From Essays After Montaigne
Cicero saith, that to Philosophise is no other thing than for a man to prepare himselfe to death: which is the reason that studie and contemplation doth in some sort withdraw our soule from us and severally employ it from the body, which is a kind of apprentisage and resemblance of death; or else it is, that all the wisdome and discourse of the world, doth in the end resolve upon this point, to teach us not to feare to die.
The end of our cariere is death, it is the necessarie object of our aime: if it affright us, how is it possible we should step one foot forther without an ague? The remedie of the vulgar sort is, not to think on it. But from what brutall stupiditie may so grosse a blindnesse come upon him?
Socrates answered one that told him, 'The thirty tyrants have condemned thee to death.' 'And Nature them,' said he. What fondnesse is it to carke and care so much, at that instant and passage from all exemption of paine and care? As our birth brought us the birth of all things, so shall our death the end of all things. Therefore is it as great follie to weepe, we shall not live a hundred yeeres hence, as to waile we lived not a hundred yeeres agoe.
As a child of seven or eight, I lost myself in an obsessive fear of death. My precocious but ill-informed mind contemplated notions (death and its alternative, infinity) that overwhelmed my as yet undeveloped emotions. When I tried to seek support from adults, they dismissed my fears. Either they thought it absurd for such a young child to bother with such matters or they couldn't form an explanation that would fit my necessarily limited perspective or they hadn't addressed mortality for themselves and weren't particularly interested in exploring it on my behalf. And of course this all took place outside of any religious context. I came to believe that mine was a fear that stemmed from an excess of rationality, that anyone who saw mortality clearly couldn't see it with anything but dread. I learned to function by developing absorbing interests, keeping my mind occupied, and not thinking on it.
This actually worked reasonably well for me for many years. I had other dragons to slay, so I could ignore the problem of my mortality. But later, with friends, pursuits I enjoyed, professional success, and, later still, a wife, I had fewer concerns to distract my obsessive anxiety from my mortality, and death started to visit. Since high school, I had lost both of my grandfathers and a childhood friend with whom I was no longer close, but then in the year surrounding my wedding, I lost my father, one of my grandmothers, and my father-in-law. It was getting harder and harder to keep thoughts of my mortality at bay. I found some comfort in the promising splendor of James Merrill's The Changing Light at Sandover, and that kept me going. But then I went on that bike trip...
At my first appointment with my therapist, I told her that I feared death, my own and my wife's. I assumed that was a complete and rational cause for all that was troubling me, and, as such, required no further explanation. I found myself confused and inarticulate when she asked me why I feared death. I felt as though I had been asked why the Marx Brothers are funny. Isn't it self-evident? Don't our sheer animal panic in the face of death, our innate drive for survival, and our view of death as the ultimate consequence--the worst thing that can happen to a person--speak for themselves? Over the past two and a half years, I've learned that they don't. I've learned that it's possible to not fear death--even for some people who don't believe in an afterlife or an immortal soul.
In my travels through literature, especially what is often called wisdom literature, I've found a great range of insight into and attitudes toward death, from Lucretius (who saw it as a matter of little concern to those who died, since whatever concerns, worries, or anxieties they had toward death would cease with their death) to Dante (who saw it as our entrance to eternal suffering or, after a period of purgation, to eternal celebration), and I have considered them all.
My first inclination is to see things as Stanley Kubrick did. He told Jack Nicholson that he believed The Shining was ultimately a hopeful movie because anything that suggested that there was something after death was hopeful. But as I've read more of Abrahamic theology, particularly Christian and Muslim, I've become more ambivalent. Though it's not a unanimously accepted belief among the adherents of either of those religions that we are destined for either eternal damnation or eternal grace, that idea is pervasive in their scripture and theology. I find the idea of an eternity of punishment deeply upsetting, and I don't find the idea of an eternity of happiness (a fleeting state, in my experience) compelling. Given my still-limited perspective, I can't imagine eternity as anything but ultimately boring--I can't imagine interest without tension, and I can't imagine a tension that could be sustained forever. Of course, that hasn't yet led me to welcome the prospect of my extinction.
My discovery of Buddhism (through paths I can no longer trace) brought me the most comfort, which should come as little surprise, given Buddhism's explicit aim of freeing its followers from suffering. In my current worldly incarnation, I don't expect to be able to make objective assessments of one religion or system of beliefs versus another. But at an instinctive level, Buddhism makes the most sense to me. I find its central tenet that suffering is the result of attachment--because any object of attachment, being subject to arising, will be subject to cessation--to be profoundly right. It allows for the limits of my understanding, and takes up where it leaves off. I find its optimism on our behalf, despite its doubtful view of worldly existence, its lack of damnation, and its exhortation to mindfulness both realistic and uplifting.
As the Preacher rightly states, we must choose a belief in this life--we cannot experience belief without first committing to it. I long to make that choice, to look into my heart and find belief. Whatever choice I do make, I can only hope that it gives me easier and more ready access to those occasional moments of peace that I've stumbled upon in my explorations. My philosophizing (in Pierre Hadot's sense of "a prepatory exercise for wisdom") has been, after my marriage, the most rewarding aspect of my life, and even beyond my marriage, it has been the most challenging. It has brought me nearer to myself, and it has begun to teach me how to die. I'm by no means fully prepared, but I can now ponder death without panicking.
I leave the final word on life and death to the prophetic irony of Marcel Proust:
Our love of life is no more than an old affair that we do not know how to discontinue. Its strength lies in its permanence. But death, which interrupts it, will cure us of our desire for immortality.