Scratching at my Thanatophobia

I’m afraid to die. Terrified, actually. My parents think it’s because I’m an atheist. Though, I was terrified when I was a Catholic too. As a kid, I couldn’t shake the idea that I was going to be trapped inside my body, then buried, surrounded, corroded and forgotten. I would be stuck in my mind, without any further momentum, warts and all.

I am inclined to agree with Christopher Hitchens: that I didn’t become an atheist, but rather, I was always one.

Either way, Heaven sounded just as awful as Hell. So boring and prostrate (a celestial North Korea, Hitchens called it); the exact opposite of what makes life awesome.

To quote Alan Watts, “Nobody wants to be in church forever.”

Yesterday I came across this hauntingly beautiful mash-up video of an Alan Watts recording and the video for “Sometimes the Stars” by The Audreys on Brainpickings (which may be the best blog ever) and found myself very suddenly moved.

(Until I was violently interrupted with an irksome advertisement in the corner…)

Watts’s words were so familiar, and although thinking about death with any kind of empathy and immediacy generally ices my blood, sharing these terrifying thoughts felt deeply human. It’s moments like these where I can peek through and briefly experience what it might be like to not be so afraid. There’s ecstasy in giving up. I guess I’m just not ready to feel completely comfortable with my impermanence. I’ll get there, hopefully.

This video helped a little though, and that is worth sharing.

What’s it gonna be like, dying? To go to sleep and never, never, never wake up.

Well, a lot of things it’s not gonna be like. It’s not going to be like being buried alive. It’s not going to be like being in the darkness forever.

I tell you what — it’s going to be as if you never had existed at all. Not only you, but everything else as well. That just there was never anything, there’s no one to regret it — and there’s no problem.

Well, think about that for a while — it’s kind of a weird feeling when you really think about it, when you really imagine.

About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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5 Responses to Scratching at my Thanatophobia

  1. Sarah says:

    There’s been so much talk of death around me and in me the last two weeks. I’ve dealt with a lot of death in my life. Six grandparents and about a dozen friends or siblings of friends. While my grandmother may very well be dying, and my visit with her this weekend may be the last I ever see my youth’s partner in crime (she enjoyed walking beaches seeking pretty stones and driftwood with me, we liked the same colors, and on one strange day, we did a lingerie fashion show for members of our family with her stores of sexy, frilly things. I was three. I took a dump in one of her red teddies.), I am comfortable with the idea of her death, as much as I can be.

    Today, with the family gathered ’round at my aunt and uncles’ home, the conversation turned, in general, to death, and what we’d like to have done to our bodies when that time comes. I spoke my wishes, as formed as they are at this young age, and my mother took them seriously (one of many instances the past few weeks where I feel my mother is hearing me and accepting me, as I am, without judgement or inquest. This is very new and wonderful). It was more or less decided I’d be buried in Ely, MN, where my fathers’ family originated, and where some of them are buried.

    I’ve always known death. It never scared me. I am afraid of things like being buried alive, or undergoing a horrible experience that leads to my death, but that, in and of itself, is not death. That’s what occurs before death. I don’t believe I’ll go to a bad place, and I’m not sure I believe I’ll go to any place at all. I’ve seen and heard things that tell me there may be life after death, but there is also the logical part of me that says I imagined those things, or there is some other explanation like the power of grief or loneliness, or merely want. But I also believe I cannot know, so there’s very little point in speculating. In short, I’m almost sure I don’t care what happens to me after death. Something might, and the complete inability to know whether or not that’s true makes it a moot point. I have much better, more pressing things to consider.

    Now, if I could stop my anxious head from imagining all the horrible ways I could die a slow, awful death, that would be super.

    • I’m so sorry to hear about your grandmother: your partner in crime. She sounds like a really awesome lady. I’m glad that you’re with her and family now, and surrounded with love, and I’m especially happy to hear about the lovely turn things have taken with your mother.

      It always surprises me to hear how many people I know aren’t afraid of death. I envy you guys. Yes, I too fear the myriad slow, horrible ways I could die, but like you said that’s altogether a different kind of fear. I’m not as afraid of that. (Though, I am THAT afraid (and more so) of things that could happen to Aria. I don’t want anything like that to happen to me, but it’s not even close to how much I don’t want anything like that to happen to her. Just typing that makes me want to throw up.) I guess what I mean to say, is fearing a bad death is isolated; it can be contained; it’s hand-wringing over the improbable but at the same time it’s laced with such despair. Despair that it’s happened to someone, that it happens with alarming frequency. It’s a fear that’s so leaden with sadness. The world is a fucked up place. Sometimes I can’t believe we have to share the planet with such sadistic psychotic assholes. Sometimes the grief becomes so much you can’t help but fall to the floor and weep uncontrollably (which I did the other day when I let Syria in). Sometimes your blood boils over and the fighting hormone kicks in, and you reaffirm that we can’t share the planet with these fascists and we must do everything we can to eradicate them and all evil and make the world a better place.

      To me, fear of death is different primarily because it’s inevitable. There’s no gamble. And although our brains play tricks on us and we live as though we’re going to live forever, underneath it all, I know I will not live forever. There are no vampires. There will be no second coming. When I “lost my faith”––to use the parlance––I felt as though I was handed a terminal death sentence. And while it’s true that I don’t think I ever really believed, I did used to hope. There just came a point when I felt like I couldn’t go on living on wishes alone.

      Confrontation has helped a lot though. The more I talk about it, the more I think about it, the better I feel about it. So, YOLO.

      • Sarah says:

        I make a pretty rigid point of not letting things in, on a global disaster, war, or the generality of the fucked up drives that people can have, scale. It wrecks me, and it feels futile. I will pause to consider those hurt by an earthquake, tsunami, school shooting, hurricane, etc, but I refuse to read anything that involves personal accounts. It’s too much. There are so many people I can literally reach out and touch who need my love and protection, and I’d much rather give it to them. It is altogether too easy for me to become overwhelmed or feel spread too thin if I let those things in. Or worse, completely numb.

  2. You know, I don’t think we could love without death. I think of the Psyche and Eros myth and it scares the hell out of me. Not the punishment from Aphrodite so much as loving an immortal??? Ugh! That is sooo not sexy! Afterlife and “Higher Self” and reincarnation, is what make me itch –and that’s all over my current business. 😦 But proper death is good! It makes revolution possible, where there is no self… I actually wrote on this, part 2 of “To the Left…” under the articles category. I think you just need to read more Bataille and Deleuze — there’s no becoming other without a complete destruction of the self. Woo! It’s thrilling. 😉

  3. I feel you! Intellectually, I’m there. I get it. I love it. Emotionally, I’m a trainwreck.

    Bataille’s “Erotism” is my bedrock.

    You couldn’t be more right about Deleuze though. I would give my left eye to join a Deleuze reading group. I should look into that. One has to exist. I know I’d just miss so much if I dove in on my own. (I’ve dabbled, but never dived.)

    Sometimes I really miss academia.

    Most times, though, I do not.

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