Sunday, July 23, 2006

7.23.06, Fear of Death, Pt. 1 Breaking It Down

“Fear of Death”

[If I get high enough I can push the pain away, just a thought I had.]

One’s first thought of death is fear. One gets scared, of necessity. For numerous reasons, too deep to delve today, fear of death has been carefully, complexly, and socially constructed for millennia; very sophisticated and plausible (for many) systems of belief have been established to assuage this fear. As if it were hardwired into our thinking. But. One critical question, from a genuinely open mind, cuts to the heart of it all: what is it we’re afraid of? Why fear death?

Among the books I’ve found on death, some of which I noted and commented on earlier, perhaps the best of them has been Facing Death: Epicurus and His Critics, by James Warren. It's genuinely insightful, a dry but very good book. Epicurus worked out logical reasons for fearing death, or rather for why we should not fear death, based on extrapolations from common questions about what we might fear about death. They fall into that oddly mystical grouping of “four” — have you ever noticed these groups of four? Buddhism’s noble truths; the Biblical heart-might-mind-strength; four Christian gospels; the Mormon Temple ceremony (don’t worry I won’t let out any secrets) has four big lessons to learn, four covenants you enter into, four signs, four tokens of these signs; etc.

When facing death one’s primary task is to determine what is the fear of death, and then realize that is not a singular but rather complex fear that is generalized when we speak of it. Epicurus’ analysis brings him to see four types of fear concerning death (these are summarized from Warren):

1 – The fear of being dead.
2 – The fear that one will die, that one’s life is going to end.
3 – The fear of premature death.
4 – The fear of the process of dying.

So the commonplace “fear of death” is more accurately composed of, potentially, four more specific fears. Number one and number two don’t seem to be issues for me. The possibility of experiencing number three has been pulled out from under me. At the end of March, early April the diagnosis I was given made turned my world upside down. I think that fear number three is one you experience while going through the process of “normal” life, while in the back of your mind you also assume that you’ll live another 30 years. What you fear is that someday someone, some doctor, will walk into the exam room and tell you what Dr. Whiting told me. Since it’s already happened, no more fear.

That leaves number four. This one does frighten me, what can I say? Even if they tell you “We will do everything in our power to make sure you are totally free from pain in this process.” There’s that word, “process,” even they used it. Euphemism for “dying.” Perhaps the pain can be avoided. But what of people? Will we be closer, split apart, fight, simply drift, bond tightly, what? What of my cats? It looks like, now, they will outlive me. The job, I guess it just goes away. The… the… and so on. You can see what the thinking is like. When you know the egg timer will buzz and you’re supposed to go on puttering around the kitchen pretending it’s not there. Is that what you do? You can also see the whole “process” is odd, unexpected, surprising, and taxing. That’s the fear to analyze further.

Along these lines, I’ve realized already how the nature of this “fear,” singular for shorthand but referring to all four as “fear of death,” is really of a dual or even dialectical nature. There is my fear and then others’ fear. These can be distinguished chronologically: I can experience fear in the time between now and when I die; after that, it’s time for the fear of others takes over. True, others can fear it now also, but the personal fear lasts only a short time, then I’m done; the collective or other fear has the quality of possibly existing now but really kicking in once I die. When others see me, despite what they know about my disease, my appearance largely deceives them. So the fear is allayed somewhat. That later time, when it kicks in. (I’m prognosticating here…) It might turn to memory, remorse, fondness (I can hope), relief, trauma, or a myriad of other feelings. I think the moment of my death, particularly clearly, marks off the difference in whose fear has primacy.

This fear analysis has made a lot of sense to me; and the self / other divide is what developed in my mind very soon after I was given my prognosis and began seeing people’s reactions. At times even those closest to me have surprised me, some times in the extreme, often subtly. Some have been rock solid, on the outside at least. The devoutly religious, for whom there should theoretically be little to no fear, have demonstrated the profoundly human side of their nature. I don’t know what any of this really means, whether there are conclusions to be drawn, snappy closers to be tacked on. All I know is there is ineluctable movement, and we all exist within it.

Here would be a nice place for a poignant line of poetry to cap it all off, instead, I’m just stuck. . . in the movement, in the analysis of fears, in thinking through it, feeling through it. No big answers for this day. Any brilliant thoughts?

Franky Scale: 6-7, up higher but with the heat and some poor pain management on my part earlier, took a wee dive.

5 comments:

Slarry said...

ONE SISTER'S PERSPECTIVE:
My dear and lovely brother:

What to say? Where do I begin? How to express the thoughts and feelings swirling around my mind and heart, turning me into mush ? You were able to face the truth, the hand you have been dealt--- and were strong, brave enough to walk those ten feet into the kitchen, and prepare your morning coffee-- live your routine.
For me, walking those ten feet, spoke volumes of your character and strength.
It is what makes you my brother. It is why I know you will keep on fighting---
it is who you are, who you have always been. The special gift to our family, the gift of you, that made all the difference in my life, in all of our lives.

And now you write of fear, the fear of death. To be completely candid, I fear all aspects of death. -- it scares me to death. And that was before your diagnosis. Since then, death has taken on a whole new meaning. I don’t fear my own death anymore, I don’t even think about it. But the thought of losing you, not having you around to talk and share with, to laugh and learn from, leaves me feeling completely empty and alone. I don’t want to be in a world without you in it. Yet even as I write that, I know it sounds selfish and may cause you to worry about me. Please, please don’t.
I want you to continue to write and feel everything and anything that you want, without having to worry about how it might effect others. That is one of the gifts you are giving and sharing with us. Your process, your feelings, insights, and yes, even your fears.
My deepest sorrow, is that you are in pain, that you are afraid, that you have to confront your own your mortality at the age of 38. It cuts me to the heart-- especially knowing I can’t do anything about it.
Except to continue to love and support you. Which I will always do. Fight, Hope, Rage and fight some more.

Please know, dear Scott, I will forever and always be changed, if you are to die.
All of us will. I already have because of what you teach me daily, what I learn, every time I read your thoughts or talk with you. Your impact and influence on me is difficult to describe, to put into words. Whether right or wrong and for whatever reason, I have always felt close to you, in awe of you, thought of you as one of my most precious gifts--- having you as my brother. A gift, a privilege to be your sister.

I don’t think I can write any more-- I still haven’t gotten over yesterdays post.
Even with Steph lying next to me, trying so hard, so gently, to calm my fears, my sadness-- to still my beating heart and flood of tears, I haven’t been able to stop thinking of you and your fight with death.
The possibility of your dying. A life without you in it.

I was able to get myself to a point in this process, on learning, attempting to act and to live, to be normal--- to make my cup of coffee, get on with my own routine, even though your mortality was staring me square in the face. It was so, so hard. But I was able to at least function. But yesterday, knocked me over like a ton of bricks.
The ache in my heart too big to ignore. So I went to my new sanctuary--- the shower.
You like our large soaking tub, Scott’s tub-- I find comfort in our shower. It is where I do my best thinking. And now, I can go there and cry buckets of salty tears, mixing with the splashing water, washing me clean. Clearing my head and heart, bringing with it some solitude, refreshment and renewed strength.
Strength to be there for you-- the strength I need to face the routine of my day, the days and life before me. To see if I can become and realize even a portion of the life you’ve already lived, the goals you’ve accomplished.

You inspire me to be better--- to live a life of purpose.
I will go and take another shower now, so I can ponder and think about your fear number three--- the pain,
as you put it, your painful process.

I love you Spot--- always.
Keep fighting my brother. There is still more, more life for you to live, days ahead for you to enjoy. On Thursday last week, you were given a left turn. And yes it was putrid. It will straighten itself out again.

Sheri

We would be honored to care for your cats.

Machine said...

The thoughts were poignant enough; no line of poetry needed--nothing more is needed. The words and rationale that underly this entry strikes me deeply. Your fear is a unifying force, probably the first and most consistent emotion we feel, and these 4 fears...These 4 fears of which truly the last, the fear of the "process", that fear you are in the beginning of conquering, is salient because it is unknown ("Ignorance is the father of fear" either ErnestH or Melville put that together). Learning and enlightenment, not the trumpet or the shofar or some gilden harp type stuff, but actually being with us and reading and thinking through it together...fear shall be dispelled...for you and us...

Prof., feel free to delete if I'm being presumptuous on your thoughts today...

Frarella said...

I think we are all "stuck" with this fucking tragedy. What a brilliant thought! right? I hate that there is nothing any of us can do to stop this. i love you - hope to see you in Zion soon!

tossing salads said...

greetings brother from hell. (know what today is? the 24th, big doings here in the land of the everlasting mountains) my 'fear' is that the last time i see you or dan is the last time. i have faith scott but no one really knows obviously. i love this life. i know this life. WTF does it matter that hell is better than this life. i dont know it. what an awesome journey you have traveled. you can truly look back on your life and know that you have accomplished much. i get it that you would like to accomplish more. i want you to accomplish more. but what of dan. people would look at his life and think that he didnt accomplish anything. and if he doesnt get another chance to be, do, anything, just sucks ass big time. even with all of this, thats the reason im still glad im not a horse. we get to experience life. the pair of you have given me things to wonder while wandering. and i will be eternally grateful for both of you for teaching me. i havent heard of any denial in you. you have met this head on. same as dan, he got up each day and did his best. thank you. i will try and not be such a scaredy cat and keep pushing. and you, please keep fighting. i love you. Happy 24th of July!!!!

Mr. Jones said...

Death and fear are both topics that stir people's emotions and thoughts, from what I see in the comments. Thanks for sharing what can make you vulnerable--and there are comments I've received in email, too, from those who prefer not to "go public." Third day of chemo today, IV chemo tomorrow, time to roll the ideas of fear back and forth. I hope more of you will post, also, if you think you might contribute. --A nice cool down to 85 in Seattle, Seattlites must be being righteous. -Mr. J