Refusing to Accept Death
Accepting death is almost difficult for everyone — old, young, secular, religious, healthy, sick, happy, depressed, etc. — although the degree to which each accepts their death is different.
Across cultures too, accepting death varies widely. In superstitious and fatalistic societies where death is a routine part of everyday life, it is not so unwelcome a guest: you see it in the way they drive, cross street, or rush to fight in solving their problems. Some societies and sects even encourage their members to die.
Ironically, they accept death when it's time to live and "over-react" to it when it's time to die. Whereas in civilized societies where people cherish life more, people accept death mostly when it can no longer be avoided. In death, the doping effect of myth and wakening effect of reality are both put to the test.
Most people who accept death easily can also enjoy life easily, as fear of death doesn't dampen their pleasure. Ironically, a fanatic cleric and a materialistic scientist, one living by unquestioned faith and the other by believing only in facts, can accept death for totally opposite reasons. It's those in between who suffer, for having neither a philosophy nor a belief to live by: no scientific facts or metaphysical wishes to hold on to at the moment of death.
Reasons for Refusing to Accept Death
1. Life Experience
Deep "love, hatred or apathy" toward life makes death easy to accept, where one meets death while they are very happy, angry, or apathetic.
2. Death Experience
Coming close to death or losing a loved one before makes accepting death easier, when it's time to face one's own death eventually. People from different cultures, beliefs, environments ... who visualize death accept death more easily, and all their differences almost disappear when they share a near-death experience.
Accepting death needs practice, just like reading, writing, driving ... otherwise, death takes us by surprise when we least expect it, increasing our shock for forgetting it's part of life. Like any acquired skill that needs honing, it's not in our nature to remember what we don't see, unless it's happening before our eyes. Some circumstances naturally force us to think of death, while others don't, that we have to remind ourselves of it intentionally and regularly.
However, there is a difference between remembering death and dwelling on it, since the latter literally hampers us from enjoying life properly. Death should only occupy a certain place in our mind, without overplaying or underplaying its role.
In Ancient Egypt many people kept a figure of death in their house to always remember this twin fact of life. Some jobs, like a doctor's or a soldier's, put you in constant contact with death, while most others don't. Growing old naturally makes you expect death more often, and so does having a fatal disease or accident, knowing that you don't have much to live. However, if you are not very old or sick, or at risk of dying, you can still positively remember death, in many ways: socializing with those closer to death, reading history, visiting the dead, physically or mentally, valuing their legacy, and thinking how you want to be remembered yourself, when you are dead.
3. Brain Chemistry
Nature and technology can help us accept death when nothing else can. Naturally, many drugs and mental illnesses change brain chemistry in a way making a person unaware of or indifferent to their approaching end. Nature made us forget more as we grow old, partly to help us let go of life and leave the Earth for new generations, to have their share of life too (otherwise, life would be difficult for both sides). Amnesia is a form of mental apathy, although amnesiacs can still enjoy simple physical pleasures and the good memories their brain hasn't erased yet.
Aldous Huxley once said: "Ignore death up to the last moment; then, when it can't be ignored any longer, have yourself squirted full of morphia and shuffle off in a coma." He did take narcotics before his death.
If you were an animal, you would certainly have a different brain and brain chemistry, making you hate death and find it repulsive (and smelly). However, it won't tell you the hard truth, that it is the end. Some animals like elephants stop at the site of their dead, to pay their respects; and some like chimpanzees temporarily think their dead are only asleep, until they gradually forget them.
4. Attachment to Memories
If we don't accept death while we are young, it becomes difficult to accept it later in life. Whatever we were told in our childhood, it's uneasy to take a new path in life and relinquish all the good memories, fantasies and beliefs we had grown in the past, right or wrong, chosen or forced on us, when we were too young and our brains too "malleable" to say no to adults.
Wise men take time to accept their failure to know "what death is" or how it feels, before they totally give up on that which is beyond reasoning. However, fools cannot accept such failure, or take "no answer" for an answer: after they reach a dead end, they keep banging their heads against the wall, refusing to accept the reality, unable to live with an empty space in their head, where illusions and childhood dreams once thrived. And instead of re-filling it with facts, they relapse into fantasies again.
5. Social Pressure
Many people refuse to accept death as the inevitable end, not because death is bad, but because they have no one to share this acceptance with. You want to accept death, but others don't, and wouldn't let you. You say, "It's unknown. I accept that." They say, "No, it's bad. Do NOT accept it!"
Thus, you become afraid of offending them and their fantasies, gradually becoming afraid of what they are afraid of too: death. You won't offend them, lest you end up alone, or worse living as an outcast for the path you took, that is different from that of the majority or any group you belong to. It's the same with any decision, lifestyle, habit, etc. requiring autonomous thinking independent of other people's influence. It's not easy to swim against the current even if you are strong, and right. You must change your direction, and stroke.
To minimize such pressure, and wade through the waves of ignorant people, you should focus on honesty with yourself, since it's difficult to be honest with others, letting them live in their blissful ignorance. Gradually, you become familiar with every trick, fallacy and scare tactic they use, against those they don't agree with. Typically, they will arouse your sense of guilt first, to beg for their forgiveness, as most consider themselves guardians of absolute morality (that they can't achieve or understand). They will remind you how many people you may upset, lose and contradict by your choice (as if being alone while right is the same as being wrong: the appeal-to-popularity fallacy).
Sometimes, optimism results in confusing wishes with facts. When people realize that life is too short and we only live for a few decades, they start wishing for more, for billions of years, for eternity. Some then become unhappy with their lot, fantasizing instead about a never-ending life, even without grasping what to fill such eternity with. Rather than turning humanity's dream of immortality into a reality, by reasoning, hard work and scientific research, they easily do it the Ancient Egyptian way: "Let it be, and it will be!", Ra said so.
And the more followers they get, the more chance the wish becomes a fact, and the millennia-old lie becomes a truth. They fallaciously appeal to tradition: our ancestors so believed; why should we believe otherwise? Unfortunately, it's difficult to sue the dead or track Time. (No one could find the culprit who had spread the rumor, pushing the first domino piece that caused this ages-long brain-damaging effect!)
Wishful thinking is good only in some contexts. It is imprinted into our genes to serve a survival function, helping us in gambling, taking risks, and situations with unpredictable results, where one is left with little or no knowledge, that they must fight against all odds and struggle with the Unknown. Only hoping for the best can light up the way then, providing motivation and patience to reach such uncertain goals.
But death is not gambling, where some win and others lose: in death we ALL lose. It is not a guessing game with some possibilities turning out to be facts one can pursue, since all possibilities are equally uncertain. Rather, it's life that has facts worth pursuing, living for and making future plans upon.
We can't treat death with the optimism we treat life with, because death is a subject we have no data about, neither past experience nor future prediction: it's beyond nature. Nature guides us only till that last moment then leaves us, to face the unknown alone.
Sadly, "1 + 1 = 2" only, however we dream/wish/pray for more. It's unwise to turn a blind eye and walk away from the truth: from life, the present, and all the pleasures they offer, that we can only capture if we stretch our arms, while we have arms. Yet, many regress to childish fantasies, even after they grow up, after they age, and, worse, when death is few steps away.
Finally, ignorance about life leads to developing wrong attitudes about both life and death, that many people end up fearing, wasting, hating, or despising life altogether. Ignorance about other humans, environments, cultures, history, diseases, and sciences generally causes such misconceptions, making people irrationally hold on to life, filling the gap made by ignorance with semi-science or no-science.
It's not wrong to speculate on another life as an alternative thereafter, because speculation is all we have, since we are not there yet. What's wrong is to dwell on it, and waste the life we see for the one we don't, ignoring all reasoning and wisdom, conventional, secular or religious. Most religions ask their followers to live for today as if they live forever, and for tomorrow as if they die today; that is, "to make the most of life while always expecting death."
Yet many people end up dreaming, arguing, even quarreling about tomorrow more than living for today, because of the appeal of eternal tomorrow, compared to short-lived today. People lose interest in their duties on Earth, when they are busy thinking how beautiful it will be afterwards. Thus, they commit a sin against their god, society and themselves. They waste the gift of life God has given them. They commit a sin against Reason, for not using the brain they are favored and distinguished with from other animals. They commit a sin against their fellow humans who will survive them and need to keep the wheel of life going, not stopped or abused by their predecessors.
Many act as if they are already immortal and tomorrow will never come, because they like what they think: they live in constant denial of their inescapable end. They wouldn't accept that they may just vanish, like all the living, when all the noise stops. Many think they will go to heaven (even though they call themselves sinners), and few, if any, seriously think they will go to hell. Many a sinner believes he will have time to repent before he dies: "If Jesus, in an unprecedented act of generosity, granted cost-free eternal happiness to Dimas at the last minute, why not grant it to me too? If all it takes is penance, I will just cry more to show Him how true my penance is."
Thus they turn religion into an elastic material suitable for explaining good and evil in the terms they choose. Or is elasticity just inherent in every belief founded on fantasy and wishful thinking (that they euphemistically call Faith) instead of facts? How ridiculously dangerous to derive facts from fantasies, to make laws from mere wishes, to found constitutions on the sandy whims of someone's dreams and another's clairvoyance, and to go to war with those you disagree with just because they fantasize differently:
And there it went ... They killed each other, and lived happily thereafter, each in his promised land: the pet-shop and the florist's.
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