“I believe in everything; nothing is sacred. I believe in nothing; everything is sacred.” ~Tom Robbins
Some say death is a compass. Others say it’s a crossroads. Some say death is the beginning of time. Others say it’s the end of the beginning. But no matter what people say, death is nonnegotiable. It is coming for us all. We ignore this knowledge at our own great peril.
Staring into the headlights of our own death, some of us are consciously aware of these lights, but a lot of us are unconscious to them. For some of us, the lights are speeding right towards us, and death is nigh. For most of us, the lights are far off, dimly lit on the horizon. But all of us will eventually be ran over by the vehicle of Death.
So, what is a stumbling, fumbling mortal to do? How do we square the circle of knowing that we will die? How do we navigate this Mobius Strip of doom? How do we loosen the noose so that we can at least live a decent life?
Knowing how to deal with the fear of mortality is probably the most important life skill that we can have. But it’s a two-sided coin. On the one side, the fear of mortality is the fear of death. On the other side, the fear of mortality is the fear of life. Both must be honored, honed, and humored before sublimity is ours.
The fear of death:
“The more unlived your life, the greater your death anxiety. The more you fail to experience your life fully, the more you will fear death.” ~Irvin Yalom
Know this, right at the jump: There is no escape. You can’t have your cake and eat it too. A life well-lived is a life lived staring death in the face. You can’t be an adventurous artist or a drunken spirit and still be a law-abiding citizen or solid oak in a comfortable yard. If you want to get drunk, you have to accept the nausea and the hangover. If you want to say yes to sunlight and adventure, you have to say yes to filth and danger.
Everything is within you, demon and diamond, power and pain, the laughter of life and the trepidation of death. Say yes to it all, shirk nothing. Don't try to lie to yourself. You are not going to live forever. You are not immortal. You are a butterfly in a tsunami. Don’t fight it. Surrender to it. Let it guide you. Let it drive you. Become one with the tempest. You have this one life. Make the best of it.
Reconcile your mortal fear, assimilate your existential angst, integrate your death anxiety. Defy death by confronting it head-on. Die inside it. Burn off the dross. Lose your sentimental baggage, your naivete, your innocence. Then resurrect yourself into a person with the fortitude to handle the pain. For Pain is the ultimate teacher. Especially the pain that Death teaches. Learn from it. Let it shape you. Let it sharpen you into an instrument worthy of magnificence. As Atticus cryptically stated, “Let my death be a long and magnificent life.”
In the end, death makes philosophers of us all.
The fear of life:
“Life will break you. Nobody can protect you from that, and living alone won't either, for solitude will also break you with its yearning. You have to love. You have to feel. It is the reason you are here on earth. You are here to risk your heart. You are here to be swallowed up. And when it happens that you are broken, or betrayed, or left, or hurt, or death brushes near, let yourself sit by an apple tree and listen to the apples falling all around you in heaps, wasting their sweetness. Tell yourself you tasted as many as you could.” ~Louise Erdrich
Life will break your heart. Oh well. Let it break. Your heart was made to break open, suck the whole of experience into it—good and bad—and then come back together again. That’s what makes you stronger. Paraphrasing Samuel Becket here: Ever loving. Ever broken hearted. No matter. Love again. Break your heart open again. Break it better.
Life is less about receiving flowers, rainbows, and sunshine and more about how well you navigate thorns, storms, and darkness. Don’t avoid the thorns at the expense of the rose. Don’t avoid the storm at the expense of adventure. Don’t avoid the darkness at the expense of seeing beyond the light. Pain should not be avoided at the expense of wholeness; wholeness should be embraced at the risk of pain. As James Hillman powerfully stated, “We are composed of agonies not polarities.”
It’s what you do with these agonies that will decide the wholeness of your life. Being whole is not never breaking. Not at all. Being whole is breaking and then coming back together again stronger than you were before. And it never ends. It’s a constant: get wounded, mend your wounds, and then transform them into sacred wounds. That’s a well-lived life.
Another way of looking at the life-death-rebirth cycle is in terms of wholeness. There is no point in the cycle that is not the beginning and the end of every other point in the cycle. That is what you are. You are wholeness perceiving fractured aspects of the whole as points along the way.
During dark times, when it feels like you’ve been buried in failure and pain, remember this feeling of wholeness, and then flip the script and imagine you’ve been planted instead. Now all there is left to do is to take this wholeness and bloom into sublimity.
Discover the Sublime:
“There are heights of the soul from which even tragedy ceases to look tragic.” ~Nietzsche
When you assimilate your fear of life and death, you experience a state of cosmic sublimity. You rise above all the pains and pleasures, all the ups and downs, all the fear and angst and hunger. All the heaviness of mortality slips away into lightheartedness. Amor fati overwhelms you and all you can do is step into the powerful role of being love itself. You fall in love with being in love with your fate.
In this state of cosmic sublimity, all the pain, all the pleasure, all the ups and downs, all the fear and love of life become mere ingredients for your own immortality project, your magnum opus, your ultimate work of art.
Where a plant blooms into a flower, a human blooms into a piece of art. When you’re in the throes of an artistic process, you are flourishing. You touch the Philosopher’s Stone. The transcendent shines through the art. The sublime shines through you. It all comes together in that sacred space between life and death: surrender.
The cosmic sublime is an ontological pivot point, a perspective in which death is also rapture and resurrection, and the death of the ego is linked to creativity. It’s a movement into psychological depth.
If you want to discover the sublime, meditate on death. Meditate on eternity. Meditate on interconnectedness. Meditate on pain and probability. When you become deeply aware of your mortality it gives you a sense of purpose and energy. Find ways to transform this purpose and energy into vitality, creativity, and power. Seek expansion. Transform energy into synergy. Express the infinite in the tangible and bounded form of a work of art. Bring magic elixir back to “the tribe” and change the way the tribe sees the world.
About the Author:
Gary Z McGee, a former Navy Intelligence Specialist turned philosopher, is the author of Birthday Suit of God and The Looking Glass Man. His works are inspired by the great philosophers of the ages and his wide-awake view of the modern world.
This article (How to Overcome the Fear of Mortality) was originally created and published by Self-inflicted Philosophy and is printed here under a Creative Commons license with attribution to Gary Z McGee and self-inflictedphilosophy.com. It may be re-posted freely with proper attribution, author bio, and this statement of copyright.