WE FEAR DEATH

[Death, dying and grief, 5]

Aye, but to die, and go we know not where,

To lie in cold obstruction and to rot.

This sensible warm motion to become

A kneaded clot and the delightful spirit

To bathe in fiery floods, or to reside

In thrilling region of thick-ribbed ice-

To be imprisoned in the viewless winds,

And blown with restless violence round about

The pendent world, or to be worse than worst

Of those that lawless and uncertain thought

Imagine howling – ‘tis too horrible!

The weariest and the most loathed worldly life

That age, ache, penury, and imprisonment

Can lay on nature is a paradise

To what we fear of death – William Shakespeare

The Great Fear. The fear of death. All living things must die, but humans know it, must live with that knowledge daily, and must bear its mystery, its unacceptability, and its certainty. Is it any wonder that the subject of death is taboo in polite company that copious human energy goes into “schemes of amnesia,” which strive to push The Great Fear into the Siberias of consciousness – only to have some poet-playwright, imitating life, spoil the party?

Aristotle, writing in his Ethics about courage, shows us why Shakespeare has “spoiled the party:”

With what sort of terrible things, then, is

the brave man concerned? Surely with the

greatest; for no one is more likely than he

to stand his ground against what is awe-inspiring.

Now death is the most terrible of things; for

it is the end, and nothing is thought to be any

longer either good or bad for the dead.

Yet why blame Shakespeare or anyone else for ruining things for us? Such writers only tell us the truth about life. If the Bard of Avon is a great dramatist, it is because life itself presented him with its own Great Drama, something which he only partly captured, despite his genius. He is great, but the Natural Spectacle of Life and Death is immeasurably greater.

Such a natural spectacle strikes the undistracted human consciousness with enormous force. On what he supposes is his last night on earth Claudio gives vent to his fear: “…to die, and go we know not where … to rot … this sensible warm notion to become a kneaded clot … ‘tis too horrible!” Almost cruelly, Shakespeare here gives us a taste of what our real death will be like when, like poor Claudio, we must finally live it: it has at last come for us (or someone we love). True it is a mere taste of death, vicariously served up in Shakespeare’s theater, but if we are closely attending, it rips away our euphemisms and makes us say in our deepest soul, “Yes. This is what it will be like!”

The fear of death is the Great Fear not only because death is “the most terrible of all things,” but because every other fear, whether of failure or of rejection or of illness or of going crazy or of disgrace or of old age or of heights and of flying, or whatever, is a species or variant of it. This means that if we succeed in understanding the fear of death, we will know much about other fears and perhaps something about life itself.

Fear is natural, Necessary and Functional

Being afraid is natural to living creatures: without it there would be no drawing away from danger, no flight from the fatal consequences of some foolhardy action and therefore no survival. What is natural may also be necessary. Thus the creature – whether human or brute – which is afraid of water is protecting itself from death by drowning. The absolutely fearless person – Aristotle calls him “rash” – is a very poor insurance risk, someone who will surely in time, given the hazards even of ordinary life, get himself killed. Living beings keep themselves alive by responding by responding with fear to threats against their lives in ways that prevent mortal trauma. Fear is functional. It serves a truly vital function – for what is more vital than preserving one’s life? Such fear may be called healthy fear: it is simple, spontaneous, useful, and necessary, and it vanishes with the removal of the threat.

[This look at “fear” continues next in  #6]