At Night When Death Whispers

You're Supposed to be Afraid of Death, Dumbass

Interior of St James Church in Vancouver.
If you peak behind the big curtain, you might catch a glimpse of God.

When I was at my grandmother's funeral, a rather lavish affair at the St James church in Vancouver, I remember realizing clearly that I was sure there was no Christian god.

Intellectually, I was already fairly convinced. But here I felt it. Or, to be more accurate, I didn't feel anything.

They have this huge purple curtain in at the back, behind the pulpit. While I'm not expert on the symbology used by the Anglican church, from the way the ceremony went, the way they would turn toward the curtain sometimes, it seemed as though the idea was that their god - that's right, I said their god - was behind that curtain. Symbolically, of course, since their god is technically everywhere.

I looked at that purple curtain and felt that we were all in this room with men wearing silly robes of arbitrary purpose, all staring at a big curtain behind which there was nothing but a stone wall. And nothing behind the wall either. Without even the slightest sensation of any kind of higher power in me, it just seemed kind of silly when they rang their bells, sang their hymns, and carried out all their little rituals.

Especially since my grandmother's body was in a casket right there in front of us. Why were we all looking expectantly at this stupid purple curtain, when we were here for my grandmother?

I clued in on the purpose of the distractions when the bishop, or whatever his rank and serial number is, started reading stock phrases for the funeral ceremony. Don't worry, she's with Jesus. Don't worry, when we die there's this better place called heaven. Think about anything, anything at all, except the fact that she is dead. And if you can, think about God and Jesus, because if you do that, then not only will you be consoled, the need to stay consoled and not face the brutal reality that your loved one is gone might keep you needing Jesus.

I felt ripped off. I came there to grieve. I wanted the funeral I had assumed would happen, which was a social and communal opportunity to publicly share in my feelings of loss. My grandmother was a matriarch in my family, and a well respected member of the community. Her passing was a loss that I, and many others, wanted to express. I don't think I was the only one there who didn't want my grandmother's moment to be hijacked by some asshole named Jesus.

I walked away from that funeral wondering if I was afraid of death because the culture I grew up in was afraid of death, constantly looking for ways to say death is not that bad. While my parents aren't religious, there's no getting away from the obvious cultural influence that Christianity has on the society I grew up in.

I didn't grow up expecting to see any god after I died, but I did grow up with the haunting question of what would happen instead. If all religions have it wrong, then there is nothing, and that is even more scary than any hellfire imagined by men of faith.

It's so freaky because it is by definition outside of our ability to imagine. An afterlife, or reincarnation into another life, even if it is bad, is experienced, and we can evaluate it in terms of our ability to percieve it.

Without any faith in an afterlife, there is not only the cessation of experiences, but the cessation of the ability to experience. While alive, the mind can not stop thinking, nor place itself in a hypotehtical of what it would be to not think. It is the ultimate form of obliteration of the self, beyond what the self can know.

When my brain tries to wrap itself around the concept of complete lack of self, it can't help but to try and give it form. The very act of imagining is to give it a context and depiction, which can never actually represent the lack of context and anything to depict. So I end up thinking of death as being somehow an eternal blackness. Or worse, sometimes I get an image that resembles an eternity of being buried alive.

Which is why death scares me to... well, .".. to death" is the standard phrase, isn't it? The measure by which all other fears are scored.

Right now it's not scaring me. I can spend all day talking or writing about death, the afterlife or lack of it, mortal dangers, the time I have left in this world, or whatever. It's all just words on a page or out of my mouth.

But to let you in on a little secret... every now and again, often when I have other stresses in my life, late at night when I'm falling asleep, I have terrors. The thought of dying fills me with a visceral dread that sometimes makes me suddenly yell in fright or jump out of bed.

It used to be pretty bad. A roommate I used to live with wore ear plugs because my near random and primal yells of fear would freak him out too. Not to mention irritate him by waking him up.

Somehow, as I fall asleep, the more higher order thoughts, the ones that are more connected with modern life and our complicated modes of cognition go to rest, and my more instinctual brain is left with only the most basic of concerns. At least, that's what I think happens, even though I have no idea of the actual neurological process involved.

All I know is that the fear is something that is always there, because it comes from a non rational, instinctual part of me that doesn't seem to care too much what kind of complicated rationales I concoct in my waking hours.

Maybe that doesn't need to be the case, though. Don't Christians and Bhuddists go to sleep as restful as can be, secure in the knowledge that there is more than just annihilation?

Maybe. And that kind of thinking made me doubt the point of having no religion in my life. Some argue that even if religion is ultimately a social construct created by man, it is still necessary because it stops us from falling into nihilistic depression. Not to mention maintain social order by offering punishment even to those that man's laws can't see or reach.

During the day, I reject that notion, because I feel that it's important to know the truth, not be consoled with comforting lies. Comforting lies are always ultimately made up by someone, even yourself, and are always at risk of being perverted to suit somebody's ambitions. Even your own.

At night, though, I couldn't help but be insecure that there is something lacking in a world view that makes me feel so fragile and terrified of oblivion.

I used to have them much worse. Once the terrors would start, they might not end on their own. In my twenties, when my tension level was aggravated by problems at school or work or in relationships, I would get my sense of dread at night and eventually have to get up and distract myself. Television was usually the way to go, as it engages your mind with the kind of vapid distractions designed to push out any serious thoughts about life.

I don't remember where I read it, but somewhere I came across advice that the way to cope with night terrors was not to fight it, but to simply acknowledge them. Remind yourself that they are an emotional, instinctual, irrational thought process, and that they do not represent you. Let them happen, and they will go away just as they came.

Which turned out to be at least partly helpful. After that, when I had a night terror, I told myself that I was just experiencing a fairly natural part of falling asleep, that as my rational thoughts gave way, I was just experiencing some feelings that are not part of my verbal mind.

That's the tricky part of the mind, that it is you, so whatever feelings you have, it's easy to think that they are honestly representative of you and who you are and what you are really about. But in some ways, it helps to see your mind as having parts, and as compelling as some thoughts are in terms of how real they feel, they may just be the result of neural activity that you are less consciously in control of.

I still got night terrors, but they were much reduced in frequency and duration. They became a mere occasional hiccup.

But the philosophical question remained. Had I found a band aid for a sore that was never going to heal because of my lack of religion?

I had an epiphany one time right in the middle of one of my night terrors. I realized that not only was it normal to have a primal response to the prospect of dying, but that the fear that prompts the primal response is critical to being alive.

The fear of death is what keeps animals moving. The fear of death is what makes you value life, and appreciate how much other people value it for themselves. Fear of dying is hard wired into the very core of your being.

Every single creature that lives, right down to the simplest forms, is built to fear death in every action. Well, of course the simpler the creature the term "fear" might be a bit overblown.

Anyway, we're pretty complacent now that we've dominated the planet. But every animal, fears death as a consequence of any missed opportunity. Even the predators that seem to deal out death also fear that they will die if they fail to catch their prey.

Think of what we lose when we stop fearing death.

We lose compassion. What does it matter if you kill other people? Let god sort 'em out. They aren't being denied anything, they are being passed on to another court of appeal.

We lose stewardship. What does it matter if the earth is dying, because it will all be swept away in an apocolypse that will make everything okay again anyway? Or it's all just a cycle that will happen again?

We lose motivation. I struggle daily to try and accomplish so many goals that I worry I won't finish before I die. If everything here is merely a test for the really desirable life afterwards, then one is reduced to simply following arbitrary rules in order to pass a grand entrance exam.

What about sacrifice? Sacrifice is easier when you think the act of dying for a good cause is the key to a better reality. It kills the very meaning of sacrifice if anything lost is replaced by a better alternative. A person who fears death and makes sacrifices really sacrifices, lending weight to the cause.

Sacrifice is a big topic, as I know the religious believe that without a judgment in an afterlife, there is justification for selfishness. It veers off topic, so I'll just leave it for now to say that sacrifice for a greater good is built into us just as much as fear of death is. Individual humans die in the wild, but groups live on to breed. Ensuring the survival of us sometimes means individuals take it for the team.

The point is, now not only do I accept my occasional primal fear of the prospect of dying, I accept dying itself. I value it, because it's what makes us actually human.

Denying death, pretending we are somehow immortal, that we'll be reborn or transported to another reality... that's the truly unnatural and dehumanizing approach.

We're supposed to be afraid of death. I've spent the better part of my life looking for a way to soothe a fear that has driven progress over billions of years all the way from tiny microbes all the way up to who I am now.

The night terrors come every now and again, though ironically less so now that I accept them that much more.

When they do happen, though, I take it a step further than merely accepting that they just happen and it's normal. I take it as an opportunity to ask myself if I am really living. Am I pursuing goals that matter, and becoming the person I hope to be?

Is the fear justified by the amount of value I put on what I lose when I die?

After all, death can only be feared if you're alive.