The Fear of Dying

“You are asking yourself, as all of us must: ‘Who am I?’ … ‘Where am I?’ … ‘Whence do I go?’  The process of enlightenment is usually slow. But, in the end, our seeking always brings a finding.  These great mysteries are, after all, enshrined in complete simplicity.” Bill W.

My fear of death is alive and present.  There is no point in denying it, as the whiffs of thought repeatedly visit my mind these days.  It is sneaky, often shows up in disguise, sometimes the symptoms show as worry and anxiety, sometimes as heavy and sluggish feelings, occasionally as fingers browsing through Google News and Facebook.  It is there all the time.

From the beginning of time, oceans of words have been poured and stirred in attempts to make sense of or to calm the mind from the fear of death.  I understand that many other words are often required to contextualize the concept of this remarkable unknowable space.  But for me, the best explanation is in the breath between the words, the space between them.  If you collect all those spaces, you end up with one big silence.  A silence that reaches one’s ears from a long way off, across fields of faded mountains.

In 1982 I visited Varanasi, the city of dying.  In the Hindu tradition, it is the best place to depart this chapter of life and embark on a new one.  In the never-ending cycle of reincarnation, when your body gets burned and its ashes are thrown into Varanasi’s Ganges river, you are spiritually free.  I was young, strong, fearless, curious, and wounded, but far from being spiritually awake.  On our walks in the narrow and crowded streets, especially those close to the bank of the river, we encountered many sick, bone-skinny, cancer-stricken, lepers, and old people that were waiting to die.  Many of them wore loincloth carrying only a begging bowl and nothing else.  There was no sense of fear in their eyes, no despair.  What I saw was calm acceptance – the power of their faith.  I, on the other hand, felt very uncomfortable; it was hard to keep a straight gaze at those people, I was filled with a sense of horror.  In those days of vagabond travel, I took very few photos because each exposure of film was precious and expensive, and I was cheap and thrifty.  In the few photographs I took, there is a heavy presence of darkness and shadows, which look very appropriate. 

I remember one conversation, not the words per se but its essence.  We sat on the steps near the river, watching the ritual of burning and people bathing all in proximity.  The Indian gentleman we spoke with was very kind and patient.  Afterward, I clearly remember my puzzlement and awe.  He conveyed to us that Indians are superior to us, the western wanderers, because Indians possess something far more enriching than the materialism of the west, a knowing that we don’t understand.

About 15 years ago, my ex-wife’s best friend was dealing with cancer, the type there is little hope and chances for recovery.  She was in the hospital in Israel, and every day she called, and they would talk for hours.  One time I happened to pick up the phone, and I clearly remember how I could not shake the fear of dying.  I could not be fully present.  I said all the wrong things; the worst one was: “oh, you are going to get better.”  I regret it to this day; it was also a good lesson.  What I should have said was: “Thank you, thank you for your friendship – I cherish it; thank you for all the fun moments; thank you for all the laughter.”  I think she would have loved that.  I know I would have been with fewer regrets and self-criticism.

Now, years later, reminiscing about my experience in Varanasi, I don’t have the chutzpah to say: “I know, or I have the answer.”  As a matter of fact, I realize that the older I get, the less I know.  I do understand that for the Hindus, it’s about the never-ending transformation of energy.  As for me, I prefer to stay in the questions rather than the answers.  I am more with Bill W., the founder of Alcoholics Anonymous, who said: “You are asking yourself, as all of us must: ‘Who am I?’ … ‘Where am I?’ … ‘Whence do I go?’  The process of enlightenment is usually slow. But, in the end, our seeking always brings a finding.  These great mysteries are, after all, enshrined in complete simplicity.”

April 2020