Are you here because you’re feeling a little bit of death anxiety?
Well, I can’t blame you.
I am sitting on a plane right now surrounded by strangers.
I can see the curvature of the earth and the setting sun.
But not beautiful enough to displace my fear.
I am expecting my plane to explode any second.
It could happen.
It really could happen.
And it’s out of my control.
I vividly imagine my last moment.
The mass realization that something is irreparably wrong.
The acknowledgment that these strangers are now companions on the dark goodnight.
I feel my reluctant acceptance that this the end.
The final putting down of everything I carry in my heart.
My loudest goodbye.
But unheard by those who count.
I imagine my last breath.
How different that breath would be compared to the millions before it.
I see the pain on my girlfriend’s face, who I left a few hours ago.
I made sure to text her “I love you forever” before I boarded.
The word “forever” wasn’t me just being cliche.
I never said that to her before.
It was me speaking to her from eternity… just in case.
I once read that some people scratch the floor when they hear someone they love has died.
They want to escape the world, so they try to dig themselves out.
I hope people who love me don’t experience this.
I hope they can be happy and keep living for me, even if it’s difficult.
I would want that.
Sure, I know rationally that there are about 10,000 planes in the sky this very second.
I know rationally that plane crashes are ridiculously rare.
But I’m still afraid.
I have death anxiety.
You see, death has been on my mind lately.
In the last twelve months, I’ve seen a lot of people die.
One of my neighbors died of a brain tumor.
Another neighbor was diagnosed with liver cancer and died a week later.
My uncle had a sudden heart attack from a blot clot in his leg a month after retiring abroad.
An online friend Justin Alexander went missing in the Indian Mountains and is now presumed dead.
And my father was diagnosed with bowel cancer but luckily had it cleared through surgery.
I didn’t know how to process all of this when it happened.
I ended up developing a kind of hypochondria.
Getting all worked up over a niggle in my side.
Trips to the emergency department.
Death is such a strange thing.
One minute someone is there.
Then they aren’t.
We are all so fragile.
A fall, a crash, a bang, a twist, a sickness, a small mistake and that can be the end of you.
Your entire uniqueness thrown ceaselessly into oblivion.
It doesn’t matter if you are a world champion fighter.
It doesn’t matter if you are rich or famous.
Napoleon said, “All men are equal before the cannon,” and the same is true of death.
Mozart. Michelangelo. Marilyn Monroe.
They all experienced their last glimmer of consciousness.
And in that moment their earthly greatness was arbitrary.
All this death anxiety got me asking questions.
“What’s it all for?”
You know, why bother so much?
I used to think that people who didn’t strive for big things were wasting their lives.
Here I am reading lots of books, trying to “improve myself,” travel the world, live a “great life,” but why?
Leonardo da Vinci famously said, “I thought I was learning how to live, but I have really been learning how to die.”
What does that even mean?
With all these questions and all this angst I did what I normally do when I have a problem… I asked some very simple questions:
How can life be meaningful in the light of death?
And is death something that should be scary? Is it normal to have death anxiety?
Fortunately, my plane landed safely.
But I didn’t feel safe. I still felt vulnerable.
And so I began my search for answers.
Below are the fruits of my journey into death.
6 Ways to Kill Your Death Anxiety
Intuitively it just makes sense that we wouldn’t want to die. If this was something we wanted then that desire would really get in the way of life.
But there are many things I don’t want.
I don’t want to pay rent. I don’t want to pay my phone bill. I don’t want to floss my teeth later.
And that brings us to the first point.
Just because we don’t want something, that doesn’t mean we automatically need fear it.
Perhaps we fear death more than flossing our teeth because death seems to harm us and is associated with pain.
Pain in the absence of pleasure is intrinsically and undisputedly undesirable.
But this doesn’t paint the whole picture.
Most of us would choose to endure some intense pain for a few hours to live a long life than to die now painlessly.
So death harms us in some other way beyond “just pain.”
Or does it?
Most of us would assume that death is terrible. The worst part of existence.
But upon further inspection, when we start to unpick what death actually is, we may realize that it’s not such a scary thing after all.
Maybe we don’t need to think of the grim reaper as a monster who tries to sap our life of all significance.
Maybe with the following 6 perspectives we can befriend him.
1) Death is not the end because we never actually die
The infinitely wise Stoic philosopher Epicurus said:
So death, the most terrifying of ills, is nothing to us, since so long as we exist, death is not with us; but when death comes, then we do not exist. It does not concern either the living or the dead, since for the former it is not, and the latter are no more.
Death isn’t really harmful to us because we never really die. The thing you call “I” can never experience death. “You” can never die. You will never know death. The experience of non-experience—of death—is inaccessible to you in every way.
If you’ve ever had an operation or a deep sleep or been knocked out, what did it feel like? The answer is “absolutely nothing.”
It was neither good or bad.
The truth is, we experience mini deaths throughout our entire lives.
Non-experience is not a new experience.
2) Death anxiety is stupid we’ve already been “there”
Lucretius, the Roman poet who brought Epicurus’s ideas to his later audience, articulates what’s called the “symmetry argument.”
We have already experienced billions of years of non-existence before we were born, but we didn’t feel that bad about it. We have already been there and it was fine, so why worry about returning there?
It wasn’t all that bad before you were born. It was kind of peaceful in a bizarre way.
As you may have noticed, this is a therapeutic idea, but the argument isn’t completely airtight.
We don’t think of the past the same way as we think of the future.
Death deprives us of seeing through our future goals.
This is probably the most unfortunate aspect of dying.
It’s a horrible thought knowing that our ambitions will suddenly be cut short.
Death does deprive us of our future, and this proves that death is something not to be desired.
But does it mean that death should be feared at all costs?
Should we be walking around consumed by death anxiety?
Is death the ultimate harm that can be done to us?
3) The alternative to death is even worse
Immortality sounds so cool.
You get to experience so much — an infinite amount.
You would have endless time to pursue every interest, master all skills, read every book, possess everything you desire, and fall in love over and over and over with every type of person.
Every kind of goal you have right now would eventually be fulfilled if you lived for eternity.
But how long would it take before life becomes sapped of its urgency?
How long would it take before the new hobby you’ve undertaken becomes dull again?
How mystical would your love life be knowing that if it doesn’t work out, you have infinite time to do it again?
How exciting would fame be after 5,000 years of being followed around by the paparazzi?
You would be on the constant search for novelty, and novelty would become more scarce with each passing year.
Eventually it would be difficult to muster the motivation to get out of bed. The only thing you would desire would be the ability to desire.
In short, it is likely you would be depressed.
Francois La Rochefoucauld wrote “Supreme cleverness is knowledge of the real value of things.”
The fact that we know we will one day die, that we have limited time to pursue our goals, tells us what we should value like nothing else.
Failure and risk would not exist for an immortal person.
Without being on that airplane, I would have no need to tell my girlfriend how much I love her.
Which brings me to our next point:
4) We need death in order to live
Instead of having death anxiety, we should have immortality anxiety.
5) Death only exists in three dimensions
We humans can navigate freely in three dimensions. We can move up and down, forwards and backwards, and left and right.
The science enthusiasts reading this, however, will know that there is a fourth dimension we cannot navigate through freely: time.
Time is like a moving airplane set upon a destination. A passenger can move about inside the airplane, but is unable to alter the airplane’s course.
I explained earlier that death deprives us of a potentially bright future. Being stuck in the one-way river of time, we naturally perceive things as beginning and ending.
But if we had access to the fourth dimension, death and endings would be no different to us than births and beginnings.
A movie consists of individual frames that when put together in a certain order, creates the experience of a story being played out with a beginning, middle, and end.
If we had access to the fourth dimension, a human lifespan would be just like a movie timeline, which we could enter at any frame and watch in any direction.
We could step outside the timeline if we chose and stop watching, but that lifespan would always exist for us to revisit whenever we pleased.
6) We are lucky that we get to die
When one focuses a lot on death, it is easy to start seeing it as a problem that needs to be solved. I hope that I have shown you in this post that death is our greatest aide in the quest for meaning and purpose in life.
It is even possible that one can develop a gratitude for death—for endings.
Richard Dawkins said:
We are going to die, and that makes us the lucky ones. Most people are never going to die because they’re never going to be born. The potential people who could have been here in my place, but who will in fact never see the light of day, outnumber the sand grains of Sahara.
Perhaps we would be better to take the thought “Why are we going to die? Death is such a problem!” And change it to:
“Why are we here? Life is such a bizarre and astonishing thing.”
You are able to breathe, to experience and know you are experiencing.
And the odds of you being able to do this are dizzyingly small.
Imagine standing on gigantic planet with a trillion people who look a bit like you. One of you will be chosen at random to live, the rest will perish.
You were chosen.
But not only that, you were chosen from way more than a trillion people…
The actual odds of being alive requires a number that is so big, it would fill a 3,000-page book.
It is 1 in 10 followed by 2.6 million zeroes.
Death is obviously not something that we would want to happen to us. But it need not be terrifying.
It is actually good to have a small amount of death anxiety, and to channel that into a powerful drive to actually live life.
If we want to earn money to do fun things, we have to work.
If we want to have children, we have to endure the pain of childbirth and the stress of caring for an infant.
If we want to be healthy, we have to exercise.
And if we want to live a meaningful existence, we must accept our impermanence.
That’s just life.
Many of the ideas in this post were extracted from Happy by Derren Brown, one of my favorite books.
Jon Brooks is a Stoicism teacher and, crucially, practitioner. His Stoic meditations have accumulated thousands of listens, and he has created his own Stoic training program for modern-day Stoics.