Fear of Death: Fear to live
Updated: May 11
When my mother died, I was struck by the gentle violence that engulfs us when we feel death close by. My mother refused to believe that this was really what was happening to her and thus suffered immensely. Her body was in pain, but the pain in her mind was exponential. Accompanying her in those months of evolution was undoubtedly the most difficult thing I ever did.
Until the last minute, my mom's oncologist and the doctors at the hospital kept talking about infinite possibilities. They promised her life and fed hope to the last neuron in her mind. Their explanations were absurdly dissonant with what was happening to her body. Finally, a doctor outside the traditional system (with a more generous interpretation of the Socratic oath and distanced from the Catholic veil) explained to her: "You are going to die, and you must accept it".
Amid an ocean of fear and denial (very particular to Latin culture), someone had allowed her to let go of hope. My mom was relieved: "I'm leaving; I have nothing more to do here." Surrendering is always the ultimate act of courage. Her resolution allowed us to have farewell parties with family and friends. My mother died five days after the last celebration of her life, reconciled with death.
At her funeral, deeply moved by the process of dying, I asked the family: How should one live so that when finally one is at the portal of death, one feels peace and acceptance? I was curious. Jesus, Socrates and Confucius, besides being great revolutionaries who never wrote a book, arrived at their death (judged and killed by the system) with fearless equanimity. How, then, should one live to find peace and wisdom reconciled with the idea of one's death?
These past months, I arrived at the answer in terror and fascination. It was not an Epiphany. Over the years, in the background of daily routines, I've dealt with existential questions. As the answers piled up, I met the fundamental needs of my soul and got my answer.
A Silent Inconvenience
My concept of Home Within was an unconscious invention that, in the backdrop, cultivated fundamental questions. While designing my SELF-system, I encountered (in a pattern) the obstacle that spreads silently in many of our thinking processes. Fear. Why do we feel it, and why do we reject that we feel it consistently?
Deciding to acknowledge that I was afraid was a significant turnover. It's in our human nature. I'm sorry to disclose this to you: you have a lot of fears too. Personally, I was obtuse. My mantra had been. "I don't feel fear. Fear is an imaginary event, I don't feel that, and that's why nothing can be too big for me." My mother raised me with this character "strength" to resist (or rather deny) fear. And it served me very well in my 20s and 30s. It stopped working when I passed my 40s.
When I noticed fear patterns in my Home Within, I became obsessed. I bought books and researched everywhere. In another post, I will tell you about the nature of fear because its anatomy makes it digestible. For now, I will explain why (if one feels interested in personal growth) it is necessary to recognise that we live fenced-in fears.
In his book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker explains (in the context of psychoanalysis, existential philosophy and religion) that we do not like to look inwards. We have a mechanism of containment and denial because we find the grandiosity of the universe (present in our own consciousness) far superior to our cognitive capacity.
"Freud's greatest discovery, the one which lies at the root of psychodynamics,... is the fear of knowledge of oneself-of one's emotions, impulses, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one's destiny."
This explains why, when we read articles on self-sabotage, procrastination, and imposter syndrome, even if we want to, we hardly get out of those behaviour patterns. We don't change because we don't want to dialogue with our fragility. "We flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly," says Becket. So terrible is the fear that we choose to deny ourselves our destiny to imitate the behaviour of our parents and our culture and thus contain ourselves in a fabricated version of the Self. In other words, we create our mental matrix and stick to it to feel safe, no matter how detrimental to our inner truth.
Did I say the word destiny? I'm getting dense here! According to Becker, spirituality and psychoanalysis meet in our capacity to fulfil our destiny.
“What Otto [RANK] did was to get descriptively at man's natural feeling of inferiority in the face of the massive transcendence of creation, his real creature feeling before the crushing and negating miracle of Being. We now understand how a phenomenology of religious experience ties into psychology: right at the point of the problem of courage.”
Otto's analysis refers to the reality that humans feel overwhelmed by the marvellous, expansive and extraordinary universe. Becker explains that human beings are different from animals as we have: developed cognitive capacity, sophisticated emotional processes and a body with creative abilities. Man has superpowers but yet he poops (dies and rots) like the rest of the animals. In that duality, man cannot assimilate the magic of the universe and the magic that exists in him/her (which are the same thing).
"...what really bothers the child, how life is really too much for him, how he has to avoid too much thought, too much perception, too much life." That is why from a young age, in all their vulnerability, and while obeying the authority of adults, human beings build an identity that allows them to live in a compact state, minimized and accommodated to culture. That is what human beings can process. Our ego is our coping mechanism; it denies that we feel fear of so much greatness around us and inside us.
In addition to this terror, our ego knows that we are inside marvellous, expansive and extraordinary; thus, we all flow in time and space with an inherent heroic nature. We live in the duality of wanting to become this greatness and being absolutely terrified of it.
Changing is embracing fear.
When I gave myself permission to be honest about my fears, I was free to deal with them. Recognising my fragility empowered me to move forward and give my emotions priority over the stories of my mind. That takes courage and generosity. Renee Brown invites us to be vulnerable, and as she rightly says, the opposite of vulnerability is courage. Courage, or better said, the lack of courage (says Otto two quotes back), is our problem.
Becker says Kierkegaard, like Freud, understood that since we feel despair in the infinity of our being, a part of us allows us to define ourselves based on the world outside of us:
"Be seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of worldly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself...does not dare not to believe in himself, finds its too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cypher in the crowd."
The fear of knowing who we are (in truth) is natural, so we accept and live relatively comfortably in the matrix we create in our minds and the matrix in the environment. These matrixes give us a sense of control (but it's more like an illusion). It's an escape from feeling fear of meeting our inner consciousness.
Home Within: A Dialogue With Fear
In my Home Within, with keen observer eyes and a great deal of vulnerability-courage, I cultivated a dialogue of mind, body, mind, heart and soul and chose to face my fears (small and big). Having integrated my new dimension of Self, I read The Denial of Death by Becker, and I felt terror, but not of dying.
I'm becoming painfully aware of how my soul is marvellous, expansive and extraordinary. I recognised its immensity and realised how my essence surpasses the capacity of my mind. It is an overwhelming feeling that I am still processing. I will continue to build the courage to face fear, embracing the expansive pain of getting out of my mind; perhaps and ideally, I'll die having lived my true dimension.
In the end, as Becker nicely sums it up, the fear of death is the fear of life. Resolve one, and the other will feel like switching off the lights on one's nightstand.
I would like to finish with a pragmatic framework.
Caroline Myss has an interesting argument in terms of spirituality and personal evolution. She explains that our evolution is like living in a building where we start on the ground floor. When we evolve a little, we go up to the second, third, and then higher and higher. Each time we change floors, the view out the window is broader and more expansive. The problem is that when those on higher floors explain how the panorama looks, we do not understand what they see. In fact, not only do we not understand, but we may easily judge and reject it because it can make no sense to us.
My purpose with this blog is to serve with conversations to help us make a better world. Everyone is on their own floor, giving dimension and meaning to their life. I will share my experience in my Home Within, hoping to contribute. I use my designer's lens, focused on day-to-day experiences and explore how living holistically serves me better. We can make the world better by expanding beyond our identity, and facing and overcoming our fears; suffering them is how we level up! That is the complicated truth. There is no hurry. The modern world is forcing us but also giving us a lot of interesting tools to do it easier.
My next post explains how I shifted from living outwards to living inwards and how I activate my Mind, Body, Heart and Soul to choose how I experience the world.
If you want to learn more, you can register here!