I'm afraid of death. This is natural. It is normal for a living being to try to cling to life and avoid death for as long as possible.
But as I wrote about twelve years ago in "Death and the primal fear of nonexistence," I regularly get glimpses into what it means to not exist forever.
I don't mean a glimpse into the actuality of non-existence, because I won't be around to experience either that, or anything. What I feel is an existential terror that seems different to me from a fear of dying. It is the stark reality that one day I will cease to exist for eternity after my brief stint of living here on Earth.
My most recent Holy Shit! moment came while I was listening to a guided Daily Calm meditation on my iPhone's Calm app. I like Calm a lot. I just found this particular Daily Calm to be anything but calming.
Here's the more positive image and quote that accompanied the guided meditation.
For sure, Mr. Pinker. You've got that right.
If, as is almost certainly true, each of us has only one life to live -- this one -- then there is indeed an incalcuable value to each and every moment. The sad thing is that most people either realize this too late, or never.
At least, this seems sad to me.
It may well be that not being able to visualize our impending non-existence until our last breath is an even greater gift. Frequently I envy our dog for being able to simply live her life without worrying about death and her eventual non-existence.
But I'm a human and she's a canine.
Our self-awareness brings along with it the realization that Steven Pinker speaks of: that our capacity to be conscious of existence is exceedingly precious, since in the grand scheme of the cosmos, that consciousness is rare and brief.
I've written quite a bit about death and non-existence. Here's a good sampling of my posts, with an excerpt from each.
Death and the primal fear of non-existence
I’ve come face to face with not-existing. It’s scary. Really scary. I’ve never experienced anything scarier. I can call it “fear,” but it’s more than that. Worse than that. Regular fear arises when something bad is happening or could happen.
But primal fear is looking into the maw of nothing happening to you, because there will be no you around for anything to happen to. Do you get the difference? I hope so. I don’t know if I can describe it any more clearly.
Overcoming the fear of non-existence
For me, the warmest, coziest, most reassuring thought-blankie is this: there's really no "me."
If I don't exist in the fashion that I have assumed to be true for most of my life, then not-existing after I die takes on a different meaning. This is hard to explain in words, because what I'm getting at is as much emotional as thoughtful.
It's sort of akin to worrying about losing a precious ring that you've always believed was a family heirloom, then having an older relative tell you, "It's not really worth much; we had it appraised a long time ago."
How I deal with the fear of death and non-existence
Thus whatever will happen to me, will happen to everybody. This realization takes away a feeling that I’m missing out on some special Salvation Treat others will enjoy. Knowing that billions of people have died before me, and billions will die after me, with the same thing happening to all of us after we take our last breath — that is comforting.
Uncertainty: the key to dealing with death and non-existence
Believers in life after death don't know that for sure. Believers in non-existence after death don't know that for sure. Nobody knows! Nobody. Not with certainty. And therein lies a viable way of dealing with death: acknowledge that it's an unknown, and focus on the known. Living, here and now.
Coping with death and the fear of non-existence
It may well be that this life is all there is. After death, finis. The end. If that's the case, I want to make the most of the moments that I have left. By contrast, people who believe in eternal life, or a lengthy afterlife in some heavenly paradise, are partly here and partly there.
Their imaginings of what awaits them beyond get mixed up with what is here, now. I don't want that to happen to me. So I try to use my glimpse of nothingness as motivation to embrace more fully the everything I'm currently aware of.
More thoughts about the fear of non-existence
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.
Scientific quasi-remedies for a fear of death
However, as I just said, there's still a lingering sense (or wish) in me that something conscious and aware exists beyond our commonplace understanding of the physical. Since I now find it extremely difficult to accept that this is a supernatural divine being, I'm left with exploring the furthest reaches of scientific speculation.
Furthest reaches is a big subject. By nature, almost boundless.
So I'll simply throw out a few approaches for allaying a fear of absolute extinction at death that scientifically-minded folks like me can look into. If anyone has additional suggestions, feel free to share them in a comment.