Fear Of Death Is Fear Of Immortality

We philosophize because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek out religious consolation because we anticipate death, fearfully. We seek in philosophical rumination and religious observance and faith some deliverance from our mortality, some way to ‘stay alive,’ to not be annihilated. One kind of introspection these forms of thought encourage is to look a little closer at what terrifies us so about death. There, very often, we find our fears are quite concrete: in my case, as I noted here, they “reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties…the fear of being buried alive…the fear of being lost or left alone. I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.”

The crucial note in there is, I think, that those imagined horrors persisted “endlessly”; for instance, I would be buried alive forever, not dying and finding release, because after all, I would be already dead. In that case, I would crave the nullity we associate with death. It is at moments like these that I realized just how comforting science is in reassuring me that once my material self is gone, I will be gone, utterly and totally. My grandmother once confessed to me that what terrified her the most about her death was the fear that some fragment of her consciousness would survive, perhaps some memory, reminding her of the world she had once lived in, with all that she had loved and lost. That fragment would be isolated, disjoint, expelled from all it had known, and yet not fully sundered. She could see no end to that torment. As she said this, she closed her eyes and spoke softly, “When I pray, I ask for complete deliverance, to be released completely, to leave this world behind utterly.” Of all the conversations I had with her over the years, this one chilled me the most; she was the most religious person I knew, and she had allowed me a glimpse of her deepest existential fears, ones she sought to assuage through her daily rituals of prayer and meditation.

Death is terrifying precisely because it is a kind of immortality; it’s just the wrong kind. We sense, we know, that time–in the way that we understand it–seems to stretch endlessly forward backward and forward; we cannot imagine a beginning or end to it. We sense we came from the eternal void, delivered to this brief moment ‘in the sun.’ We dread the return to that same endlessness. We don’t want immortality if it is the wrong kind. (Like eternal agony in hellfire.) We don’t want to be alive by ourselves, all alone, terrified and scared, ‘in a dark place.’ The void is always preferable to that. We seek the right kind of immortality, a kind of prolongation of those fleeting moments of love and pleasure and happiness that this life has sent our way. That extension is what we cannot have, not in this world, one in which we cannot step in the same river twice, in which all things come to be and pass away.

On Learning The Meaning Of ‘Delirium’

I learned the meaning of the words ‘delirium’ and ‘delirious’ when I was nine. The spring of that year, I came down with a viral fever of an unknown variety. My body temperature rose sharply, and my mother responded with the usual battery of treatments: antipyretics and cold cotton wraps for my forehead. But the infection in my body had its usual course to run, and so, despite the medication, and despite my mother’s best supplemental efforts, my fever mounted.

Finally, one night it crossed the 104 degrees mark. I was coherent enough to understand two facts: a) this was the highest body temperature I had ever experienced, an impressive personal record for a nerdy nine-year old; and b) this was a number that clearly made my mother nervous.

That night, as I struggled to sleep, my mother lying next to me to provide me some comfort, I began to see and hear things. The walls of the room that enclosed us began to oscillate, sometimes expanding away from me to form a cavernous hall, and sometimes contracting till the ceiling appeared mere inches away from my eyes. I could feel a lurking presence in the room, an undefinable entity that made me shudder with fear and call out for help. And most bizarrely of all, I began to hallucinate that I had arisen, left bed, and walked to the adjoining living room where a fearsome tiger, pacing up and down its limited length, waited for me.

I could not understand what was happening; I clung to my mother in panic, my cries of alarm announcing and describing the various phenomena I was experiencing turning all too quickly into a species of frantic gibbering. My mother did not call an emergency medical service. While there must have been an ambulance service–or a local doctor–that we could have called in New Delhi in 1976, we did not own a phone. Making a phone call meant asking a neighbor for help.  I suspect my mother was reluctant to do so late at night, and that moreover, she was still calm enough to reckon that this was only a passing phase.  A high temperature fever would have been very dangerous for an infant or a toddler, of course, but I was considerably older than that. She continued to place cotton wraps soaked in cold water on my forehead, and continued to try to ‘talk me down.’

My aunt–my mother’s sister, then visiting from the US–was spending the night with us (my father was away at an air force base.) As my mother and her discussed how best to proceed, I heard my mother say I was ‘delirious,’ that my ‘delirium’ was making me see and hear things. I had seen the word in print before and not fully understood what it meant. Now I did.

Sometimes when I describe myself as a nerd, it’s because I remember incidents like this one, and my reactions to them. That night, as I lay in bed, slipping in and out of sanity, I remember thinking it was so interesting that a previously mysterious word had ‘happened’ to me. I couldn’t wait to talk about it when it was all over.

Which I did the next morning. The storm passed, and the tiger left the living room.

Vampire, Vampire, Burning Bright

When I was ten years old or so, my father and I went to visit an old friend of his at his sprawling home. While they chatted in the living room, I went wandering around the house, looking for books to browse through. (I had asked for, and had been granted permission to do so; my father knew it was the best way to keep me occupied while the adult conversation proceeded.) In a bedroom upstairs, I found a bookshelf, and began looking through its offerings. I quickly found one title that looked good for a read: Vampires. A pair of bloodstained fangs adorned the cover, and it featured a collection of plates mid-volume.

This was no pop book; this was a serious history of the vampire phenomenon in cultural history. I read the first few pages, grimly fascinated by the descriptions of the undead nocturnal blood sucking creatures  that had so terrified and excited the human imagination through the ages. I had seen Dracula: Prince of Darkness a year or so before (somehow, my parents had allowed me to do so); I knew of vampires and their properties. But I had not realized they had been such a perennial fascination across cultures and time. I spent, as can be imagined, more time on the black and white plates than on actual reading–there were enough gruesome drawings and depictions of various forms of the vampyric to send chills down my spine as I sat there, alone, in that bedroom, engrossed and horrified in equal measure.

Soon, I was called downstairs by my father. Our visit was over. I was relieved and disappointed in equal measure. But I did not ask to borrow the book, to continue reading it. Something about it had made me deeply uneasy.

Later that evening, I went out to play soccer in the local park, and stayed out late, kicking around with my mates till dusk fell. At that point, with the sun setting and visibility increasingly poor, we reluctantly called it a day and headed home. I walked down my lane back home, ready for a shower, and then, dinner with my parents. I walked up the stairs to our second level home, and rang the bell.

No one answered. I rang the bell again. Still no answer. I realized, suddenly, that our normally well-let living room, clearly visible through the sliding glass door, was dark, utterly so. So was the bedroom my brother and I used. No one was at home. I was alone, standing on our darkened balcony.

At that moment, every single image I had seen earlier that day, came flooding back, jostling for attention. Every fear that had remained hidden, that I had struggled to keep latent during the day suddenly made itself manifest. This dark balcony was no longer familiar; its corners crawled with menace.

I burst into tears; I was utterly, totally, terrified. I cursed myself for having exposed my vision and my imagination to those depictions of bloody teeth, cowering victims, and caped creatures of the night. I was convinced my death and damnation were at hand.

A few seconds later, my mother, having heard my bawling from the back of the house, the kitchen, where she had been cooking the night’s dinner, came running out.  Salvation was at hand.

I’ve never been as scared since. By the supernatural at least.

Dreams of the “Undiscovered Country”

Hamlet suggested that “What dreams may come after / When we have shuffled off this mortal coil / Must give us pause” and that “The dread of something after death / The undiscovered country, from whose bourn / No traveler returns, puzzles the will.”

The eternally indecisive Danish prince was right, of course: many, if not all, of us have wondered what lies in store for us after death. The more certain among the materialistically minded reassure themselves that oblivion awaits, a blankness and a void like that of the deepest sleep, like the kind that was our lot before we were ejected into this world naked and helpless and conscious. Others–convinced of the claims of some of the world’s great religions–speculate that eternal torment or pleasures of some form lies in store. And perhaps yet others, stranded at some indeterminate point between these viewpoints of spiritualism and materialism, fret that our knowledge of the relationship of consciousness to the material body is limited and that states of being that we have no epistemic access to, and thus no conception of currently, might be our postmortem fate.

Such uncertainty, of course, is an invitation to the very anxiety referred to by Hamlet: Perhaps our consciousness–in some shape or form–might survive the destruction of our corporeal self; if so, what form would it exist in? What states would persist? Would we–perish the thought–remain locked into some endlessly painful or terrifying state of being? One did not have to believe in divinely dispensed heavens or hells to believe that the riddles of existence might have facets to them painful or pleasurable to the remnants of a once thriving consciousness. (You could call this kind of thinking a holdover of a theistic or eschatological way of thinking.)

At times in the past, I sometimes found myself in precisely such a state of mind and found that my greatest fears amounted to two kinds of states. The first was one in which I felt as if smothered by an impenetrable darkness that lay suffocatingly over me, and which could not be pushed away; my movements were restricted by an all-enveloping black veil. I would be conscious of this darkness but unable to move, unable to illuminate it; it was a sensory deprivation tank of sorts but one in which I could sense and see the darkness pressing in on me. In the second kind of state, I imagined myself–without any sense of corporeal being–to be suspended in a realm that can best be analogized with the space we can imagine lying between those imposing maps of gigantic galactic clusters: endlessly expansive and relentlessly empty.

I found both these allusive suggestions of a postmortem persistence of some fragment of consciousness chilling. (In the second case, almost literally so.)

These lost their grip on my imagination when I realized that in both cases, they reflected deeply held phobias and anxieties of a sort. The first was the fear of being buried alive (those childhood tales of immurement had left a mark) and the second was the fear of being lost or left alone (yup, the childhood impress again.)

I had merely transferred my fears from the here and now to the hereafter–so vivid were they that I imagined them persisting endlessly, even after death.