Nothing to be Frightened of

I’m currently reading Nothing to be Frightened of by Julian Barnes, a memoir about death.  It’s a really good book.  I’m only halfway through so far– it’s a slow read, due to the need to look up words such as “uxorious” and the fact that there are no chapter divisions.  The title was somewhat misleading, because the author doesn’t think that death is nothing to be frightened of; he’s very frightened of the nothingness of death.  He’s an agnostic, by the way– religion is a whole other dimension of the book which I’ll discuss in a later post.

Apart from the author’s personal musings and family history of dealing with death, the book contains a fair amount of historical anecdotes from the lives and deaths of past artists, writers, and philosophers.  He also talks about the mechanics of dying, the different ways there are to die (mauled by a crocodile vs. terminal illness and many other would-you-rathers), his wishes for his own inevitable demise.  But all that is just window dressing for the real meat of the topic, the staring into complete extinction, the consideration of what it will be like to not exist.

Barnes is a writer with inclinations towards art and philosophy and a skepticism of science, which makes his musings on death and religion emotional, sentimental and completely unscientific.  That’s probably why I like the book so much, because my science-mindedness tends to make me a little too reductionist.  When I think about death, I’m so obsessed with carbon cycling that I usually fail to move on to more personal philosophizing.  Carbon cycling has the ability to derail me from any train of thought it enters.

The closest I’ve come to nonexistence is being under general anesthesia.  I went under to have my wisdom teeth taken out, a couple of years ago.  I fell asleep on a table in the surgical room and woke up a split second later in the recovery room.  Of course it wasn’t really a split second later, but those two hours of my life were blissfully wiped out.  So when I try to imagine nonexistence, I think about what it would have been like if I’d never woken up from surgery.  This analogy doesn’t really work, because anesthesia only wipes out memory, not experience.  I actually walked from the operating room to the recovery room, but I don’t remember it; I know because I saw another patient with a swaddled jaw walk by, mumbling and drooling.  Thinking about nonexistence is a moot point, because when you don’t exist, you won’t know that you don’t exist.

When I was fifteen I took a general writing class at the local university, and we spent a week talking and writing about death.  Since I was the youngest person in the class, everyone was curious about whether I ever thought about death.  “I think about death all the time,” I said.  “How can you not?”  Indeed, I thought a lot more about death as a teenager than I do now.  In class, we talked about our preferred modes of dying.  One student, a woman in her late twenties, was so afraid of death that she tried to avoid even thinking about it.  “When the time comes,” she said, “I want someone to just walk up behind me with a gun and shoot me in the back of the head, so I won’t have to know what’s happening.”  That is not at all how I would want to die, but I have to admit she had a point– the anticipation of dying is probably worse than death itself.

How often do you think about death?  Does it frighten you?  For those of you who don’t believe in any existence after death, how do you deal with it?  And if you could choose, how would you want to die?


3 thoughts on “Nothing to be Frightened of

  1. Cosmos

    My wife is petrified of death and dying. I, on the other hand, don’t worry too much about it and picture it much like you describe – like being asleep. But here’s the thing, she’s a pretty devout Christian and believes in heaven whereas I don’t really think there is any kind of an existence after death. Ironic?

    Oh and I want to go in my sleep when I am too old to get out and enjoy life. Maybe 90 years old or so.

  2. Lily Post author

    I was terrified of death when I was a Christian. I had so many questions– what will heaven be like? Will I know I’m dead? What if I think I’m just dreaming and I don’t know I’m dead? Will I experience the future in real time? How long will I have to wait for the resurrection? (What if Frank Tipler’s right about the Omega Point Theory?) All of my questions were answered satisfactorily by C.S. Lewis (and believe it or not, I considered the Chronicles of Narnia to be a satisfactory explanation), but I was somehow still not assured.
    After I became an atheist, I realized one day that I wasn’t really afraid of death anymore. I don’t know why, but the finality of death is somehow more comforting to me than heaven was.

  3. Irritable

    My experience is very similar. I don’t believe in any kind of conscious afterlife, but I don’t seem to be hung up about death, either. The whole idea of death can be a bit mind-bending whether you think anything happens after that or not.

    Part of me would like to die in my sleep, but part of me would like to be one of those people who knows when death is nigh, and has the chance to say a few words. I think that would be cool.


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