How not to be afraid of death

by Charlie Huenemann

“I’m not afraid of death; I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” —Woody Allen

DT40Set aside any belief in an afterlife, even the vaguely hopeful “I’ll return to the energy of the universe” sort of view. The realization that your run of life is finite is troubling. At first, when we begin to think about the full extent of our lives, we tend to think of that extent as a short stretch of time found within a very broad scope of time: I exist for several decades within – what? – billions and billions of years. It’s a tiny blip, hardly anything at all. And, automatically, we associate the very short episode called “our lives” with more ordinary episodes, like seeing a movie on a Sunday afternoon. In that case, we enjoy the movie, and after that, we drive home. But then a second realization hits: after this life, there will be no driving home. There will not be anything for us – no recalling of favorite moments, no do-overs, not even a moment of nostalgia. Nothing. That life we just had will be all we ever are, forever. The pit of existential despair opens before us, and boy howdy, does it ever stink.

Both Socrates and Seneca defined philosophy as preparing for death, and there’s no denying that if we haven’t come to terms with this fact – I will die – we have not yet found wisdom. Now I’m as foolish and troubled as anyone else, but I have come across a line of thought that, at least when I manage to remember it, makes that pit of existential despair disappear.

The line of thought comes from Wittgenstein’s Tractatus Logico-Philosophicus, though it can also be found in the writings of Epicurus. They diagnose our problem as arising from that first view we adopted, the one that sees life as an episode within a larger frame of time. Sometimes that perspective is perfectly accurate: namely, when we look at other people’s lives, and we note how there were things happening both before they lived and after they died. Their lives are rather like Sunday afternoon movies to us in this regard. But – according to the Epicurus/Wittgenstein line of thought – when it comes to our own lives, that same picture does not apply: for of course there will not be, in our lives, any events before we live or after we die. When I try to adopt a perspective that sees my life as a short expanse of time within a larger expanse of time, I am trying to adopt a nonsensical point of view. I am trying to view my life from a life that is both my life and not my life.

Anyway, this is the point I think Wittgenstein is making when he writes in his own Zen-like fashion:

Death is not an event in life: we do not live to experience death. It we take eternity to mean not infinite temporal duration but timelessness, then eternal life belongs to those who live in the present. Our life has no end in just the way in which our visual field has no limits.

An event, Wittgenstein claims, is something we live through – like a Sunday matinee. But we don’t live through death; we live right up to it, but we never actually experience it. Many, many events are included in our lives, but not death. In this sense, then, no one ever really dies – meaning, no one experiences death, since the moment death comes, there is no one there to experience it. Epicurus made the point more crisply: “Death, the most frightening of bad things, is nothing to us; since when we exist death is not yet present, and when death is present, then we do not exist.”

How does this help? Well, that existential pit of despair opens up upon the realization that there is going to be a whole lot of time without you in it. But there won’t be that whole lot of time – at least, not for you. So far as you are concerned, you exist for all of time, and you will never die. You will live right up to the point of death without ever quite reaching it. It is most decidedly not like any event within life, one that you live through, and one that you later recall with either joy or regret. Your life is, so far as you are concerned, the whole of time. The only people who will see your life as a finite event, with both prelude and postlude, are other people; and they are not you. (So Woody Allen need not worry; he won’t be there when it happens.)

Now if you can manage to convince yourself of this – and not just say the words, but really inhabit it as a perspective – death isn’t so bad. Fearing it is like fearing the fall of Rome, or the heat death of the universe – two other events that are not included in your life. You will continue to live until … well, there isn’t really any “until,” is there? Better to just say, “You will live,” and leave it at that. As Epicurus wrote, death is nothing to us.