A bright, 21-year-old university student asked me to comment on a few points.
1. “Although you have written extensively about fear of one’s OWN death, I couldn’t find anything about the ever-looming fear of others’ death. You see, I read in a web forum a statement that shocked me. It said: ‘The most painful part of the death of loved ones is to know I will never have a conversation with them again, share a beer with them, do ANYTHING with them ever again.’
“I am perfectly fine with death myself. But, I love my father very, very much. And I cannot imagine how it would be like for him to be gone, forever, one day. To know he has ceased to exist; that I will never talk with him again. It feels like having a short circuit inside the brain; life seems so vain and entrapping. Whatever I do seems pointless as one day, he will cease to exist and only a memory of him will remain. And the more joyful the memory, the greater the pain. It makes me want to scream, cry, and run away.”
Yes, the fear of our own death and the fear of the death of our parents are quite different. The fear of our parent’s death has its origin in childhood. At a very early age we realize that we are completely dependent on our parents. That is, as infants, we cannot survive without them. So, whenever our parents are angry, we are afraid we may be abandoned by them. We are also fearful of losing them. After all, how could we survive, cope, or get along without them?
This childhood fear remains with us. Even as adults, we may be badly shaken by the death of our parents, especially after realizing that we can no longer turn to them for advice, support, and encouragement. We may feel alone in the world, which can be quite a scary prospect. However, there are steps we can take to prepare for that day, and we can begin by changing the way we view life. Here are some points to think about.
a) You may lose your father, but you will never lose your memories of him. You will find that the advice and tender moments he shared with you will serve as a source of strength for you in the future.
b) What is it that belongs to you? The moon and stars are here for you to enjoy, but you don’t own them; they don’t belong to you. Nothing that life offers you belongs to you. Be grateful while you can and enjoy it, but be willing to return it. This was recognized by Epictetus nearly 2,000 years ago, for he taught, “Never in any case say I have lost such a thing, but I have returned it. Is your child dead? It is a return. Is your wife dead? It is a return. Are you deprived of your estate? Is not this also a return?”
c) Death is our greatest loss, but “Loss is nothing else but change, and change is Nature’s delight” (Marcus Aurelius, 121 ~ 180). Death or change can be beautiful. For example, the death of fear, despair, and doubt opens the door to a triumphant life. Are you fearful and in pain? Good! Because they are inviting you to become a hero, a master of your fate. Isn’t that what you want?
2. Our reader continues, “But the issue I talked about connects to the emptiness and meaningless view I have toward life.”
We have now arrived at the heart of what is troubling our reader.
First he read something on the Internet that triggered the fear of his father’s death. Next, thoughts of his father’s death remind him of his mortality; he too will die. This thought then induces the fear of dying without a purpose, which is revealed by his statement that he has an “emptiness and meaningless view toward life.”
What’s troubling our reader also disturbs many other young, bright people. You see, whatever has a purpose, has value. But that which has no purpose is worthless. Young men and women who don’t yet have a sense of purpose fear that they may be worthless. So, when they contemplate death, it isn’t death that frightens them, but the possibility of dying without making a difference.
Everyone wants to have value, so imagine the pain of those who believe they don’t have any. But it is not that they lack value, but that at their young age they lack understanding. Here are a few simple points they fail to comprehend.
a) Much of humanity is suspicious, discouraged, and unhappy.
They are in desperate need of encouragement. Imagine if our reader offered a smile and kind word to everyone he met. Those simple acts would transform him from a lost soul to a person of immense value.
b) People often confuse their role with their purpose. Some young people will say, “I don’t know if I want to become a doctor, lawyer, cook, airplane pilot, sales clerk, or teacher. I don’t have any direction. I lack purpose.” But the job we take is merely the ROLE we play. Roles are WHAT we do. PURPOSE is HOW we do it. We immerse purpose into our role. To become a teacher is to take on a role. But to become a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring teacher is to live with purpose and make a great contribution to the world.
c) Most young people place undue importance on their choice of occupation. They are afraid of making the wrong career choices. They feel uncomfortable if they don’t know exactly what type of job they want. Again, this is due to confusing role with purpose, The truth is, it doesn’t matter what job you take, for when you are purpose driven, you can be happy and successful doing anything. Take the example of the school teacher in the above paragraph. Suppose after deciding she wanted to become a teacher she found there weren’t any jobs available. So let’s say she decided to become a healthcare worker instead. That is, instead of a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring teacher, she would become a compassionate, gentle, understanding and inspiring healthcare worker. She would become equally successful, equally happy, equally fulfilled. Can you see how our core values or purpose remain constant and can be transferred to any role we play?
d) Thoughts of death also often lead to another type of confusion. Some will ask, “What’s the point of it all? What’s the point of life if we’re all going to die?” The argument goes something like this, “I can study and work very hard or I can lie down in the sun all day. What difference does it make since it all ends in death?” The reason for the confusion is they are asking about LIFE but are focusing on DEATH. If they were to focus on life, the answers become clear. If I work hard, I will experience the joy of accomplishment, contribution, and self- expression. In a word, I will feel fulfilled. Lying in the sun all day may physically feel pleasant, but unless I am contributing to life, I will soon feel that I am wasting it, have no value, and be unhappy. We didn’t choose life. It chose us.
We’re here. We’re alive. And we have a choice. We can embrace life, contribute to it and enjoy it or we can bemoan the fact that we’re going to die. Which makes more sense to you, to live with exuberance or despair? To focus on life or death?
What’s the point of it all? A great deal. Asking about the point of it all is like asking about the point of a rose. Sure it serves a function (pollen), but for man its role is to awaken us to the beauty and majesty of life; it is here to be experienced; it’s purpose is to help us discover our own grandeur, for flowers, humans, and the rest of creation are all part of the inexpressible expressing itself. The point of it all is to participate in it and help it unfold, which is precisely what it does for us; in other words, life is our dancing partner. The point of it all, then, is to experience the excitement of discovery, joy of achievement, and wonder of mystery.
3. Our reader concludes by writing, “While I am sure it would be soothing to imagine the dead looking at us up from the skies, it does not satisfy those of us with a more objective and logical, or in essence scientific, mentality. Hence, these kinds of thoughts are more difficult to work through as there is no afterlife to look into.”
Our 21-year-old reader says “.there is no afterlife.” Yet, millions of others say there is. Of course, saying there is doesn’t make it so. But neither does saying there isn’t make that so. One of the mistakes of youth is believing they know it all.
But it is more than a matter of inexperience. You see, most of us are uncomfortable with uncertainty. We don’t like to believe you may be right and I may be wrong. We don’t like to stand on unstable ground. We like to have something firm to grasp. So, when it comes to an afterlife, most join one of two camps: believers or nonbelievers. They may not have the truth, but at least they have something to believe in, something to cling on to.
Yet, there is a third camp. Those who embrace uncertainty rather than run from it. They would rather live courageously than comfortably. Those who seek shelter in beliefs that provide all the answers never experience the profound awe of mystery, or the unknown. It takes courage to admit one doesn’t know and courage to live without knowing. But those who choose this path are adventurers who know the taste of exhilaration and joy, for they willingly accept what is, whatever it may be.
The doubts and confusion of our reader and others like him are very good. They are calls for further exploration, study, and consideration; they’re opportunities for growth. Why did our reader experience fear? It is the call of life, nudging him, pushing him to take the next step. It’s a wakeup call. It is life’s way of saying, “Share with those you love NOW. Start creating a meaningful life NOW. Start enjoying the wondrous magic of life NOW. Start contributing to the world NOW. Start learning acceptance NOW.
And now a personal word to our reader. Look at the world around you. It has great need of your talent, intelligence, and capacity to help. Will you heed its call? I’m sure you will and am confident that you will excel and make a valuable contribution. I am also sure you will make your father proud.