Thoughts Of Death
If you’ve been dealing with thoughts about death and dying and these thoughts have been causing you unwanted existential anxiety probably the most important thing to understand is that there’s nothing wrong with you. There’s no neurosis to cure, and indeed we can easily argue that the true neurosis is remaining blissfully unaware of human mortality throughout the lifespan by latching onto one or more of the various societal constructs whose purpose is to protect you from awareness of death as a personal and unavoidable reality.
Thoughts around death and dying can have a positive, life-affirming effect on your existence. When you come to feel it in your bones, not just at the theoretical level but at the deeply personal level, that one day in the not too distant future you will no longer be around, you face a fork in the road. You can choose to decide that life is pointless because of its brevity or that life is precious because of its brevity. That fundamental choice, what Frankl would call an attitudinal value, determines whether you sink into depression, hopelessness, and despair or establish a deeper and more meaningful relationship towards others and the world.
When people have been having those painful thoughts around dying, even though they’re still young, still healthy in mind and body, they tend to ask themselves “What’s wrong with me? Why can’t I just relax and enjoy life like everybody else seems to be able to do?” But again from our psychological perspective ‘everybody else’ is in a sort of stupor, an ego protected encasing where they secretly hold on to the belief of immortality, that somehow they’ll beat the odds, that their consciousness will come back in some other form or live forever in the afterlife, for example.
We’re not saying that all immortality projects are bad, what we’re saying is that if none of these social constructs are working for you then you shouldn’t surprised to be experiencing painful existential anxiety, which can after all be defined as the threat of nothingness. All of the immortality projects offer somethingness, they all offer a way for your psyche to combat that threat of nothingness, so when they break down you’re going to experience those painful, terror inducing, hard to describe thoughts and feelings.
The problem is not experiencing those painful sensations once in a while but rather allowing them to become a disabling force in your life, allowing them to dictate how you orient yourself towards the world. Is a blooming flower more precious or less precious because it will soon wilt away? That’s the fundamental existential question to ask yourself. The full acceptance of mortality can compel us to embrace the moment, to suck the nectar out of life, to do all the things we’ve always wanted to do, to pursue our dreams, to become the people we know we are, to forgive those who have wronged us, to stop feeling resentful, to take risks, to open ourselves up to wider possibilities. One way or another we’re all going to die, whether we have an immortality project in place shielding us from that painful truth or not. Thoughts of dying are not bad or dysfunctional in and of themselves, and in fact we’ve been arguing just the opposite, that they’re good and functional as long as you don’t stop there and allow yourself to sink into a depressive funk. These thoughts can just as easily act as a stepping stone towards a heightened and more satisfying relationship towards people and the world.