When my aunt passed away a couple of years ago, I fought the grief and confusion the way I know best: by drowning it in information. I read everything I could find about lungs, oncology, death, and even funerals. In my search for answers I stumbled upon a book by Irvin Yalom called ‘Staring at the Sun‘, about his experiences with helping clients overcoming their fear of death.
Besides the mere soothing of recognition, I learned a great deal about the fear of death often being a fear of not having lived a meaningful life. I even ended up writing my dissertation on it, suggesting that “one’s fear of death is grounded in the fear of not having lived a meaningful and complete life, meaning that the confrontation with one’s mortality can motivate one to live up to positive standards and beliefs, and contribute to personal growth and life enriching experiences”
“I feel strongly—as a man who will himself die one day in the not-too-distant future and as a psychiatrist who has spent decades dealing with death anxiety— that confronting death allows us, not to open some noisome Pandora’s box, but to reenter life in a richer, more compassionate manner.” – Irvin Yalom
I also went back to Epicurus’ philosophy on life and death, where he so simply explains the pointlessness of being afraid: “Death, the most awful of evils, is nothing to us, seeing that, when we are, death is not come, and, when death is come, we are not.” In other words, when you are here, death is not, and when death is here, you are not.
You will never actually be there to experience that thing you’re so afraid of.
Reading that passage again amidst the madness of gradually losing a loved one, something clicked. I realized that this is applicable to everything in life. We are always worried about things in the future. We are always afraid of what is to come. But you never know how it’s going to turn out, and you will especially never know how you are going to feel about it.
Your awareness changes all the time. When that something you’re afraid of gets here, you’re not that someone who was afraid anymore. You may feel completely different, you may even be completely different by then.
This is one of the reasons why I live my life the way I do. I want to look back to it when I’m old – or whenever my time comes – without disappointment. I want my life to be meaningful, both to myself and to others. I want to make the world a better place, help anyone I can, and pursue every dream I have.
Is it worth it? Well, I could tell you right now that if I’d find out today that I were to die tomorrow, I would not have done anything differently. I would have no regrets.
It may be a bit morbid, but I check in with myself on this quite regularly. Especially in periods that I happen to face more than the average naysayers, or when I’m in the middle of making some big life decisions. I ask myself; ‘If I were to die tomorrow/next month/in five years, would I be happy looking back?’ The answer tells me enough about whether I’m grabbing life by the balls or not.
“It is impossible to live a pleasant life without living wisely and well and justly, and it is impossible to live wisely and well and justly without living pleasantly.” – Epicurus
→ see my post How to get rid of your fear of the future here, where I explain how I leave worries about the future out of every decision-making process.
The question me and my husband often ask ourselves to make sure we’re on the right track is exactly that: ‘are we grabbing life by the balls?’ – bit lighter than my death-question, it means the same.
Think about it, how often have you been nervous about something maybe not going way you planned, and when time came it was fine however it turned out? You held back for nothing. What would be different if you weren’t afraid? How do you try to get rid of this fear? How do you try to make your life meaningful? I’d love to hear from you. Leave a comment below.