30 Mar Joyfully deconstructing my Fear of Death
The children’s book The Color Monster features a hot mess of a protagonist. The monster’s emotional wires are criss-crossed, preventing him from seeing or thinking clearly. His internal state of mind is a flummoxed combo of red (anger), green (calm), blue (sadness), yellow (happiness), and grey (fear), obfuscating his daily reality. But as he starts to parse out these emotions, something magical occurs. Lost in the noise of his emotions, he finds his signal: a open heart filled with pink (love). This tale reminded me of my own Jackson Pollock of emotions: my fear of death. What I thought was the signal (“holy shit, I’m gonna die”) was actually noise.
Psychologists believe that children start grasping the concept of death between the ages of five and seven. I remember my recurring nightmares that began during those years, the opening salvo into a longstanding fear of my own death.
However, calling it a nightmare is a gross exaggeration. There were no scary creatures chasing me, no tall cliffs to fall from. And definitely no blood. During this subconscious revelry, all I saw were stars passing me by, like the opening credits of Star Wars. And centered amongst these stars was a rock, drifting away from me. As it disappeared, the rock turned into a pebble, then a speck of dust. Ultimately it disappeared as an indiscernible particle. As a child, I thought the rock was a metaphor for my brain; today (as an aspiring guru) I have the lexicon to call it my essence. My disappearing essence.
Now that, my friends, is the scary shit nightmares are made of. Your essence. You. RadReads. Khe. Drifting away into the slipstream infinite time. Subconsciously, I developed a two-pronged strategy to combat this slow grind towards irrelevancy. The first was the “I can’t hear you” strategy.
It turns out Ezra Klein, Vox’s Editor-at-Large also employed this strategy. He told Anna Sale (host of the aptly named podcast Death, Sex and Money) that as a kid he was so terrified of the “D word” that he found ways to block it from his mind:
“I had little mental rituals to wipe out the word. When I heard the word death, I’d say in my head four times the phrase ‘no death.’ And it was the pushing it to the side for so long that made it so horrifying. Death was not a thing in my world.”
But as Carl Jung foreshadows, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.” Translation: Don’t be a Color Monster.
The second strategy involved running. Sprinting from cavity of irrelevance using the most trusted tool in my toolkit: achievement.
In some bizarro way, I convinced myself that earning more money, collecting more promotions, reading more books, listening to more podcasts, and doing more Crossfit would delay this inevitability.
But you can’t run forever. I for damn sure could not. And a simple question began to triage my own Color Monster: What are you so afraid of?
So here’s my own fear of death listicle:
In the grand scheme of things, to me the fear of pain is disproportionately small. Maybe Crossfit has served as an on-ramp for extreme discomfort? (Or am I just so confident that if there’s one thing our healthcare system excels at, it’s administering pain medication?)
Losing loved ones
I’m so scared of losing the people I love. And to show my hand, I don’t believe in the afterlife. So when my time comes, that’ll be it. But notice the ego-centric irony: When it’s my turn, I won’t be around to miss anybody. (Remember, disappearing pebble!)
Now this doesn’t really assuage the fear of losing loved ones, but here’s a beautiful mitigator. While we are on this beautiful planet surrounded by the people we love the most, why not make every single second count – sharing the gifts of presence, forgiveness, compassion, and laughter.
Not having lived a meaningful life
Death is the final time stamp. And for me it acted as a forcing function to take more agency over my own life and career. Was I consistently showing up as the best father, husband and son? Could our lives be rich with creativity and adventure? Could I surround myself with energizing and inspiring people, both teaching them what I knew and learning from their wisdom? Could I find contentment in both the climaxes of life (the perfect wave) and its most mundane (doing dishes) moments? The clinical psychologist Mary Pipher described the Joys of Being a Woman in her 70s and the “amazing calculus” in old age:
“As much is taken away, we find more to love and appreciate. We experience bliss on a regular basis. As one friend said: “When I was young I needed sexual ecstasy or a hike to the top of a mountain to experience bliss. Now I can feel it when I look at a caterpillar on my garden path.”
But what is the actual definition of “a meaningful life?” The left-brained engineer in me had reduced it to a simple utility calculation. I imagined that before entering the secularist’s version of the Pearly Gates, I’d have to give a Powerpoint presentation. This poorly formatted PDF would include my resume, statements of net worth, metrics detailing my contribution towards social development goals, and a report on how I treated others. And then some arbitrary agent would determine whether my life had been meaningful.
Silly, right? But in The Denial of Death, the cultural anthropologist Earnest Becker argues that this is one of our trusted coping mechanisms to transcend death. We equate meaning with heroic “immortality” projects, like a Kindle bestseller or having your name etched in a building. Becker adds:
“The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, and his products count. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky scraper, a family that spans three generations.”
Giving yourself a pass on living a heroic life is an act of freedom. But don’t get it twisted, a lack of heroism does not equate to a lack of meaning. Could “meaning” be as simple as Warren Buffet’s self-described metric of success: “Do the people you care about love you back?”
The infinite nature of time
Movies about space have always creeped me out. They’re chilling reminders that in the vastness of the universe, I’m nothing but a tiny disappearing particle. When I find myself struggling to grasp this, I jokingly (and lovingly) tell myself, “Dude, just get over yourself. You’re doing just fine.”
By the end of the book, the Color Monster has completed his emotional triage. “All your feelings are in the right place. See? Don’t you feel better?” says his little friend. The triage has helped me too. I’d been doing myself a disservice by not examining my deepest anxieties, aggregating them into the noisy catch-all, my fear of death. And like the Color Monster, I got to see pink – an open heart, brimming with love.
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