Fear, Death, Silence, Life

Earlier this year, my son was having intense anxiety — phagophobia, to be precise, a fear of choking when he ate. He’d shake and tremble, panic riddled, because he thought he’d choke to death on a piece of cheese.

I know this intense fear for I have lived much of my life with it. In college and my 20s, it was AIDS (this was the 80s, mind you). Every time I got tested, I’d fly into utter panic, convinced I was positive. And you know how I thought I’d got it? My fucking cuticles! My cuticles get dry and sometimes bleed and I was sure they’d be my downfall.

My fear of dogs was even sillier. It didn’t matter how big or small. The minute the beast looked at me, I knew it was sizing me up, assessing my guilt and sins, poised to rip my throat out. Dogs were avatars of divine justice, special agents sent to whiff my weakness and destroy me.

Cuticles, cheese, and Chihuahuas: these are the things that have made my spawn and me shake with mortal fear, keeping us up nights sweating.

It seems absurd, comical even, but it’s actually quite sad. Looking at the boy while he was panicking, it was suddenly so obvious that his fear was precisely what was ailing him, even killing him, spiritually if not physically. To shake in fear, to panic, about what might happen is to miss life, skip right over it, to slide into an abstract set of possibilities and miss what’s happening right now. His fear of choking, my fear of AIDS and dogs, is all the same: it is to fear what might happen.

Alas, to live in fear of a future that might happen is not to live. But nor is it to die. It is to live a waking, walking death. It is to evacuate yourself of yourself, to be absent to your own life, to live in a possible world. While cuticles and Chihuahuas may be extreme, I know so many people who are afraid of being alone, afraid of losing their job, afraid of in flight turbulence, afraid of any kind of confrontation, afraid to dance, afraid to go to concerts. It’s all fear of what might happen, fear that anything and everything can and will go wrong. It’s a fear of death that erases the present moment.

Last year, I watched my sister die. It was horrible watching her dissipate and then, after five grueling months, disappear from this earth. She went from being a vital, brilliant, hilarious, beautiful woman to being a withered remnant. It was foul in so, so many ways. When she passed, I found myself in despair, utterly distraught about what had happened. I was not living; I was stewing, raging impotently against a universe that would do such a thing.

My shrink told me to meditate (he’s less fruitcakey than that sounds). But meditation always struck me as all wrong. What do you mean sit there and do nothing? That’s nihilism! Life is doing! Life is sounds and words and ideas! I always thought I needed the noise to tether me to the planet. And so I blabber on to others and, worse, to myself. I never shut the fuck up.

The silence of meditation, I told him, is death! I don’t want to die. To which he replied: Yes, it is death. But you need to die. Your avoidance of death is your problem. What my shrink understood that I did not is that my debilitating grief and avoidance of silence, along with my fears as well as my boy’s, were all the same thing: a fear, an avoidance, of death.

Just as my boy’s panic about dying was precisely the thing that was killing him, my relentless search for a linguistic tether was precisely what was untethering me. The will to noise, those relentlessly mad voices in my head, were keeping me from life — by keeping me from death. It’s the absurdity of thinking that if I just keep talking, the Big Silence will never come. It was the madness of my inconsolable grief. After all, what is more futile than raging against death?!?  What is more absurd than being afraid of the very thing you know — you know! — will happen?

As my shrink told me, silence is indeed death. While part of life hums with the sounds of living, part of life speaks with the silence of death. Life is run through with death. But death is not nothing. Fear of death is nothing. The roar of nonsense in my head is nothing. The relentless drone of the TV, of Facebook and Pinterest, of Rdio and Spotify, is all so much nothing. All these things can be great, even inspiring, but to demand them all the time, at all costs, is to drown out the silence of death. It is to will nothing. To fill your life with noise and nonsense is to render yourself zombie. 

For Kierkegaard, despair — not disease — is the sickness unto death. And what is despair? It’s turning away from death so much that you can’t die; you lose your self and become a breathing absence, a warm body devoid of life, too absent to even die.  You fret the irrelevant and bemoan the inevitable. To meditate, to quiet the voices in my head, is indeed to die. But, in so dying, I am able to live.

The noise of things is often beautiful but it is not the only sound to hear. John Cage’s 4’33” is the sound of life and death, noise and silence, intermingling in a cosmic calculus. The sound of life is not just the play of children, the honking of horns, the laughter of love: it’s the silence of death that lurks everywhere, always and perfectly, in between and amongst the clatter. To shun this silence, to mute it, is to miss life itself. Mind the gap, indeed.

To live with fear — fear of what happened or might happen, fear of a death that is inevitable, that is an essential component of life — is not to live at all. Only by dying every day, by welcoming death and its exquisite silence, does life happen. Or so I hear.


Jim H. said...

I'm very taken with this post. It touches on tons of issues for me. e.g., I saw Cage perform 4'33" once, or at least he was in the audience as a woman "performed" it on stage. It was a hot NC Spring evening, still light outside. The auditorium's windows, if I recall correctly, were open because it didn't have air conditioning. I can still remember being annoyed at coughers and bus traffic, etc. filtering into the silence, at first. It took nearly the entire four and a half+ minutes to recognize that that was precisely the point

I love the equation of silence to death. And I respect the personal space out of which the piece arises.

Reading your conclusion ("to live with fear ... is not to live at all"), I was drawn to re-re-read an extended, self-indulgent serial essay called 'Thyraphobia' I wrote some 5 years ago on fear and shame. It was about skydiving and 9/11 and war. My conclusion was stated somewhat differently from yours:

"To live is to be afraid: everything we have and do, every accomplishment and affinity, every battle we fight, is an effort to stave off this fundamental truth. We erect barriers and buffers between us and this primordial shock of recognition at how small and insignificant we truly are in the face of an at-best neutral universe.

Not to fear life and reality is not to respect it. Fear and the complex of concomitant emotions that flow from it are not to be dealt with lightly. They are to be nurtured—for they are life itself."

Maybe we are saying the same thing: it's not a question of squelching or repressing fear, but of making peace with it, welcoming it, recognizing it as fundamental to who we are as human beings.

Daniel Coffeen said...

Jim: Always a pleasure and honor to read your comments. Very cool that you saw a performance of 4'33" — it sounds like your experience was somehow perfect, as the piece is a kind of pedagogy (perhaps even excessively so).

I believe our respective views on fear share one aspect: life is fucking scary and is part of the human condition. But I don't believe it's necessary per se; I believe it can be overcome. And, in fact, that fear is an obstacle to living — or at least to living well, living joyfully. I believe, or am trying to believe, that fear is a disrespect for life as fear is premised not on what is happening but on what we want to happen.

For Nietzsche, Kierkegaard, Buddha life is perfect, always and necessarily. There is no alternative. And this means dying is perfect, always and necessarily — as there is no alternative. Fear is something we construct out of our ideals, our religions, our weakness. We fear death, injury, sickness, humiliation — as if life could be free of these things. They all happen and, as such, are perfect.

Of course, this may be an ideal. But it's a strange ideal in that it seeks nothing other than what happens — including death, humiliation, etc.

I am not there; I live in fear. But I sense the futility of it and so am trying to will a different self, one that is not afraid, that embraces silence, that enjoys rather than fears.

Have you read The Denial of Death (http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/The_Denial_of_Death)? I keep being told to read it as I have not.

In the meantime, thanks again.

sideshowbob said...

This post was profound. I love your thoughts. So the fear of death is bondage and to overcome that fear is liberation.

I wonder in practice how one goes about being set free--how it's possible to eagerly await death (for instance, I can't help but feel queasy about death even if I want to overcome the fear)--to begin living maybe even for the first time. ??

Jim H. said...

It sounds like the Becker book is to my point. Nice catch. Thanks.

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