I really appreciate the comments on my “Death and the primal fear of non-existence” post. I still find the all-too-likely prospect of not-existing deeply disturbing. But it’s somewhat comforting to know that I’m not the only one who feels this way.
Over the years I’ve had many discussions with friends and family about what happens or doesn’t happen after death. Invariably I’ve expressed surprise when someone tells me, “I’m not afraid to die.” Or, “I’m ready to go.” I ask them, “So you wouldn’t mind if I pulled out a knife and slit your throat?”
“Oh, sure, I’d be scared if something like that happened,” they’ll say. “Then why did you say you’re not afraid to die?” I’ll reply. Methinks those who claim they’re up with death are speaking from their detached intellect, not their gut-honest heart.
Over on the Radha Soami Studies discussion group, David Lane (a.k.a. the Neural Surfer) said something interesting about my post: Brian Hines is happy. Most profound, Professor Lane, who wrote:
I really liked this post because it reveals (at least for me) that Brian Hines is relatively happy.
You see, long ago I had this abiding realization: When we deeply fear death, non-existence, etc., the corollary is that we are HAPPY... RELATIVELY so, but happy all the same.
In other words, fear of non-existence IS the natural shadow of a happy man or woman IN THIS existence.
Now where I worry a bit is when that fear of death or non-existence goes away (now I am not talking about theology or poses we may assume).... when one absolutely doesn't care if they are annihilated.
Because it indicates that they are relatively DONE with this world, or unhappy, or sad, etc..... In other words, no fear indicates something amiss..... something about a certain sadness, a certain it's over with.
I say all of this because we oftentimes think that our biggest fears say something about the universe in general, when in point of fact they say everything about our current state of being.
Which is another way of saying, a happy man HAS fears.
I think David is correct. I know he’s right about me being happy. I am. And that’s a big part of the reason why I am so afraid of not-existing for ever and ever after I die. What a cosmic joke it would be to live happily for eighty years, or whatever, and then fade into absolute nothingness for eternity.
Not that I’m complaining about getting a chance to live at all, Mr. or Ms. Cosmic Joker. Thanks for my life span, as miniscule as it is in comparison to the age of the cosmos. I just would like to feel that there is more congruity between what I’m happily experiencing now and what awaits me after my last breath.
One commenter described Bernadette Roberts’ struggle to integrate her experience of “no-self” with the emptiness and nothingness of existence. I’ve read a couple of her books and picked up “The Experience of No-Self” this morning to see how her existential terror compares with mine. Much of what she says rings true to me:
I decided that having no-self was as bad, if not worse, than having a self; because once beyond the self, man was just as likely to come across an unlivable nothingness as he was a marvelous, unnameable “something”—as I first seemed to do.
…That was the real question: if there is no self and no God, what then? I had just seen “what then” and couldn’t live with that either. There’s nothing blissful about sheer nothingness—even Sartre declared it nauseous…
…In a moment of bravado I decided it was time to have it out with whatever it was. I could not keep running from this thing all my life, I had to get it out in the open, face it head-on and deal with it, because I could no longer stand its continual lurking around every corner of my day.
…This thing I had to stare down was simply a composite of every connotation we have of “terror,” “dread,” “fear,” “insanity,” and things of this order. In a word, it was a mental, psychological killer.
…If there is any aspect of this journey I would stress or emphasize, it is the necessity of finally coming to terms with the void and nothingness of existence which, for me, seemed to be the equivalent of living out my life without God or any such substitute.
…At one point, the mind came upon the hideous void of life, the insidious nothingness of death and decay strangling life from every object of sight. Only self can escape such a vision because only self knows fear, and only fear can generate the weapons of defense. Without a self the only escape is no escape; the void must be faced, come what may.
Yes. It must. For me, the beginning (and perhaps also the end) of genuine spirituality is confronting the fear of non-existence head on. I’m getting tired of being afraid. It seems that I’m approaching the point where I’m more afraid of being afraid than of the original fear itself.
It’s hard to talk about this stuff. I appreciate the commenters who were willing to try. The best cinematic depiction of the primal fear I wrote about is the European version of “The Vanishing” (another review here). Skip the Americanized version.
Watch it. But be warned: the ending will stay with you forever. Just like, perhaps, your non-existence.
When I first came face to face with these fears.... The fear of living forever was almost as bad as not existing at all.
My father, who was a minister, put it into perspective for me.. He said that he would fear existing forever if there was no possibility of continual growth or understanding.
I can sympathize with this position.
But facing these fears has forced me to simplify my faith.
I try to live in the moment as much as I can.
heaven, hell, existence, non-existence I can't do much of anything about them.. But my family, friends, this place I live and myself i can try to do something about.
It might not be much, but it is 'something'.
It light of this view...it becomes a great treasure to give something to someone, to make them happy. Even the attempt to do so is worth something.
I know some might read this and think...'how small a view'...but for me it is huge.
To see a loved ones happiness is bliss for me. To see them become thoughtful, caring, empathetic and giving people is 'heaven'.
To become secure and happy in the here and now is not about vanquishing all fears...but about finding a working balance or perspective from which to operate from.
I think I'll always have a little fear of living forever and Not-being at all...
If I wake up after death....I still think I'll take a nap every few millenia just to keep things in perspective.
Posted by: WayOutWesley | February 12, 2006 at 10:43 PM
I think that WayOutWesley paraphrased Jesus teachings when he said:
"But facing these fears has forced me to simplify my faith.
I try to live in the moment as much as I can."
After reading Paul Tillich, my sense of being and non-being changed to focus on the being now and try (not so successfully) not to allow fear of non-being to destroy my being.
Could we conclude that the Sermon On the Mount is addressing the ultimate fear from our ignorance of non-being?
Posted by: bill | February 13, 2006 at 08:27 AM
The only reason I would say I wouldn't want you to cut my throat is because you would only be creating yourself karmas.
Posted by: Elizar | February 13, 2006 at 07:32 PM
Five years on i wonder if you ever conquered your fear of non existence?
Perhaps you found some particular words of wisdom of perhaps you have put it to the back of your mind?
A penny for your thoughts.
Oh, and thanks for creating this site. It has been a useful outlet.
Posted by: Chris | March 24, 2011 at 03:05 PM
Chris, being a blogger, I'll share my thoughts for less than a penny. Tonight's blog post, which I'm about to start writing, will be about the question you asked. I'll share some approaches to the fear of non-existence which appeal to me. May be some repetition with previous posts, but that's fine.
Posted by: Blogger Brian | March 24, 2011 at 08:23 PM
Brian, Have you ever listented to John COltrane, the later years, after 1959. I highly recommend, starting with "A Love Supreme" . Listen with open ears and heart and let the music do the talking. Peace
Posted by: fran | June 09, 2011 at 07:48 PM
My first Thoughts Of Non-existance Was 6 or 7 years old laying in bed, It Comes Down To An Appreciation for each breathe, To Live For Each Day In The Moment, Understanding That Love Is Eternal & The Only Reason For Existance... The Only Thing We Have To Fear Is Fear Itself, Because Death Is Non Existant...
Posted by: Costic | April 09, 2016 at 10:29 PM