How to Overcome the Fear of Death

Fear of death consistently ranks among the top human fears. I argue in this post that this particular fear is irrational, since death is inevitable. Death may have the power to end life, but it does NOT have the right to take away our dreams…unless we let it.

The Appointment in Samarra by John O’Hara is one of my favorite stories. It tells the tale of a servant who came trembling to his Master:

"…Master, just now when I was in the marketplace I was jostled by a woman in the crowd and when I turned I saw it was Death that jostled me. She looked at me and made a threatening gesture, now, lend me your horse, and I will ride away from this city and avoid my fate. I will go to Samarra and there Death will not find me. The merchant lent him his horse, and the servant mounted it, and he dug his spurs in its flanks and as fast as the horse could gallop he went. Then the merchant went down to the marketplace and he saw me (Death) standing in the crowd and he came to me and said, Why did you make a threatening gesture to my servant when you saw him this morning?  That was not a threatening gesture, I said, it was only a start of surprise.  I was astonished to see him in Bagdad, for I had an appointment with him tonight in Samarra."

-John O’Hara, Appointment in Samarra
(as retold by W. Somerset Maugham, 1933)

The moral of the story is clear: we cannot outrun death. Death is more inevitable than taxes. Some have devised ways to avoid taxes, but no one cons their way out of paying death its due. Death is an equal-opportunity destination for all mankind. Given its certainty, it does not make sense to be afraid of death. One can combat the fear of public speaking, fear of failure, or fear of heights by, respectively, simply refusing to speak in public, trying new things, or climbing a ladder. But death is a different beast; it will come whether or not you fear it or fight it.

Fear of death: A dream killer

In the book DREAM, I shared the story of how I almost did not come to the US to pursue my dream of getting a PhD in Engineering because of the 2007 Virginia Tech shooting. Why should I go to a school in the US to get shot at? Nevertheless, after much reflection, I decided to come. I concluded that it is simply an illusion for me to think that I have that much control over when and how death will come. I hated the idea of tiptoeing through life, avoiding any and all risks, just to arrive at death’s door, eventually.

Death takes everyone’s life, at some point; but for many people, it takes their dreams while living as well. We have no control over the former, but we can draw the line at the latter. The 2007 massacre made me confront my mortality. Painful as it sounds, it made me accept the reality that I may one day be at the receiving end of a crazy man’s bullets. But it also freed me. How? Up until that point, school death was not one of the ways I had considered I might die. My thinking was—how many other ways to die must there be?  Infinite, probably. So why bother trying to avoid them all? I might as well get on with life instead.

“Remembering that you are going to die,” Steve Jobs famously said, “is the best way I know to avoid the trap of thinking you have something to lose. You are already naked. There is no reason not to follow your heart.

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Advice to graduates and anyone beginning anew:

“Do not waste your life trying to prolong it.”

-Michael Taiwo, author of DREAM

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Death is the biggest killer of dreams. This is unfortunate because, to restate the obvious, we will all die. There is no reason to cower through life. Cowards die, too. Why not live boldly while you have the chance? A reporter once asked Michelle and Barack Obama, when he was a presidential candidate, if they were afraid that someone might shoot him to prevent a black man from becoming the president. Michelle wisely replied, “The realities are that, as a black man, Barack can get shot going to the gas station. So you can’t make decisions based on fear and the possibility of what might happen.” Mr. Obama, the 44th President of the United States, decided that the fear of death would not kill his chance of making history, of living to his fullest.

Research shows that overcoming fear of death leads to success

Marvin Eisenstadt, a clinical psychologist, conducted a seminal study in the 1970s in which he tracked the parental histories of hundreds of eminent personalities (defined as those worthy enough to merit a half-page-long entry in the Encyclopaedia Britannica). The data would help him test his theory that there is a link between achievement and parental loss at an early age. The results were striking: the eminent group, on average, lost their first parent at age 14, compared to the control group who lost their first parent at age 20. Similar studies have arrived at the same conclusion: there is a positive correlation between losing one or both parents at an early age and likelihood of success. (To be fair, Eisenstadt and later researchers also conclude that those with early parental loss are also more likely to be psychotic. In short, the death or disappearance of a parent predisposes a young mind to either genius or psychosis.)

The relevance of these studies to our discussion here is apparent. I believe that those who lose a parent at an early age are forced to face their own fear of dying much sooner. The illusion of living to a 100 is gone for them. They get, in a way few others do, that life is brutish, random, and short. They also get over it, and they start living fully. To them, the prospect of not experimenting with new things or trying to achieve an epic goal just because they may face death is silly.

How to not be afraid of death: LIVE!

I would know. When I was 18, in my 2nd year of college, I lost both parents. It was an unannounced, unplanned, unwanted, sudden disappearance that changed my world forever. After I recovered from the shock, I noticed that I had become a new creation. Something in me died with my parents. It was the fear of death. My prayer became, “Lord, I don’t care for a long life. I would take it if given. But, by all means, give me an impactful one.” Investing in others, creating works that will outlive me, deriving pleasure in what I do, making an impact…these, I decided, are worthy goals I can pursue. I will not waste my life trying to prolong it.

Let me be clear: I don’t endorse reckless living. You cannot achieve your dreams by being careless about your health or physical safety. Quit smoking, drink moderately, sleep adequately, listen to your doctor. Do these not necessarily because they will add one more year to your life, but because they will give you the mental and physical energy needed to get more out of your life. They will make turning your dreams into reality more achievable.

How can you overcome the fear of death? Confront your mortality now. You don’t need to lose a parent or a loved one to do that. Look around you—your ancestors are not here anymore. It is highly unlikely that you will see your grandchildren’s grandchildren (and even if you do, you will be too old to be of any use to them). You will die. Get over it. And start living.

I would like to hear your thoughts about what I shared here. If you were given a choice, like Achilles was, in Homer’s Illiad, to pick between going back to Greece (to avoid war) and living to old age; or, remaining at Troy (the battle front) and dying young, but gaining everlasting glory, which would you choose, and why?

 

 
 
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Break your fears today

For more insights on how to overcome your fears, check out the book Dream: A Little Reminder to Graduates and Anyone Beginning Anew by Michael Taiwo