The Fear of Dying

In the Breath Between the Words: An Exploration of Death and the Afterlife

“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.

In 1982 I visited Varanasi, the city of dying. In the Hindu tradition, it is the best place to depart this life’s chapter 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 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 waiting to die. Many of them wore loincloths 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 film’s exposure 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 burning ritual 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 that Indians are superior to us, the western wanderers, because Indians possess something far more enriching than western materialism, 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 chance for recovery. She was in the hospital in Israel, and every day she called, 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.” 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