“In the long run, we are all dead” – John Maynard Keynes
Let me start by stating the fact that I’m hella afraid of Covid-19. Last year, the virus seemed far from my existence, none of my closest family and friends suffered from the dreadful effects of the virus. I am not saying that Covid was a hoax, it’s just that the current wave really freaked me out. At least twice a week since the middle of June, I hear a neighbor, an uncle, my friend’s mom, or an acquaintance die due to this virus that I am sick of hearing its name. It makes me feel like I could die soon. And I’m genuinely scared of dying.
Why you may ask. Why do people feel frightened to die? Mostly because of the uncertainty. You will never know what happens after you die. Will I feel anything? Will I go to heaven or hell? Will I meet God? Is the afterlife a real thing? Will I be reincarnated? Will I be a Casper, just floating around the world? No one knows because the ones that already have the answer are dead.
Us Homo sapiens is one of a few creatures in this world fortunate enough to have a prefrontal cortex. A part of our brain that is responsible for complex behaviors including focusing on a thing, predicting consequences, planning for the future, etc1Prefrontal Cortex – GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. (2016). Retrieved 6 July 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/prefrontal-cortex. In other words, we humans overthink about our future due to our own brains. Most creatures live in the present. They see food, they eat. They feel like their bladders are full, they pee. But we plan everything. We make a meal plan for a week. We plan our meetings. We make a vision board, showcasing how we see ourselves in 10 years. Sometimes we even plan on what time to go to the toilet because we’re on a road trip.
This ability, to think about the future, is unlimited. This is our superpower. We can plan our next minute and plan what we should do after we retire 50 years from now. But this power is blocked with death. We cannot plan what to do after we have a heart attack and die. And that fact freaks us out.
We are so used to planning everything. It’s a normal thing to do to have our google calendar filled with plans. We plan to have a sense of freedom2Shashkevich, A. (2018). Humans make plans to gain autonomy over their lives, Stanford scholar says. Stanford News. Retrieved 9 July 2021, from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/07/31/people-plan-makes-feel-free/.. We have an inherent need for consistency, coherence, and stability. And when that ability is taken from us, we crack. And that is why we are so afraid of death. It makes us anxious.
We’re All Going to Die Anyway
So what’s the point in living? Jean-Paul Sartre states that we put meaning into the meaningless life3Jean-Paul Sartre (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Plato.stanford.edu. (2004). Retrieved 10 July 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/.. When we talk about death, we cannot not talk about life. Something cannot be dead if it’s not alive in the first place. Life is temporary and the ultimate destination is death and the afterlife. In that sense, we live to be dead. We do good in this life so we can get a little sense of certainty that maybe we’ll go to heaven and not the fiery pits of endless suffering.
Buddha described death as ‘the greatest of all teachers’4Holmes, K. (2021). Buddhism and Death | SamyeLing.org. Samyeling.org. Retrieved 7 July 2021, from https://www.samyeling.org/buddhism-and-meditation/teaching-archive-2/dharmacharya-ken-holmes/buddhism-and-death/.. Buddhists believe that death should not be something to be afraid of5Lief, J. (2018). Death: The Greatest Teacher. Judylief.com. Retrieved 5 July 2021, from https://judylief.com/death-the-greatest-teacher/.. The more a person denies death, the more distance they have with death, the scarier death becomes. Contemplating death is said to be the “supreme contemplation”. Through that, we reflect not only on physical mortality but on impermanence in all its dimensions.
First, in 1986, three professors of psychology (Tom Pyszcynki, Jeff Greenberg, and Sheldon Solomon) introduced the Terror Management Theory (TMT)6Greenberg J., Pyszczynski T., Solomon S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Baumeister R. F. (Eds.), Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer; 10.1007/978-1-4613-9564-5_10 [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]. Like the Buddha, this theory views death as a lesson that influences behaviors. TMT explains how our anxiety towards death is what impels us to keep busy, win awards, basically trying to make “something” while still alive. Death anxiety drives people to try to protect their self-esteem, worthiness, and sustainability and allow them to believe that they play an important role in this world7Terror Management Theory. Psychology Today. (2021). Retrieved 8 July 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/terror-management-theory..
This terror moves society. The public consciousness that we are all going to die makes us form a defense mechanism together to protect ourselves against the scary death. Society forms a process in life where everyone can find something that can make them forget about death and ultimately be okay if suddenly they die. This process includes how we go to school for more than 12 years, find a job, try to make as much money as we can, give back to the community, and have children of our own. This way of life can be seen driven by said terror.
Because we’re afraid of death, we try to make our life meaningful. Death is inevitable, and if our terminus is something we cannot plan, let’s just try to make the most out of life that we already have. So what’s the point of life? Well, to die. Putting meaning into our lives based on death won’t give us any feelings, in which we might conclude that life is meaningless. If only to die, lives in this world embody nothing, no purpose at all.
Pursuit of the Essence of Life
A sense of purpose is what we all crave, in fact, need. In this limited time we have, it is the only rationale that we are here for a cause. Some people feel like they are alive to be the richest man alive, or to go to space, or to make their parents happy, or to be an advocate in a social matter. We spend most of our life seeking that purpose. Trying and learning new things in the hope to find said purpose. And when we’re 20 and still clueless about what our purpose is, we feel this hollowness, this eerie feeling that maybe we have no means to live, and therefore why do I need to be alive? Whatever that is, existentialists say all of these activities can give you meaning, but at the same time, none of them can.
Plato and Aristotle believed that to be a good human we need to find our essence8Ricoeur, P., Pellauer, D., & Starkey, J. (2014). Being, Essence and Substance in Plato and Aristotle. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Retrieved 24 July 2021, from https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/being-essence-and-substance-in-plato-and-aristotle/. Essence is described as a designation of a property or set of properties that make an entity or substance what it fundamentally is, and which it has by necessity and without which it loses its identity. For example, the essence of a water bottle is to hold water. It was invented for that purpose. Even though a water bottle comes in different shapes and holds different kinds of water, to hold water is and will forever be its essence. Humans have an essence and it is given to us before we are even born. With that belief, we do have a purpose to live. We are not here only to eat junk food, or maybe we are. Whatever it is, we have to fulfill that essence to be a good humans.
Thousands of years later, a different philosopher, Jean-Paul Satre, challenged this theory of essentialism. What if we are here before we are given an essence9Crowell, S. (2020). Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 25 July 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#SarExiMar.. A good old debate of “what comes first?”. Sartre suggests that it is up to us to define our own essence. Existence precedes essence. It is up to us to choose our own essence, meaning how we view and exercise life. So only in doing something in our existence do we put meaning to our life. It’s not our job to find the true meaning of life, but rather to choose a series of actions that define our life.
The Obscurity of the Afterlife
With said sense, how we value this life impend above our view of death, and the afterlife. Let’s talk about the biggest question of human existence: what happens after we die?
Socrates views the afterlife as one of two things; either a dreamless sleep or a passage to another world where we exist only in the form of minds11Van Harten, A. (2011). Socrates on life and death (Plato, Apology 40C5–41C7). The Cambridge Classical Journal, 57, 165-183. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1750270500001317. If death is how the universe terminates or lives, then the afterlife is just like a dreamless sleep. Literally nothing. Just, nothing. But, Socrates also kind of believes there’s a place we will go after we die where all the dead are ruled over by just judges (God, maybe, depending on your belief).
Socrates imagines the second alternative as a place where bodies are nonexistent. He believes that after we die, we only have our minds. And it doesn’t necessarily mean that an afterlife is a place where brains float around. Mind, in this case, is a mental process, a thought, and consciousness12Mcleod, S. (2018). Mind Body Debate – Dualism vs Monism | Simply Psychology. Simplypsychology.org. Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html..
If after we die we only have our mind, then that is the thing that we need to nurture during life. Bodies are provisional. It is pointless to spend time on earth doing things to satisfy the body, which we will lose anyway. Socrates recommends that we forget about bodily satisfaction and focuses on developing one mind instead.
Similar to that thinking, Epicurus, and his followers of Epicureans, say that death is nothing to humans13The Epicurean attitude to death – Epicurus Today. Epicurus. today. (2015). Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://epicurus.today/the-epicurean-attitude-to-death/.. But while Socrates views us to still have our mind when we die, Epicurus said that we are simply just our body. So when we die, we don’t exist anymore. That Epicurean proposition gives the notion that death can’t be physically and emotionally painful, because it’s essentially nothing to us. He also states that humans can ever truly be happy when we have overcome our fear of death. In other words, life is simply life and there’s no afterlife. It’s impossible to determine whether death is good or bad (a pleasure or a pain) because when death exists, we don’t. Therefore, it’s useless to think about death and even more fear them.
Death and FOMO That Keep us Going
On the same side, Thomas Nagel views death as the unequivocal and permanent end of our existence14Carter, J. (2021). Nagel | The Institute for Applied & Professional Ethics. Ohio.edu. Retrieved 19 July 2021, from https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/index.html#:~:text=Death%2C%20according%20to%20Thomas%20Nagel,survive%20death%20in%20any%20way.. Like Epicurus, he didn’t believe in the afterlife. After we die, we die. We don’t float around in the form of mind or anything else. It’s the ultimate end line. In trying to understand whether death is good, evil, or void, Nagel says death is evil only since it prevents a person to achieve more.
Death is bad because we have a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out). Like when your friends hang out on a Friday night while you can’t because you need to finish work, but eventually you don’t finish it because you are too depressed to think15Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2020). The Social media party: fear of missing out (FoMO), social media intensity, connection, and well-being. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 36(4), 386-392.. What are they doing? What are they talking about? I bet the next time we hang out, I wouldn’t understand a thing they’re talking about because they developed lots of new inside jokes when they hung out without me. We have the same feeling towards death.
The thing that I fear the most about death is that if I die young, I miss all the adult stuff. I won’t experience having a kid, giving birth, retirement, all kinds of things my friends who are still alive would experience. That’s why it is more devastating to watch a young person die than an old one. When a kid dies, we will be sad even if we have never met that kid before. There are lots of things that the kid missed because they didn’t get the chance to live longer. But we won’t care if someone’s grandma died of old age. Her friends are probably all dead too so what else can she miss?
Those fear are the fuel that keeps our society going. Or if I must portray it in a bigger picture, the human civilization. Each day we worked ourselves like there is no tomorrow, waking up with the feeling of being backed into a corner. Chasing dreams is all we do because God only knows when death itself may knock on our door. For our own sake, we do it to complete the urge of satisfaction to fill the void in our hearts. We’re not doing it for others.
But little that we know, as we busy ourselves with working like a horse, the society also strives because of it. They feel the benefit through our good deeds the same way as we feel helped so much by friends good job on a team’s task. Now imagine if most of the members, if not every member of human society, have the same mindset. How great will our society be?
So, Should We Fear Death?
Yes, because it is only normal to fear death because of its uncertainty. Regardless of the fear of not knowing how we die (God forbid by drowning or burning alive), not knowing what will happen to us after we die is scary enough. It is the Fear of Not Knowing (FONK). Even a small uncertainty like will I get this job or will my salad go bad because I forgot to put it in the refrigerator scares us. I couldn’t sleep for days after a job interview because the uncertainty freaked me out.
By keeping TMT in our heads, fearing death can be our main motor in life. Imagine someone who’s 100% not afraid of dying (you probably say that death is inevitable therefore you’re not afraid, but come on. Are you sure?). They would think It’s okay if I die tomorrow, I’ll die anyway. They would not have any will to live. Why should I go to the dentist if I’ll die anyway? Why should I eat if I’ll die anyway? That’s how we know no one is completely unafraid of death as long as they still eat and do all the basic human survival 101.
After all, our fear of death is what stimulates civilization. The first vaccine ever made, the smallpox vaccine in 1769, was created because of people’s agitation on how smallpox killed a lot of people16A brief history of vaccination. Immunisation Advisory Centre. (2020). Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://www.immune.org.nz/vaccines/vaccine-development/brief-history-vaccination. Before smallpox, diseases were treated with prayer and offering. Because that hardly worked, the fear didn’t disappear. Fear gave us vaccines that prevent millions of children every day from dying from smallpox, diphtheria, or other scary diseases.
But no, not really. It is pointless to be scared of death. We’ve learned that death and we won’t ever come across. When we’re here, death is not, and when we’re not here death is. It’s like being afraid of Ted Bundy. We will never cross paths.
So, bottom line, try not to be dead tomorrow meaning you should be careful and not be reckless. But don’t let the fear of dying hinders your worldviews. We will die, and we should die (even if in the next 40 years there will be some kind of technology break that provides us immortality, but I mean do you really want to live forever?). Even if life and death seem so close, they are so far away from each other.
We don’t have all the answers about life. What life is, it’s whole different writing. What we do know is that, for whatever reason, we’re here and we’re alive. I may sound like a motivator but, let’s make the most out of it. Death becomes less scary if we’re content about life anyway. At least we won’t feel like we will miss a lot because we’re already happy about how our life is now.
Editor: M Daffa Nurfauzan, Yudhistira GS, Oliver Sianturi, Aurelia Julia Irvana
Illustrator: Batrisya Izzati Ardhie
|↵1||Prefrontal Cortex – GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. GoodTherapy.org Therapy Blog. (2016). Retrieved 6 July 2021, from https://www.goodtherapy.org/blog/psychpedia/prefrontal-cortex|
|↵2||Shashkevich, A. (2018). Humans make plans to gain autonomy over their lives, Stanford scholar says. Stanford News. Retrieved 9 July 2021, from https://news.stanford.edu/2018/07/31/people-plan-makes-feel-free/.|
|↵3||Jean-Paul Sartre (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Plato.stanford.edu. (2004). Retrieved 10 July 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/sartre/.|
|↵4||Holmes, K. (2021). Buddhism and Death | SamyeLing.org. Samyeling.org. Retrieved 7 July 2021, from https://www.samyeling.org/buddhism-and-meditation/teaching-archive-2/dharmacharya-ken-holmes/buddhism-and-death/.|
|↵5||Lief, J. (2018). Death: The Greatest Teacher. Judylief.com. Retrieved 5 July 2021, from https://judylief.com/death-the-greatest-teacher/.|
|↵6||Greenberg J., Pyszczynski T., Solomon S. (1986). The causes and consequences of a need for self-esteem: A terror management theory. In Baumeister R. F. (Eds.), Public self and private self (pp. 189-212). Springer; 10.1007/978-1-4613-9564-5_10 [CrossRef] [Google Scholar]|
|↵7||Terror Management Theory. Psychology Today. (2021). Retrieved 8 July 2021, from https://www.psychologytoday.com/us/basics/terror-management-theory.|
|↵8||Ricoeur, P., Pellauer, D., & Starkey, J. (2014). Being, Essence and Substance in Plato and Aristotle. Notre Dame Philosophical Reviews. Retrieved 24 July 2021, from https://ndpr.nd.edu/reviews/being-essence-and-substance-in-plato-and-aristotle/|
|↵9||Crowell, S. (2020). Existentialism (Stanford Encyclopedia of Philosophy). Plato.stanford.edu. Retrieved 25 July 2021, from https://plato.stanford.edu/entries/existentialism/#SarExiMar.|
|↵10||BBC. (2021). Jean-Paul Sartre and Existential Choice [Video].|
|↵11||Van Harten, A. (2011). Socrates on life and death (Plato, Apology 40C5–41C7). The Cambridge Classical Journal, 57, 165-183. https://doi.org/10.1017/s1750270500001317|
|↵12||Mcleod, S. (2018). Mind Body Debate – Dualism vs Monism | Simply Psychology. Simplypsychology.org. Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://www.simplypsychology.org/mindbodydebate.html.|
|↵13||The Epicurean attitude to death – Epicurus Today. Epicurus. today. (2015). Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://epicurus.today/the-epicurean-attitude-to-death/.|
|↵14||Carter, J. (2021). Nagel | The Institute for Applied & Professional Ethics. Ohio.edu. Retrieved 19 July 2021, from https://www.ohio.edu/ethics/tag/nagel/index.html#:~:text=Death%2C%20according%20to%20Thomas%20Nagel,survive%20death%20in%20any%20way.|
|↵15||Roberts, J. A., & David, M. E. (2020). The Social media party: fear of missing out (FoMO), social media intensity, connection, and well-being. International Journal of Human–Computer Interaction, 36(4), 386-392.|
|↵16||A brief history of vaccination. Immunisation Advisory Centre. (2020). Retrieved 26 July 2021, from https://www.immune.org.nz/vaccines/vaccine-development/brief-history-vaccination|