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Is the Fear of Death Irrational?

by Colin Amery

"It seems to me most strange that men should fear; seeing that death, a necessary end, will come when it will come."
(Julius Caesar Act 2 Sc.2)

Do I fear death? — it so happened this very question was put to me by a Californian therapist, while I sat upon her couch sipping tea. I had gone to see her privately not professionally after an exhausting day in court. Such a question would normally be disallowed in that particular precinct, where we are not allowed to ask a witness leading questions. In the fields of both therapy and philosophy no holds are barred. This basic question is not asked in polite society and yet the reality of death is one appointment no human being can avoid. Neither, normally, is one permitted to know either the hour or the day when it will come to pass. So, moving towards the end of this esoteric course on The Possible World Machine, I must try to answer the question, departing from the orderly parameters of my legal world to the unfathomable void of existential death, to face up to the fundamental question framed within this essay title.

The simple answer is I am not sure whether I do or not. I have recently been through a near death experience — one that should theoretically assist me in providing some answers. This was a heart operation in which a stent was inserted into my right artery to push back the plaque that had collected there to a degree which had become life-threatening and made climbing hills positively dangerous. I came perilously close to death by putting off going to the doctor till the last possible moment. After a brief holiday when symptoms of breathlessness were manifesting on an almost daily basis, I returned to work at the Manukau District Court, an architectural monstrosity if ever there were one. I had barely reached the top of a very small flight of stairs when I collapsed with severe breathing difficulties. The doctor's surgery was mercifully nearby and I had immediate tests on my heart and blood was extracted to obtain further data. The same afternoon I was on my way to hospital — the test having revealed that I had in the past two weeks experienced an angina attack. Within four days I was being trundled into the operating theatre at Green Lane Hospital for heart surgery with a fairly small possibility I might not survive. Was I fearful of death at this particular moment? If this answer were affirmative, was such a fear rational? Just in case things went wrong I made a small imprecation to my Indian master that he would help me through this particular crisis. I was given the most painful injection in the carotid artery I had ever experienced but this helped launch the balloon up to the right main artery where the stent was to take up permanent residence and so ensure that I would survive a few more good years yet.

All this may sound fairly clinical to recount with the benefit of hindsight. I lay there, watching my industrious heart pumping its way through it all, while a group of surgeons confabulated about how they should deal with my case. I was dead set against any by-pass operation and heard this possibility being bandied about. It was almost as if I were floating out of my body with no direct interest in the outcome of the proceedings. Then, the cabal took a decision and I had one further injection to put a dye through me from head to toe. I then relaxed — if that is the right word — into the surgery. I guess this was a defining moment in determining whether or not I had a rational fear of death. I took a fairly deterministic view of the proceedings — there was no time to be rational about it. If some medical mischance took away my last breath, there was very little I could do about it, so I confidently placed my life in the surgeons' hands who knew what they were up to and would not take any unnecessary risks.

So this was my latest brush with brother death — close enough not to leave much space for comfort. I have survived and relatively flourished since this latest joust which occurred on 1 November 2002. There had been other — perhaps even closer shaves. In May l986 very shortly before I met my life partner, Yvonne, a crazed schizophrenic I once knew on Waiheke Island followed me to the mainland in what may have been one of the earliest stalking cases in New Zealand. She drew an extremely sharp kukri knife from her handbag at a bus stop in "K" Road and had every intention of stabbing me through the heart (please note same vehicle of my body was likewise under threat). I must have been thinking pretty quickly for I got my left hand and pushed down resolutely upon the blade before it could follow its path of execution. For those who like detective fiction please note I am left-handed. The weapon was diverted from its intended path and ended up entering my thigh an inch above the knee, causing a fairly deep wound that penetrated as far as the bone. I managed to walk about half a mile in the direction of my home in France Street where I shared a house since demolished to become a car park with a brace of poets — among them David Eggleton, "the kiwi ranter".

I shared my single room with a cat called Plato. I had hoped to get first aid on arrival from my fellow poets. However, I collapsed somewhat theatrically on the very steps of the Mercury Theatre that was located next door to our swept-up rooms. A pint-sized pool of blood soon collected below my wound and an interested crowd of spectators quickly gathered including a couple of my closest friends who just happened to be passing by. I mention these details in a rather clinical way again, not because I was on the operating table this time, but I had a sense of being a spectator at these events, almost as if they had happened to some quite different person unconnected or disassociated from my own being. I felt both authentic in the Sartrean sense but detached. My friends called an ambulance and soon I was being rushed through the streets with bells clanging. I remember offering to read the tarot cards for the nurse attending me and giving me I think a quick transfusion. My fate had been to escape death yet again. I felt quite calm about it.

One more memory surfaced. The crazed Fijian who had wielded the knife — I have drifted into bold here for the sake of greater emphasis — continued to hold the knife in her hand, till a giant man of her own race appeared as if from nowhere and stretched out his hand for the weapon. She surrendered it like a docile rabbit and he hurled it onto a nearby roof well out of my assailant's reach. I could breathe again the heady air of freedom in my continued existence. Later in hospital, a tabloid newspaper reporter came to my bedside to inquire how a professional tarot reader had failed to foresee this threat to his own life. I spread the cards out on the counterpane for an instant reading and up came the Lightning Struck Tower which was a rather belated warning of what had already come to pass. Was it rational to fear death in these particular circumstances? — I think not.

From a philosophical point of view I guess both of these reasonably near death experiences might have caused me to entertain a rational fear of death, but there was hardly time for that. In the first situation I had time to analyse the risks of the operation and signed a piece of paper agreeing to undertake that risk. I was fairly sanguine about the situation and ran the small risk that death might occur from some small unpredictable possibilities inherent in the procedures. I weighed that on the scales of my personal destiny. I felt confident that I would survive, imprecating the help of my Indian master who I felt sure would intervene if the need arose. So the question of whether I entertained a rational fear of death seems to be in both cases a pretty subjective one. In the second situation I barely had time to sit down on the pavement and try to work out what Plato might have done in my particular situation (I mean here the philosopher — not my cat). Essentially, there was a moment when my brain went into swift overdrive. This was presumably the right side — the more logical hemisphere — that would have directed my left bodily part to avoid the blow that if planted accurately would have extinguished my breath once and for all. I suppose what I am saying here in this reconstruction of a moment in time is that I simply acted, had no opportunity for analysis and so ensured quite a few more breaths were yet to come. Or to quote Nietzsche in another context from his egotistical Ecce Homo: I escaped "a yet undiscovered country whose boundaries none has ever seen."

The words of Epicurus — to go back to the ancient Greek philosophers — read a little like an Aesop fable but may have some relevance to this theme: "Where death is I am not; where I am death is not." The fear of death, he appears to be saying, is an irrational one, since it is something which nature precludes us from experiencing until we cross the border into that undiscovered country "from whose bourne", as Shakespeare once put it so eloquently," no traveller returns". In other words it's futile to fear something we can't experience with our conscious minds. The rational mind does not stray beyond this territory.

Death, "an indefinite but impending certainty possible at any moment" I once read somewhere and entered in my philosophical notebook for l999. In that year, marked down by the French seer Nostradamus for the occurrence of strange events, four deaths of close family members happened in the space of a mere two months. In the case of my mother she died in her sleep, so there was no possibility to assess what she was feeling at that particular moment. The loss of a loved one is one way of measuring our own particular fear of death. I have frequent dreams myself in which I have communication with both my mother and dead brother. We often converse in a kind of hinterland that seems rather like Virgil's picture of the underworld. To assist in the therapy of recovery I recently wrote an account of my father's funeral dating back to 1971. The emotions this exercise produced still moved me profoundly and I was able to recount the full details, still embedded in my deep subconscious self. I have no idea how far my father feared his own death since I only arrived — by boat and train from Spain — the day before he died from cancer after a long illness and by that time he had lost the power of speech. My elder brother who also died in Nostradamus' year after a long and debilitating illness had plenty of time to prepare himself for the event. In the final months he found a new faith and was able to face the unknown with equanimity. My own faith is based on existentialism which perhaps more than any other credo, if such it can be called, faces the void of the unknown with a certain degree of personal courage. Nietzsche's own self-explorations led him over the Zarathrustian precipice into that same country without boundaries — described in Ecce Homo — where he lost himself and so could not retrace his steps from a world without maps which was of his own creation.

Woody Allen did not describe his attitude to death quite so enigmatically as Epicurus, but perhaps with greater wit: "I don't mind the idea of dying. I just don't want to be there when it happens". Whether he likes it or not his presence at this event will be more than essential. I suppose as an existentialist he does not need to be told this, assuming that his films reflect his own personal beliefs about life and death. I once wrote in an obituary for a favourite judge of my acquaintance that death is not an easy condition to deal with. I remember at his funeral they played some Albinoni I was always moved by and I wept salt tears for the death of a man I saw as a mentor and friend.

Thus does one survive, not knowing the hour or the day and there is no rationale to back up the fear of something whose time of ingress and egress we can never know.

"Cowards die many times before their deaths/ The valiant never taste of death but once" — so spoke Shakespeare in facing squarely up to the theme of this essay.

The rest, as Wittgenstein dared to end his Tractatus with, is silence.

© Colin Amery 2003


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