Thursday, May 21, 2015

Why Are We Afraid of Death?

In one sense, the answer seems obvious. Death is unknown. Death is often accompanied by pain (both physical and emotional) and we avoid pain because pain hurts. Those are good points for sure, but I guess I was wondering today why death is "death," in the way it is. Yes, humans and, to some extent, animals have developed feelings of attachment that make us sad when someone dies, but that should be less an issue with the one dying. For humans we recognize the sadness of those we leave behind, but I doubt greatly too many creatures on this planet are wondering how their litter of kittens will feel when they die.

Why is death such a big deal? I tend to think it's because of evolution. The way life seems to have come about in this world is through a long process of reproduction. It really seems a strain of self-survival has been laid within all of life to the very smallest, simplest organisms. Something inside us wants to live on. At the base, natural level we want to reproduce, as much as possible, giving "us" the best chance of surviving to the next generation.

I know there's this traditional Christian belief that death only existed after humans sinned. But that's not even really in scripture. It's not an issue of literal or non-literal reading. It's just not there. That belief emerged through interpretation, to answer some questions that arose around the text. There's some question about whether death was inevitable for Adam and Eve, say, but no real question about the reality of death for everyone else (with a couple key exceptions that are relatively irrelevant to this post).

I've written elsewhere, something that will be part of a larger post (or series of posts) about evolution and theology that is in the works, that it really seems there is a force of selfishness at work in the world - this is the evolutionary drive to survive and reproduce. Selfishness doesn't necessarily means bad, after all, a selfish baby is one that survives, because it makes enough noise to be properly fed and cared for.

If we look at death in its strictest element, without all of the emotional attachments we've laid on it - say from the perspective of a rabbit or a skunk - there isn't necessarily a reason to fear it. You may desire to avoid it the way you'd also avoid falling in a cold lake, but the fear we attach has nothing to do with death itself, only with what death represents. We'd miss out on more chances to reproduce; it would cut into our inborn ability to be selfish or self-sustaining. We're programmed to live as long as we can - which is why death becomes real scary.

Now there is room for altruism, of course. Human beings have evolved to such a point where our brains can step outside themselves, so to speak. We can analyze the natural inclinations we possess and choose to work against them. We can recognize this inborn desire for survival and put it aside, sacrificing ourselves say, for simple pleasures, or in place of one we love. Even so, death is still feared. I suppose we may find a sense of calm in the notion that we've chosen death as opposed to it sneaking up on us from behind, but it's still scary. Even if we push beyond that inclination to survive, we still possess it. It still makes an impact on us.

In the Christian faith there is a belief in resurrection. This notion is simply that death is not final. We die and then later we come back to life. Christians believe in an eternity, where, at some point, everyone will live in perfect harmony with God, each other, and the world around us. It might take a literal eternity to get there, but it is in the future.

If that's true, then death becomes relative benign. We might be afraid of that which accompanies death - emotional and physical pain, loss, etc - but death itself is not to be feared. Death is not the finality of us - perhaps, in fact, we have no finality at all.

I like the notion (and I'd love some input if there are those of you who know others who've posited this notion - I'm starting to wonder if I'm not the first one) that God represents a force opposed to that of selfishness - we can call it love (because that sounds great), but it's really just a selflessness. As the evolutionary process that brought us about came through a move towards selflessness, so the counterbalance that will lead us into eternity comes from a force of selfless love at work in the world. I guess my idea is that both forces have always and will always be at work, but the person of Christ represents the tipping point at which time that selfless love takes the upper hand from selfishness.

I say all this just to say - perhaps our fear of death is really just a lie. Yes, those things which accompany death are scary - we don't like pain, pain works against the notion of selfishness that lives in all of us - but death itself is a fear reaction to potentially losing the future. If there is no way to lose the future - no end to who we are - then death is just not scary.

I pay special attention to the parts of scripture that talk about fear. As near as I can tell, fear and love are completely incompatible. A perfect love drives out all fear (I think a pretty wise dude once said something like that). If we really do have these forces working within us - a selfish drive towards survival and a loving force pushing us to seek the good of others before our own, at some point they come into conflict (probably at a lot of points) and we have to choose between them. If death is on the horizon, it makes some logical sense to choose fear, but I guess what I'm wondering (recognizing that my faith in the future does not equal knowledge of the future) maybe that choice is the wrong one.

I could go on and on (I'd like to at some point), and it some ways this could be viewed as me saying life isn't precious or valuable. On the contrary - this is where that drive towards selfishness comes in handy (I told you it's not necessarily bad) - those things which accompany death make us treat it with utmost care and respect. The very notion we might lose our life leads us to value it. At the same time, perhaps these serious accompaniments have been given too much power. They must be taken seriously, yes - but perhaps not given control in our lives and decisions.

Ultimately, I suppose, we fear death because we recognize that we've not given to this life or gotten from it all we'd like to. I think that fits within this notion of self-preservation very well. We fear death because we doubt what's on the other side. Maybe it's that notion of feat that needs to change. There is a big difference between taking something seriously and being afraid of it. If you encounter a bear in the woods, both the one who ignores it and the one who responds in fear will likely find themselves with less than desirable outcomes. The best chance of survival is putting away the fear and taking the reality of the bear seriously.

There is no flippant response to death, but, just maybe, there also shouldn't rightly be fear either.

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