Philosophy  •  August 3, 2016

Why We Cannot Confront Our Own Death

My father often talks about death and dying. He jokes about it a lot with my daughter; like he might not be around when she visits him next time. Well, I’ve been the same way. The idea of death has always been one of my favorite topics. I’ve read many books and articles on the topic, like “The Denial of Death” by Ernest Becker. I recently had the opportunity to spend two and half weeks with my parents, and what was interesting about observing my dad was that I could see, more objectively, my own attitude about death in him.

My dad talks about death a lot, and he is proud of it. Even when other people ask him to stop, he doesn’t. I’ve been the same way. From my perspective, everyone should be able to talk about death openly, and that those who suppress their thoughts about death are being cowardly. By talking about death openly and casually, I felt I was encouraging others to confront their own fears.

But in observing the same attitude in my father, I realized something else was at play. It’s because he is scared of death that he talks about it a lot. In a way, he is trying an exposure therapy on himself to get over his fear. But here is the problem; exposure therapy can work for phobias like a fear of heights where we can repeatedly expose ourselves to the very thing we fear, like by going to the top of the Empire State Building on a regular basis. But death is not something we can experience; all that we can do is to think about it. It’s equivalent to repeatedly thinking about being at the top of the Empire State Building. Could an exposure therapy work like that? I doubt it. 

Most of our thoughts are already driven by our fears, so I believe thinking about it would only fuel our fears further. I also believe pushing others to think about death is a form of projection where I see my own weakness in others, and I’m trying to eradicate it by pointing my finger.

This does not mean that thinking about death is a bad thing, or that suppressing our thoughts about death is a good thing. The problem is that, either way, we are being driven by fear. As long as our fears are in charge, talking about it or suppressing it makes no difference. What we want to achieve is not be ruled by our fears.

Death is not something we can actually experience. We can only experience the ideas of death. In other words, we cannot confront death; we can only confront our own fears. The time and energy we spend thinking about death could be spent on living. No amount of thinking about it would allow us to get over the fear because thought itself is the origin of our own death.

But this does not mean that we should ignore all practical concerns related to our own death, like getting life insurance or preparing our wills. If we did not give into our fears, we can manage these practical matters more easily; no need to suppress them, pressure others to deal with them, or sugar-coat them to make them more palatable. These are just practical problems that we need to address so that we can enjoy our lives better.

Dealing with death is very much like keeping our homes clean. It’s a practical issue that we should manage well, but it’s not something we should dwell on or fetishize about. Excessive fear of death, I believe, leads to over-thinking and fetishization, or repression. The same is true for cleaning; some people are neurotic about cleanliness while others are entirely avoidant (in denial). Either way, being driven by fear can get in the way of living our life to the fullest.