Disclaimer: The following opinions are my own — I am usually wrong about most things — and so you should examine these issues for yourself. On the other hand, only a boring, bumbling, berkle-snozer would disagree with me about anything.
(About a 5 minute read)
It is my esteemed and noble opinion that the fear of death is a major factor in how folks experience life, and a major motive behind much of human behavior.
How much of a factor and motive, you might ask? Ernest Becker, the psychiatrist who authored, The Denial of Death, thought it unconsciously drove most of human experience and behavior. And here the word “unconsciously” is key to understanding the fear of death.
I do not agree with all of Becker’s ideas, but I am in complete agreement with him about the fear of death being very largely a hidden, unconscious fear. Ask ten people if they fear death, eight or nine will not be aware of themselves fearing it.
It seems to me especially easy for young people to be unaware of the influence the fear of death has over their experience of life and their behavior. As a rule of thumb, the younger we are, the less aware we are of our own mortality. But even older folks tend to be unaware of fearing death. As Becker observed, we hide our fears under a thousand disguises. That’s to say, the fear is never truly suppressed in humans but instead manifests itself in as many ways as it possibly can depending on the psychology of the individual humans.
I believe a common enough way in which the fear manifests itself is in the desire many of us feel to accumulate and possess many more things than we perhaps need (or perhaps in some case, even truly want). Not always perhaps, but so often the desire or greed for more and more things than we really need is a mask for the fear of death.
But how does the fear of death translate into a greed for possessions?
I believe we can be driven to accumulate things in order to aggrandize or “build up” our egos. Our egos of course, are our psychological selves, our sense of “I”, of “me”, of “myself”, etc.
Now, there is a profound sense — a very profound sense — in which the fear of death is not really a fear of death per se, but rather is a the fear of the ego dying. Put differently, if we humans did not have an ego, did not have a psychological self, we would be completely liberated from any and all fear of death — we would not manifest the fear in any form at all — it simply would not exist.
Thus, to strengthen, to aggrandize, or to in any way to build up the ego is in effect to guard against the death of the ego. That is, even when building up the ego is not intentionally to guard against the ego’s death, the effect of building it up is to do so.
One can build up the ego in all manner of ways. For instance, to psychologically possess something — psychologically possess anything — is to aggrandize the ego. “That’s mine!” is veritably a battle cry of the fear of death.
But so is psychologically owning a spouse, a pet, a house, a car, a religion, a politics, a friend, and so forth. Psychologically owning anything strengthens the ego — and can thus be a response to the fear of the ego’s death. To “psychologically own” something is to self-identify with it. It is to affirm something as in some way part of ones self.
Psychological ownership or self-identifying behavior almost always focuses one on the relationship between ones self and the possession. Indeed, the relationship usually becomes more important than the possession itself. When one psychologically owns ones spouse or partner, for instance, one typically does not so much affirm the spouse or partner, as one affirms the relationship between ones self and ones spouse or partner.
In all of this, the ego is strengthened.
Ironically, what strengthens the ego also strengthens the fear of the ego’s death perhaps for the rather simple reason that “I” now have more to lose. Once, “I” did not own a car and consequently had no fear of losing a car. But now “I” own a car and so have a new fear in my life — the loss of my car.
There are hundreds, perhaps thousands of ways in which the fear of the ego’s death influences us on a moment by moment basis in both how we experience life, and in our behavior towards life.
Now, there is a difference of opinion about whether the ego, the psychological self, is identical to normal, everyday consciousness. Some say it is, some say the two things are merely so entwined that the one cannot exist without the other. Whatever the case, it is a simple fact that mystical experiences — in which normal, everyday consciousness comes to an end, are also ego-less experiences. Moreover, people who experience such things sometimes — but not always — report both becoming aware of how they had been fearing death, and of simultaneously overcoming their fear of death.
I believe that were we to become fully aware of our fear of ego death, that fear would generally prove to be — depending on the individual — anywhere from anxiously unsettling to nearly crippling.That is one compelling reason NOT to precipitously rip the masks off our fear of the ego’s death.
Yet, the fear manifests itself in so many life denying ways, in so many destructive ways, and has so many undesired consequences. I do not believe anyone who refuses to deal with the fear is likely to live as fully and as happily as they are capable of living.
If anyone reading this is curious about what might be done about the fear of dying, I would recommend meditation as a start towards a solution to the problem.
At least all of the above is how I see it. I’m probably quite wrong about most things, and simple minded about the rest.