THE BLOG

Thanatophobia At 21: Learning To Live With Death

09/05/2017 11:30 BST | Updated 09/05/2017 11:30 BST

So, I'm terrified to die. I think its the idea of nothingness, more than anything. Life feels like one long stretch of coming to terms with your surroundings, understanding them and them forgiving yourself for making mistakes. But death, and whatever that state of nothingness entails, is unknowable. We cannot understand that feeling, at any point in our lives. What I've been experiencing recently, at 21 years of age, is known as Thanatophobia; nothing has ever scared me, and perplexed me, more in my life.

I first realised I was going to die when I was eight. Its said to be common to experience similar realisations around this age. Either that, or I was an incredibly morbid eight-year-old. In my case, I cried; I was on holiday with my parents, at a stage in life when finding contentment was as easy as having an ice cream in my hand, which I incidentally did. Without the burden of worry, the realisation of death hit me so hard, I recall dropping that same delicious ice cream in the hotel pool at the thought of it. It was not death itself, rather, the realisation that death was universal and would eventually come for me. It scared me, to realise there was a question, one we live with for our entire lives, that remains perpetually unanswered. I couldn't articulate it at the time. Now, as a young man, I still can't. It's unlikely I ever will.

I recently had minor surgery, my first time under general anaesthetic. Unconsciousness lasted less than an hour. It was indescribable; lasting for moments in my memory, but equally possessing no actuality whatsoever, I was simply not present to consider it. Is that the same as death? Is not "being" there, in a mental sense, enough to understand what awaits us? If it is, it makes me want to hold the people I love. It makes me feel scared for them, and to know I can't protect them or support them, is horrifying. I'd almost say that not having relationships, with anyone, might be the only, and equally most punishing, way to ever escape the pain of realising we will eventually lose the ones we love, as they will eventually lose us.

Some people claim there is nothing to fear. Why fear the inevitable? I suppose, in a way, that's not a bad way of dealing with it. You liberate yourself from the responsibility of directly acknowledging your own finite nature. Denial is our essential, and most common, response to death. I always felt religion, the idea of hoping for or having faith, was just a defence mechanism to the frustrating reality that we all die and that post-death is incomprehensible. Inventing a theory of after-life is obviously comforting. In a way, maybe being religious is one of the best ways to deal with human mortality, because it remedies our belief that such a thing exists, or gives us a purpose on Earth.

Mark Twain, I am paraphrasing here, claimed that he'd been "dead" for millennia before he was born. Therefore, he was not afraid of a state of being that had never bothered him, previous to existing. Ricky Gervais, a staunch atheist, claimed he was happy to know his body would die, and existing ceased at that point. In all honesty, I don't want to not exist. Existing is all I've known, and all I'll ever know. The human instinct to learn, to understand, to shed light where there is darkness, is as relentlessly active as the predestined fate of all life. When applied to the paradox of death, it feels like a crushing weight on my soul.

Death has a collectiveness, an overarching nature. The earthly institutions we create, the wars we fight, and the worries we all carry are essentially of no use beyond their artificial tangibility. They are things we made, and are as finite as we are. They exist because humanity does.

For millennia, people have looked upwards to find meaning. The immense cosmos in the night-sky, where the streetlights don't mask it, seems so inaccessible. When I consider myself a part of it, it still seems alien and unaware of me. The "great equalizer", if we are unshakeably logical and scientific, is likely to be quite simple and unimaginable prior to its arrival.

In the madness of existence, the truth remains, all we really have is one another. Granted, it's a cliché. Our individual lives, eternally encapsulated in our own heads; knowing the same individual existences are occurring in billions of heads, simultaneously, is strangely moving and reassuring. Its why I believe human bonds are the most beautiful thing in the world. The most genuine thing we can achieve, and the most we can ever hope for. Thinking about death is natural. I almost feel childish for fearing it.

Nietzsche claimed that progressing beyond existential nihilism only came if humanity survived the process of removing interpretations of the world; to simply accept and somehow live with the finality of our lives. Christopher Hitchens wanted to "stare death in the eyes." Dylan Thomas' desire to "rage against the dying of the light", stirred me when I first heard it as a teenager. The sheer enormousness of life and death's great co-dependence was simply beyond me. Embracing it might be the hardest thing of all; an act that touches upon the deepest realm of the human condition.

Billions more people died before we ever existed. They would have mulled over, raged against and stood in awe of death like I have now. In adolescence, my feelings on death only differ in that I want to apply purpose to life, rather than trying to interpret the astounding thing I can't understand during life. I want to keep laughing, love more than I hate, and make other people happier. I want to see things that change my perspective, and create things I can be proud of. I want to live life on my own terms, and die with dignity, in peace. I imagine I will remember my inevitable fate many times more in the course of my life. I hope I learn to live with it. I hope we all do. They say the older we get, the less the "end" tends to scare us. Ultimately, we are born to die. If the alternative to living and eventually dying is not living at all, the decision to accept our circumstances and move forward, should be the easiest decision of all.