Now that I’m 48, Roosevelt’s famous phrase, “the only thing we have to fear is fear itself,” takes on a personal meaning. In some aspects of our lives, we are “over the hill” at this point, and are making a gradual descent. Having reached the top, we can see the other side of the hill for the first time. The fear of death becomes real. When we are still climbing the hill, it can feel as though there is no end because we are continually staring at the sky.
This might be an inappropriate analogy but talking about this reminds me of the Kamikaze pilots. We ascend into the sky and reach the target destination. We then say to ourselves, “Here we go. This is it!” We were not given enough fuel to go back home, which is analogous to our reality that we can’t get any younger. So, we might as well try our best and see what we can do, since we are going to die anyway, which is the same reality we all face in life. The only difference is the speed.
Roosevelt was referring mainly to the bank runs during the Depression, but the same self-perpetuating problem applies to our own fear of death. If we give into the fear, we end up consuming our time and energy managing the fear, instead of doing something meaningful with the health, talent, knowledge, and insight we still have. A comfortable retirement becomes our only goal and meaning of life. But preparing for it by toiling away now is just a delay tactic. We would only be putting off having to confront the fear of death. If we delay it, it will all come at once at the end.
According to some professionals who deal with people at the end of their lives, the assumptions we make about end of life are misguided. For instance, many people’s greatest concern is pain. They want to die painlessly. But apparently, even after taking plenty of painkillers, they still have a terrified look on their faces. They realize that the problem wasn’t the pain after all.
Even if we have all the money in the world, if we are gripped by fear, we wouldn’t be able to do anything. Imagine if we were in a falling airplane; would we be able to enjoy the movie that is playing in front of us? Probably not. But without that ability, how can we enjoy our life towards the end? What would be the point of saving up for the retirement if we are going to be gripped by fear the whole time?
So the order in which we need to face the challenges of aging is to overcome our fears first. Without achieving this, nothing else would matter. All the money in the world cannot stop us from dying.
We have been told many times in our lives: We can afford to take a lot of risks when we are young, but as we age, we have to become more cautious. If we think about this a bit, it should be the other way around. When we buy a brand-new iPhone, we put it in a case to protect it. We are very careful with it at first. But as we use it longer, we become less careful. Towards the end, we might as well take it out of the case so we can finally enjoy the design as it was intended. Even if we drop and break it, we’ve already gotten our money’s worth anyway. There is not much to lose.
How come we don’t think about our own lives this way?
My wife is a psychotherapist and she deals with many seniors. She tells me that what is painful to see is the profound loneliness they face. This afflicts all of her clients, rich or poor, well-educated or not, especially after their spouses die. They don’t know what to do with their time because they are so gripped by fear. They would go down to the mailbox just to see if they can find someone to talk to. The description makes me think of a campfire with some firewood still left but with no flame.
I believe human passion is more fragile than we assume. It can easily be extinguished by our fear if we let our fears consume us. Once the flame becomes too small, it becomes impossible to reignite it. There are people who manage to keep the fire going to the very end of their lives. Without this fire, we cannot develop and nurture meaningful relationships even if we can surround ourselves with others who are willing to play bingo. Also, when we give into our fears, we would only be able to take care of ourselves. We wouldn’t have the capacity to care about others. It is an inevitable path to loneliness.
So, it all comes down to one thing: Can we stare at the face of death and still pursue our own passions? This is our final challenge in life.
One of my favorite neighbors is an eccentric lady in her 90s. She is always dressed fashionably and never afraid to spell things out to everyone’s face. One day, when my wife and I saw her in our courtyard, out of nowhere, she told us: “Aging is not for sissies.”
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