Why Are We Afraid of Death?
August 25, 2019
Author: Bianca Yang
I’ve had this conversation multiple times with a friend in college, but I recently was thinking about the topic again when a couple of my coworkers started talking about defensive driving. One of my coworkers is working on getting his license. Somehow, we started talking about accidents other people have been in and how some people are simply crazy drivers (going 105 down the highway and weaving through cars in other lanes crazy). The tactic to prevent against peoples’ idiocy is to drive defensively. One coworker quipped that driving defensively probably annoys a lot of other drivers because you likely brake a lot and drive more slowly. Another coworker said, “I’d rather be annoying than dead!”
But why be afraid? A simplistic evolutionary answer would claim that it’s because the evolutionary machine that governs our collective actions tries to help us to stay alive long enough to pass along our genes. But I think that evolutionary mechanism is more relevant from a life-preservation standpoint. We do fear death when we back away from the edge of a cliff or look away during climb sequences in “Free Solo”. But that kind of fear is visceral, more instinctive than the kind of existential, philosophical, nagging kind of fear that we try to hide or disguise whenever possible.
I think this kind of fear comes from our fear or lack of comfort with uncertainty. We don’t know what happens when we die. We don’t see any way to resolve the mystery that is the “afterlife”, so we come up with stories to assuage our fears. Some cultures believed the afterlife was a continuation of the current life and made appropriate preparations. Others believe in a moral separation of peoples after death and make appropriate preparations. But even with all these stories about death and attempts to celebrate, some cultures just [plain try to avoid the whole topic](https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Farewell_(2019_film). If confronted, they come up with the rosiest possible “white lie”, hoping belief in a happy ending will tide over the asker long enough for them to rationalize the Circle of Life. The rosiness of the picture sometimes has to be extended to cover deaths of pets.
But what does this have to do with our being afraid? So what we don’t know what happens. We don’t know when the next “Big One” is going to hit California. We don’t know if there’s going to be a shooting at our weekend getaway. We don’t know if our kids will be bullied at school. There’s a lot of things we don’t know, but the finality of death and the associated indoctrination of the sanctity of life cement the importance and thus need for excessive worrying about death.
I think it’s impossible to get over this fear. I think the fear is baked into our psyches and until we fundamentally change human culture or we all become Buddhist, we will need to learn to manage death the way we manage our other psychoses and points of mental instability. Death will happen to all of us, whether or not we like it. Our parents, our friends, our grandparents, aunts, uncles, pets, etc. One day, someone important to us will die, and we will have to learn to manage the grief of knowing that this person, this animal, this thing that cared about us in a way that no one else does will never extend that care to us again. I think that’s another kind of fear of death. We fear our own deaths in this existential what happens after death kind of way but we fear the deaths of other people in this kind of loss averse I want to see them again, I hope we can reunite, I want to hear their voice, see their smile, feel their warmth, kind of way.
There is no way we can rationalize away our feelings, the pain that will come when people die. All we can do is to acknowledge that the pain is a sign that they mattered to us, that the magnitude of the pain is a sign of how much they mattered, and that’s it’s good that we were able to share moments with them that makes us feel alive, make us feel human. There is no way we can rationalize away our fear of no longer existing, of no longer being conscious, but the pain and fear associated with death will improve with experience and time. All we can do is live each of our lives with purpose and love and know that no matter when we go, the time is right.