Widemouth Skull. Digitally altered photograph by Michael Potts. May be freely used with attribution.

Fearing Death

Michael Potts

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Death is an “unnatural natural fear.” That is, given that we are animals, we naturally fear death, but we fear it in a way that goes beyond nature. We hate death, despise it to the bone, dreading the grave’s cold flowing down our bodies and the slowing of the heartbeat, a harbinger of what will soon come. Even those who believe in an afterlife often have a tinge of doubt eating the edges of their minds, leaving behind the horror of the abyss. Goethe bragged that he could handle death even with his belief that death marks annihilation, but he screamed, howling with horror, as death clawed his body and haunted his mind, until his screams stopped along with his heart. Our own hearts, which seem so strong, are kept beating by a thread holding life back from the dead order of entropy. Dread flows into our minds like an ill wind when our hearts skip a beat or worse, more than one, and those pauses between beats are reminders of the heart’s final pause. Some of us may envy those with faith beyond doubt, wondering why our minds wander away from hope into despair. The existentialists talk of such despair, of a being toward death, of our thrownness into the world along with our inevitable exit from it.

I believe in an afterlife, but doubt continues to haunt, scurrying to my mind at two a.m. in the quiet and the dark of those early morning hours when many people die. Maybe such doubt is inevitable, at least in the majority of persons, as they face that ultimate barrier, either “an undiscovered country” or the end of all discovery. Hopefully, in the absence of sudden death, a peace will wash over me, cleansing away the angst and filling me with hope. My hope is that you, readers, find hope as well, and that hope, not doubt, is present when you die. My hope is in God; some of you may find hope elsewhere — but follow my advice here — you will not find hope in the self. Peel away those layers of the self that function as boundaries and reach outside yourself into something that transcends you and your personal desires. May you find peace and mercy and love when you leave this life.

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Michael Potts

Michael Potts is Professor of Philosophy at Methodist University in Fayetteville, NC.