As long as I can remember, I have always been terrified of death.
In my youth, this made perfect sense. The church I grew up in was somehow simultaneously clear yet vague on its soteriology, and held a very traditional view on the concept of hell, its nature, who goes there and for how long. Namely, any who have not been saved by Jesus and for eternity. As much as I did what I could to follow the religious teachings and practices, the relentless fear of “what if?” was always on my mind, which as a side-note is an ongoing negative psychological symptom of religious beliefs such as those, so a fear of death made perfect sense.
I am an atheist now, and no longer have any reason to fear an eternity of torment. Sure, the possibility I was wrong and would go to hell for not believing nagged at my mind for the longest time, but lately it has not. I am pretty sure an eternal hell does not exist for a number of reasons I will not go into here, and even if it turns out it does then I can be confident that I lived my life as reasonably as I could.
However, my fear of death still remains. I fear it because it is truly an unknown. I have of course heard the adages such as “You were dead for billions of years before you were alive and you did not know the difference,” but that never really helped me. I am not scared of being in pain, I am scared of not being here. I am scared of the journey being over. I want to know what happens. Such as it is, I enjoy life, and whether afterwards comes nothingness, nirvana, or whatever else, I know what this life is and I do not want to un-know it. I will take a fear of uncertainty over a fear of hell any day, though.
Lately, my fear has declined somewhat. I am still young by most people’s standards, but when I look back on my life and what I have accomplished, I have done many of the things I would like to do, and although it may not be as large as many people’s, I would say I have left a permanent mark on the world, which is what anyone could hope for. In that sense, I have become less apprehensive about dying.
However, something has happened recently that has gone a long way to help me be more accepting of the concept. In a podcast I have been listening to, someone framed the adage I previously mentioned in a new light. It was not even the point of the podcast episode, it was a fictional character saying a throwaway line that granted me more acceptance than any philosopher or secularist has ever been able to do. To paraphrase, they said that life is simply a holiday from nonexistence. I don’t know if I would go so far as to say nonexistence is our “natural” state, one could argue such, but lack of consciousness and thought is certainly how any of us are going to spend the astronomical (literally!) majority of the universe’s existence, and life is a brief, minute gift we have been given. It is a reward the universe has granted us. I have heard the joke that a property of hydrogen is that if left by itself long enough it will begin to think about itself. An oversimplification of course, but to me it demonstrates that we as creatures on a planet are not owed life. We were granted it, so to speak.
I think that is how I will see life from now on, as a present. A brief spat of energy in an otherwise timeline of nothingness. It is all anyone is going to have, so each individual’s little spat of energy is no less important than anyone else’s.