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The Pandemic, One Year On: 7. The fear of the fear of dying

A few days ago, in one of the first pieces in this series (“Becoming re-acquainted with death”), I wrote that I was no longer afraid of death.

For years I feared death. It was a constant presence for me, a low-level anxious hum that accompanied me everywhere. My fears now have changed — I fear not experiencing life, but I don’t have any real fear of my own death, or the death of those close to me.

And that’s true.

I recognise that death is an essential part of life, and that grief is evidence of happiness, and may even be symmetrically related to happiness — the more happiness we have in life, the more we will grieve.

There is a direct line in many ways between pain and joy. The road to the most blissful times is the same road that brings you through pain. Distress is a milestone on the path to contentedness.

This doesn’t mean we should seek out undue pain and suffering and distress. All lives contain pain and suffering and distress inevitably and of their own accord, and the job becomes to shoulder it, knowing that the joy and happiness we will feel later is made more whole by the experience. If life really is a rollercoaster, then a flat-line rollercoaster, trundling along without the peaks and troughs, is a rollercoaster no-one would be queuing up to ride.

But let’s get back to death.

Millions of people all over the world have lost loved ones to the Covid-19 pandemic. Tens of millions of others have lost loved ones in the past year totally unrelated to coronavirus: heart disease and stroke combined kill as many as the next seven leading causes of death combined — between 50 and 60 million people die each year, and about two-thirds of those are from non-communicable diseases (like stroke, heart disease, lung disease, diabetes and various cancers).

There comes a point, very soon above zero, when numbers don’t really compute for most of us.

Joseph Stalin — and he would know — once said, “If only one man dies of hunger, that is a tragedy. If millions die, that’s only statistics”.

Death becomes real not through numbers and statistics, but through lived experience, and it is lived experience that gives all meaning to death and life.

Seneca, the great Roman political adviser, writer and stoic philosopher, told a story about death in one of his 124 letters to Lucilius, the procurator of Sicily:

Gaius Caesar was passing along the Via Latina, when a man stepped out from the ranks of the prisoners, his grey beard hanging down even to his breast, and begged to be put to death. “What!” said Caesar, “are you alive now?”

That is the answer which should be given to men to whom death would come as a relief. “You are afraid to die; what! are you alive now?”

“But,” says one, “I wish to live, for I am engaged in many honourable pursuits. I am loathe to leave life’s duties, which I am fulfilling with loyalty and zeal.”

Surely you are aware that dying is also one of life’s duties? You are deserting no duty; for there is no definite number established which you are bound to complete. There is no life that is not short.

Seneca wrote his letters during his retirement (he lived during the time of Christ, dying in the year AD 65 at about 70 years old).

All of us change immeasurably during our lifetimes — would Seneca have felt the same way about death during his 20s or 30s or 40s as he did during his retirement in his 60s? Maybe, but can we really know?

We read his thoughts on death, and we might gain some courage and wisdom and peace from them — because life is short, and because death is one of life’s duties, and because by dying we are leaving no unfinished business, because there is no non-negotiable list of things set down for us to do.

We can benefit from reading such 2000-year-old words.

But we can also give ourselves a little compassion and kindness for our place on our own journey too.

Wisdom comes dropping slowly, through the slow accumulation of daily experiences, from the most mundane Tuesdays to the occasional spikes of transcendent joy that we must notice and cherish.

One of the things about wisdom, too, is how it’s never self-referential. As soon as we consider ourselves wise, something will happen that will prove our foolishness. If we embrace all the things we don’t know, we might in time be considered wise by others.

All of which is to say that it’s okay not to have Seneca’s stoic philosophies on life and death, because there’s a good chance Seneca himself didn’t have them for much of his life.

And it’s okay to fear death and dying, even if what we really fear is not death — for what is there really to fear about that which is certain? — but the fear of the fear of dying.

It’s okay to fear the arrival of those moments when death’s shadow comes to the door, those moments when we know that all the paths we wanted to travel are disappearing quickly one by one.

It’s okay to fear all that, as long as the fear doesn’t paralyse us from choosing those paths when we can.

And if you’re reading this today, there’s a good chance today is a day you can choose one of the those paths.

Wherever it may lead, I wish you good luck on the journey, and the good fortune also to know that good luck often doesn’t look like good luck until long after it has happened.

This is part of a series of 30 short essays to make the Covid-19 pandemic, one year on. Sign up below to receive these pieces by email each day for 30 days, or read all the pandemic essays so far here.