Prompt: What was your biggest fear as a child? Do you still have it today? If it went away, when did your feelings change?
At some point, we all must come to terms with our mortality and the notion that we will eventually cease to exist. Even if you believe in the afterlife and a morality based in religion or spirituality, you still must confront the fact that you will cease to be – at least, on this earthly plane.
For me, that happened when I was eight years old.
Why did I suddenly wake up one morning, alive to the terrifying reality that I would one day die and my consciousness would blank from existence? I don’t know. I feel that it was tied to my ongoing battle with catechism classes and the fundamental flaws I saw in organized religion, but I can’t be sure. However, given how often my Sunday school teacher talked about the afterlife, God’s eternal grace, and our heavenly reward, it seems likely that she at least opened my eyes to the possibility that I would one day die.
What I do remember is curling up on my bed in a tight ball, crying and imploring God to give me some sign that He existed. In between these fervent, childish prayers, I envisioned a cavernous black abyss that only darkened as you spiraled deeper in it. This is where I would one day reside. This is where I would one day cease to be, and, worst of all, the world would still turn without me.
How does anyone manage to forget about their mortality? Who is truly comfortable with the idea that they will one day cease to exist and the world will move on without them? Perhaps the sincerely devout can claim otherwise, but fearing death and not wanting to die are universal feelings. The reason there are “no atheists in a foxhole” isn’t necessarily because war brings out people’s spirituality – rather, it reignites their fear of death, forcing them to turn to a supernatural being (any supernatural being) who can save them. Talk to any elderly person and, regardless of the wonderful or horrible life they’ve had or the pain or peace they’re in, they will still cling to life. No one wants to die.
For years, the specter of that dark, multiplying abyss haunted me, and I would see it yawning just as I closed my eyes to sleep. I would open my eyes, turn on a light, and immediately reach for a book, trying to drive away the existential fear with reading. It worked, after a fashion, and while I am not so terrified of the thought of ceasing it exist anymore, I still studiously avoid the image. It’s helped that I’ve been able to augment that fear of dying with a fear of aging, it really has.
Eventually, I had to come to terms with the fact that I could not stop either death or aging. Literature, science, and the world taught me that there is no Fountain of Youth, immortal elixir, or vampires and thus no way to avoid death and aging. So I could either continue to be afraid of it, cause a splintering of my perception of reality, and spend thousands of dollars in therapy, or I could shrug, pick up a book, and try to enjoy the act of living.
But here’s a secret: I’m still afraid. I think everyone is. And that more than anything else, has given me comfort.