Dealing with Death. And Fear. Just your average run-of-the-mill blog.

Posted: August 4, 2014 in Popular Culture et al, Religion, Science
Tags: , , , , , , , , , , , , , ,

fear-of-death

We have come to the realisation, Dear Reader, that fear is a bloody miserable thing, and that we suffer from it.

When the treadmill of life slows down long enough for us to actually stop and think – read: reflect, brood, ponder, worry – it is easy for fear to creep in, especially if one is on one’s own, or the blood sugar is a tad low, or it’s just been a shitty day.

In the case of your indefatigable correspondent, the fears are often about the process of growing older, and death. And then, nigh-on simultaneously, the death of loved ones. And then the disastrous state of the world, and how it’s all going to pot.

But it is the first one that can utterly paralyse us. After all: death is the one unavoidable conclusion of all lives. It’s going to happen. And with it, bang goes the achievements, the fun, the striving, the connection with everyone, the adored family. Doesn’t it? Life. What was that all about, huh? Why bother, just to die and leave it all behind?

As we get older, our faculties also decline. This isn’t a pretend fear, it’s a real fear. No amount of positive thinking or even age-appropriate exercise will totally prevent it.

Joints get less flexible. (Puhlease don’t tell us about 80 year old gymnasts on YouTube – most of us don’t keep fit enough in the early years to make that happen – I am being realistic here – and by the time we realise the body is beginning to creak it’s too late to stop all the creaking. Some ageing can be overcome, but not all. Just tell my left shoulder that you’re thinking positively about it and listen to the laughter.)

The brain unquestionably slows, too. Which is a real bugger, if one has used one’s brain to make a living since, like, forever.  And it’s very noticeable. Undeniable. It becomes harder to bring words to mind instantly. Sentence construction is more laborious, too. And when one rushes in panic to the experts worrying about early-onset Alzheimers, they reassure you with the most annoying advice imaginable: “Don’t worry, you’re just getting older, it happens to everyone.”

Well, poo to that. And this isn’t even to touch on the myriad anxieties that afflict people about their social interactions, phobias, and 1001 other things.

There is even a specific phobia for those who fear death, called thanataphobia. We don’t think we would quite describe ourselves as phobic on the issue, merely mildly obsessed. OK, make that “aware” and “thoughtful”.

So what to do about fear, and specifically fear of death?

We are sure religious faith helps with the whole death thing, at least to a degree. We remember hearing someone say once, “We are mortal beings living immortal lives” and being charmed by its simplicity. Nice thought. If it’s true. Life becomes much more bearable – death becomes much more bearable – if it is just a prelude to a sort of eternal holiday-camp shared with those we love, or perhaps a chance to come back and do better next time. But doubt is at the core of all faith – that’s why they call it faith – and on days that the awareness of death and loss bears down on us, it often seems that the nagging demon of doubt does, too.

Cancer support groups often talk about working towards a “good death”, rather than hoping against hope (and logic) to try and endlessly prolong life. A good death is one where one is resigned to the inevitability of our dying, where we have made our peace with those around us and been able to spend quality time with them, and where our affairs are as much in order as possible. Where death does not dull our mind with terror, and we can maintain dignity, calm, and acceptance of our fate.

We are reminded of a dear friend, Senator Sid Spindler, taken from us a couple of years ago with liver cancer, who was discussing an article in the local paper with his wife when quite clearly only a few days from death. An indefatigable campaigner, he murmured “Perhaps I should write a letter?” Those around him rolled their eyes in disbelief and amused admiration. But was he postponing the inevitable – clinging to one last vestige of relevance – or merely accepting his imminent death but refusing to be cowed by it? Or a bit of both? Only Sid could tell us, and he isn’t here any more.

In olden times, someone would have cheerily, at this point, said something like “Make the most out of every day!” as a response to the fact that one day the days will simply run out. Indeed, there are web pages dedicated to telling you exactly how many productive hours one has left in one’s life when one has removed sleep, showering, going to the loo, travelling, etc., to encourage everybody to “make the most” of life. Fair enough. Personally, we have stopped looking at them. It looks like we’ve got enough time left to make one more decent pot of bolognese sauce before we cark it.

We also ponder the fact that until relatively recently in human existence, within the last poofteenth of human time in reality, we would almost certainly already have been dead, and many people in today’s world still have a life expectancy below the amount we have already lived. And in the moments when we remind ourselves of this, we manage to be grateful and worried simultaneously.

Worried WoodyNot for nothing is our favourite celebrity quotation from Woody Allen, a man so obsessed with these matters that he wrote two theatre plays, one called God and the other Death. The quote runs thusly: “I don’t want to become immortal through my work. I want to become immortal through not dying.” Hear hear.

The Wellthisiswhatithink collective is by no means alone in this angst-ridden introspection, of course.

Existential death anxiety is the basic knowledge and awareness that natural life must end and it has fascinated writers and philosophers since humankind climbed down from the trees.

It is said that existential death anxiety directly correlates to language; that is, “language has created the basis for this type of death anxiety through communicative and behavioural changes.” Or in other words, over millenia we notice that we die, learn how to describe it, and then talk about it.

There is also “an awareness of the distinction between self and others, a full sense of personal identity, and the ability to anticipate the future, which includes the certainty of death. Humans defend against this type of death anxiety through denial, which is effected through a wide range of mental mechanisms and physical actions many of which also go unrecognised. While limited use of denial tends to be adaptive, its use is usually excessive and proves to be costly emotionally.”

Or to put it more simply, it’s better to face up to it.

As Wikipedia would have it, “Awareness of human mortality arose through some 150,000 years ago. In that extremely short span of evolutionary time, humans have fashioned but a single basic mechanism with which they deal with the existential death anxieties this awareness has evoked—denial in its many forms.

Fear of - and discussion of - dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Fear of – and discussion of – dying goes back to Neanderthal times. Not that it gets any easier.

Thus denial is basic to such diverse actions as breaking rules and violating frames and boundaries, manic celebrations, violence directed against others, attempts to gain extraordinary wealth and/or power — and more. These pursuits often are activated by a death-related trauma and while they may lead to constructive actions, more often than not, they lead to actions that are, in the short and long run, damaging to self and others.”

Or as we call them in Wales, “wakes”.

This is before we even tackle the concept of Existentialism proper, (as opposed to Existential anxiety), and it’s various concerns that life is inherently meaningless anyway, not to mention Absurd. That’s a topic for another day. Or days. Or lifetimes.

Anyway, this latest in a series of ramblings on this topic is coming to no great or profound conclusion, Dear Reader. We merely report that at this point in time we have decided to focus on a couple of related issues.

Firstly, we have decided to stop worrying about the fact that one cannot control death, because in reality one can only control a few outcomes in one’s life, and death surely isn’t one of them. Believing we are in charge of everything is a uniquely human conceit, and it is clearly not true.

In the Wellthisiswhatithink household we call this the “A Plane Fell On My House” syndrome, recognising that random acts can and do disrupt our neatly ordered existence.

Accepting this as a fact is a vital step towards dealing with events that catch us unawares.

kindnessSecondly, we are trying to make more of an impact on our world by being more concerned about other people than ourselves, by being kinder, by being slower to anger or frustration, by trying to see things from the other person’s perspective, by celebrating the good we see around us and building up those responsible for it.

It was Aesop (he of Fables fame) who once said “No act of kindness, however small, is ever wasted”. There’s a big mouthful, right there. And yet more proof, if proof were needed, that things don’t change much as the centuries roll by.

Deep in the last Millenium we saw “making an impact on the world” as ending up as Prime Minister of somewhere (or at least a senior panjandrum of some description), becoming the world’s greatest writer of film scripts, the most creative businessman in town, the “next big thing” in poetry, and a bunch of other grandiloquent outcomes. It would be fair to say we have now changed our focus, and in doing so, we have become more content, and by many measurements, more successful.

We may yet do something “famous”. Or we may not.

We’re taking it all a day at a time. And that helps, too.

Tara MohrMeanwhile, Tara Sophia Mohr is a San Francisco-based women’s leadership personality. We found these comments on her website, and thank her for her thinking. There is some big “applied commonsense” here.

1. Create a character.

Create a character that symbolises the voice of fear within you. Maybe she’s a frail recluse or an eight-year-old bully or a fire-breathing dragon. Maybe it’s the lion from “The Wizard of Oz” or the Wicked Witch or the Wizard himself. Pick a character that illustrates how the voice of fear feels in you, and name your character. When you hear the voice of fear, greet it: “Oh,Cruella, I see you’ve come to visit. Hello.”

Why does this work? Creating a character helps you separate the real you from the part of you that’s afraid. Your fears come from that instinctual part of the brain that seeks to avoid risk at any cost–not from your core self, your inner wisdom, or your dreams. Naming the voice of fear, visualising it as a character and observing it helps you get back in charge.

2. Follow the fear through to the end game.

Fear holds us hostage, making threats that if you do X, a disastrous outcome will occur.

The remedy is to imagine how you’d handle that outcome, and evaluate just how bad it would really be.

This involves asking “so what?” again and again. If, for example, you’re afraid that your request for a raise will be turned down, ask yourself, “So if I was turned down, so what? Then what?”

You’ll probably hear yourself thinking something like, “Well, I’d be disappointed, and I’d think about whether that means I need to change jobs. I guess it wouldn’t be the end of the world.” You’ve just taken a great deal of power away from your fear.

Or, you might find this outcome still feels super scary, and your answer to the question is “I’d feel horribly embarrassed around my boss every time I saw her!” Then ask the question again: “So I’d feel embarrassed and awkward, then what?” Keep following the fear through to the endgame. You’ll find your resiliency and sense of perspective as you keep asking, “So what?”

(We heartily concur with this advice in a whole host of areas of business and life generally. “So what?” is an incredible powerful tool.)

3. Ask, “Is it true?”

Whatever the little voice of fear is saying, it’s probably not true.

The fearful part of us is irrational and over-protective.

It might be saying you areTrue or false likely to fall flat on your face if you take a risk, or that no one will like your ideas. It might be saying that moving to a new city could ruin your children, or choosing the wrong job could wreck havoc on your life.

When you hear fear-based thoughts, ask yourself, “Is what this voice is saying true?” or, in Byron Katie’s approach, “Can I be absolutely sure that this thought is true?”

The answer to these questions — especially the latter one — is most often “no.”

4. Connect to love.

Here’s the very cool thing about our human consciousness.

We can’t be in a state of fear and one of love at the same time. They can’t co-exist. Each one blots out the other. When we are really connected to that mysterious energy that is love, we connect to a softness, a safety, a comfort, a healing. Fear vanishes.

So when you are stuck in fear, re-connect to love. Listening to a favourite song, doing something you love, focusing on a picture of a loved one, or connecting with nature are all good ways to do this.

Many people find that a short meditation on their own breathing or reaching out to a higher power in prayer reconnects them to love. Giving — time, money, a gift or a heartfelt compliment — to another person also connects us to love.

Use whatever process works for you. You’ll know you’ve re-connected to love when you feel that sense of harmony and comfort and softness returning.

If you aren’t sure what helps you easily and swiftly reconnect to love, start experimenting. All of us need a set of strategies for connecting to love when we get fearful, anxious, resentful or off-balance.

5. Let fear be your travelling companion.

Much of the time we can soften or even entirely lift our fears using the tools above, but sometimes, fear persists.

Then it’s time for this tool: let fear be your travelling companion. Let it be there, but not in control. Let it be there, but don’t take direction from it or stop moving forward because of it.

This is a skill. It’s a skill to learn to act in the face of fear, to allow it to be present but not to interfere.

You know when you are driving on the highway, and right next to you, one lane over, there’s some guy hanging out the window, keeping pace along side of you? He’s not in your way but he’s in your field of vision?

Think of fear that way: as the guy in the lane next to you. You are in the driver’s seat, in your own lane, moving forward. He’s next to you, not blocking you but just there, somewhat irritating, palpably present. The ride would feel more enjoyable and free if he wasn’t there, but you are getting to your destination just fine anyway.

Learn to walk with fear this way — as if it’s your uninvited traveling companion — intrusive, but not in the way.

(This last one is one we are personally working on. It is impossible to banish all fear. And we shouldn’t want to, anyway. After all, fear serves a purpose, too. It stops us wandering blithely into the middle of a pride of lions while we’re picking daisies. The trick is not to let fear – or, indeed, any thought – dominate one’s life to the exclusion of others.

And sometimes, to accept that we actually can’t control or change everything. Much of the “self help” advice coming out of the USA (in particular) likes to pretend that we can do anything, be anything, achieve anything, overcome anything, just with an act of will. That is simply nonsensical, and dangerous, because not being able to overcome something that is insurmountable is a sure way to become depressed.

If someone dies, for example, no amount of willing them back will change the fact of their death. How we DEAL with our distress and fear about the future will determine how successful our life is thereafter. That’s why “Feel the fear and do it anyway” is sometimes – sometimes – very good advice.

After all, what’s the worst that could happen? So what?)

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Comments
  1. paul says:

    You’ve hit the nail on the head in so many ways with this post. One of my major fears and gets worse as the years go by.

    Like

  2. Louise Wahler says:

    My friend’s saying is, we need to “punch fear in face”: to recognize it as that traveling companion, and if it’s in the way, punch it out of the way. Or as John Wayne said, “Courage is being scared to death but saddling up anyway”.

    Like

  3. underwriiter505 says:

    You can certainly take this with a grain of salt if you like, or you can file it under “I Told You So” –
    http://www.telegraph.co.uk/science/science-news/10584927/Brains-of-elderly-slow-because-they-know-so-much.html

    Like

  4. tulipels says:

    This is courage in the face of death. Myalgic Encephalomyelitis (WHO 1969) Name change to Chronic Fatigue Syndrome (1986) after worldwide outbreaks.
    http://documentingme.net/2014/07/11/final-stages/.

    Like

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