen for us. We are parlor soldiers. We shun the ragged battle of fate, where strength is born.

I think he was thinking about the 'fearlessness' of each individual and what it means to be 'truly alive'. And what it means to choose your own fate and not allow it be chosen for you. A recipe for a fearless life, and a fearless death perhaps. There is so much 'habit' to living that I know it gets in the way of living large — especially by the compromises we make, beginning with avoiding the fate that is not known in every new act of creation. A mother gives birth because she has no choice. That baby is going to 'drop' one way or another. Mother accepts her fate. And will not pull back. I wonder in my own life, am I the coward of my fate? Perhaps I will know soon. I hope so. If I am not frightened of death, how can I be afraid of what awaits me while on Earth. It is a 'rugged battle' we are engaged. My fate is calling. So is yours. Do you hear the call. Or are we afraid. Of life. Of death?

There is an almost universal idea that 'our life isn't quite played out yet. Our story is still being told. It isn't over yet. And there's a good ending to it if we just hold out long enough.' No matter our physical and mental deterioration is 98 per cent complete. Or that if we fear death enough, we will obey 'that which must be obeyed' . For many, the 'fear of death' is the major requirement for a long and boring existence wrapped in the pursuit of 'obeying'. To fear death is the 'right thing' because it shows our humility for being provided with a consciousness and a body. You must be careful and patient, and thankful, and compassionate. Then you're showing the right skin, the one that is ever-grateful, and mindful of the gift of existence. The fear of death is the acknowledgement we offer ourselves and everyone we know of how grateful we really are for the gift of life. If we were not thankful for the gift of life, surely we deserve to rot somewhere. And when the time of our life comes to its end, we better shake and rattle our bones for fear of what lies beyond in a place we cannot yet visit. Or never will. Black is not beautiful for those who fear death. Ones last breath holds no eternal beauty, nor tells a complete story in its silence. We will be forgotten by the Spring by all but two or three at most? That's hard to endure as a reality of sorts — until you think of yourself over the past four-plus billion years of evolution. And know your place in that evolution(yet it is nice to have an ego that enjoys its presence on Earth in our own time — and necessary for survival in some degree of readiness).

I think of all who passed before us. Especially the young men and women in wars great and small. Those who sacrificed their lives early on that we may make mortal asses of ourselves: the greedy, the slothful, the self-absorbed, and the mean spirited bastards that dominate the landscape in one degree or another so often these days. They fought for a cause, a country, an ideal. Their time to fear was not long. Yet all are dead. I wonder if they feared death. I know they did. Yet, they did it anyway. And we remain to forget --too many of us anyway. Except for our own mortality, many hear no message in their sacrifice in wars they did not choose but were chosen for. Yet we live in fear — fear of authority, fear of rule, fear of elders, fear of going broke, and finally fear of death. I am struck awfully by the sacrifice in war and in family. I often wonder if anyone else is so taken by this notion. How many mothers silently gave their best efforts to a son or a daughter that their child's life render a fullness not experienced by her?There is a fearlessness in that. Large as the love in her heart I imagine. And for the father who toils from 8 to 5 — is he not a hero too? Marching into a battle he cannot control or ever fully defend.

What would it be like if we lived our life as 'principle', correct for us. Would if be so different than it is today? Would we die on a moment's notice (like the terrorist defending his faith)? Save a stranger from certain death from a passing car? And what of 'tolerance' in a fearless society? Would there be more or less? based on the need to act out our belief systems. Would the world be an ever-revolving set of back doors and exit wounds. Or is the fear of fear a 'rational' or at least a reasonable act of 'endurance' so that we do not 'act of principle' at the expense of an early demise in the name of an ideal, belief, or strong position. And is fear actually a 'restraint' placed on man, a self-defense mechanism almost that saves him from an early extinction. A necessary cautionary tale to live by. But not to die by. Is it part of 'survival of the fittest' or a self-survival rule of thumb. At the end of the day, or of a life, there is a 'freedom of will' that takes part in such a decision. But is it quantitative, based on survival in months and years, or by necessity do we choose 'not to fear' over fear irregardless of its ramifications?

There is an immense thought thrown around everyday by almost everyone: 'to live in the moment'. I and others like what Wittgenstein said: "Eternal life belongs to one who lives in the present" (Tractatus 6.4311). Sometimes life is worth living when you hear or read something you have clawed at for years. And sometimes, 'it's simply a good day to die'. How can it not be so? If the fear of death is reasonable for some, is it cowardly for others? Each of us must find ways to dictate behavior that is meaningful and fulfilling. It is not unreasonable to 'fear' a thing. And it is not absurd to be 'fearless'. We need only look over our lives and experiences to make sense of our choices. What a wonderful world to which we belong, however briefly. It just hurts — because we do not always know what to fear and what to be fearless of. If only we could.

And when I fall at last from mortal
Earth, and all is still,
I will not wince or grind my teeth,
In Heaven or in Hell.
In my not-so-mortal-self at last,
I'll take the time I've always dreamed
And search for Benny Hill.

© James Martin 2002


See James Martin's virtual postcard.