A dear friend of mine wrote to me to share my struggle with mortality with them as they were facing similar issues.
My response turned out to be as much a way to help myself as it was to help them, so I put it here (excluding personal references and identifiers) as a record for myself and in the hope that it may offer someone else a ray of light to guide their way.
Quite often, I’ll have a sleepless night.
The Thanotaphobia strikes and suddenly I am acutely aware of how temporary I am.
In trying to accept the smallness of my place in this world, I find that I am overwhelmed anew by the weirdness of being.
No amount of logic ever truly removes or alleviates the anxiety and debilitating fear response that over comes me when this occurs.
Even now, I am struggling to write this without succumbing to the black vacuum that those thoughts live in. In short, I manage by not managing. I survive by not dealing with the issue and mentally, emotionally and sometimes even physically running away from it.
Many a time have I taken a form of sleep inducement to obliterate myself in unconsciousness to simply remove myself from the spiralling darkness of those thoughts and the torture of it’s ensuing panic attacks.
Some days I’ll be unable to fully focus on the tasks at hand, obsessing about how everything I’m looking at is impermanent, and that my viewpoint will be extinguished someday.
Most days, my disorders help me out by giving me an insane, single-minded obsession with yet another new hobby, project or task, thus obliterating any other thoughts or concerns.
Life for me is all too short. Compared to the length of the universe, it’s an eye-blink. Time is largely subjective.
I know that.
However, no matter how I manage to fill my life with changes: learning, reading, thinking – I have yet been able to find a way to modify my perception.
To some degree, I wan and still am helped through my depression and my fears via my journal. Also by what I refer to as my poor memory, but is more truthfully my years of experience of hiding my life from myself. The practice at first was self protection from the “bad” things that occurred in my life, and then became a convenient way of dealing with life in general.
My inability to clearly recall things from my life is not a constant barrier, and when I do recall things (usually from some form of emotional reaction or traumatic, to me, experience) I write them down in a journal and can then be reminded of the memories later.
That is how I deal with the depression, mostly, and how I deal with those pesky memories that fade in and out of my mind like transient glimpses of another’s life.
As for how I deal with the struggle with mortality. I do not know if I have the answers. I can only expose to you my naked, raw fear and the journey I have taken so far and hope that within it, you may find consolation or enlightenment to aid you in your own journey.
It is quite feasible that my own path “away from faith” increased my “existential dilemma” and thus inflamed the Thanotaphobia. It’s also true, that coming so close to death a few years back may have been the trigger in and of itself. Whatever the reason, once struck, I was in its clutches and I have not found a way to escape it.
I suppose one risk of over-rationalizing death is failing to appreciate life. Whether or not you manage to stop fearing the idea of dying, you still come up against the idea of why you are living. I mean, what’s the point? Doubly so if you’re a non theist without a Deity or philosophy to tell you taking your own life is wrong.
I fell into this pit.
No one could tell me why life is worth living.
No one could honestly tell me what the point of life is.
When I went back and looked at the religions and theologies once again, I found no answers there, in fact, I will argue that they did not provide any comfort, nor guidance for one’s life, but instead for the “next life” in whatever form that was meant to take.
How does that help me? How do I keep going? I still do not know where I am, where I am going or why I am taking the journey. How does assuming that my struggles, my choices, my pain and my sacrifices are all tallied up to determine the quality of my next life make enduring this one any easier?
I do fear mortality because I do fear death.
I do not believe I will ever rid myself of that fear. Furthermore, I do not want to “deal with” death. I never have. I may possibly find that I will never do so until the moment arrives.
I realised a while ago while I was trying to deal with my depression, that my fear of death was encroaching on the rest of my life.
It’s such a strange thing to say, really.
The rest of my life.
I think I realised I was in a loop. On the one hand I was depressed, listless, uncaring, dark, moody – unable to relate nor interact with the world properly nor wanting to.
On the other, I did not want to die. I wanted to live forever.
But, to what end?
What was the point?
Enter depressive cycle, rinse and repeat.
The concept of embracing life is supposedly clear enough.
One embraces life if one values the people, experiences and even objects that constitute one’s life.
I think, in this sense, those of us who do not believe in an afterlife are more likely to be able to embrace life.
However, we are more likely to face that basic existential crisis. We are more likely to seek out “why?” and ask “where is the purpose?”
I do not know if there is an answer. In all honesty, I can only assume we must, for our own sanity, come up with an answer that will suit ourselves.
We must discover a sense of purpose for ourselves.
Our Ikigai (“ee-ki-guy”).
Everyone, according to the Japanese, has a hidden ikigai. Finding it requires a deep and often lengthy search of self. Such a search is regarded as being very important, since it is believed that discovery of one’s ikigai brings satisfaction and meaning to life.
Ever since I learnt about this concept, I have been chasing it with all my inner being.
I did not know where to look, I did not know how to start … I just knew I had to start somewhere.
So, I started with what I did not want: I did not want to die.
That may be unrealistic, but then I thought “if I must die, how can I ensure that I live happily for as long as possible and then die in the most peaceful way I know – in my dreams?”
I looked around and I discovered that there were certain things that the modern long lived centenarians had – so I made those things part of my Ikigai. You may recall I posted that up on tumblr a while back.
My deductive reasoning, whether correct or not, is that if I were to do something with my life that provided that aim of ensuring I live for a long time, then surely that would go some way to my being happier!
However, I also realised, that what I needed was not just to “live forever” but to feel like my life meant something.
To make an impact.
To leave something of myself against this reality.
Dreams of philanthropy and world wide impacts were all well and good, but what truth could there be in them? I could not achieve such lofty endeavours and to think otherwise was to revisit the very cycle of gloom I was hoping to alleviate. No, I need to do something that meant that I could see and feel the impact practically at the same time as I performed it.
I needed to work and feel like the work achieved something.
I needed to be given a payment that was beyond dollars and cents. It was in a heartfelt connection. It was in a moment of happiness. It was in seeing that I had touched another person and that the interaction left a positive mark on them.
I do not know if the path I have taken will give me what I am looking for, dear friend. I only know that the path I was on, did not.
As for your depression, I obviously understand, but there are no words I can offer that will offer anything but understanding and compassion. Each of us has our own black wolf to contend with. He affects us all in the same way, but the prey he chases is different for all of us.
I do know a few things, though – the exhaustion and achy bones you speak of are made the more noticeable by the darkness of that cloud over your shoulders … it is easy to forget that the sun hides behind those clouds, and far too easy to allow the chill to set in.
As for work, perhaps, as I did, you can perceive that work is a means to an end. I spent the last 20 years living for my jobs. Striving for the next goal, the next payrise, the next promotion. My entire sense of worth and fulfilment was based on work. As with life, I woke up one day and said “what’s the point?”
Now, I go into work, and I do not care other than it provides me with a paycheque to be able to afford the tree change I am trying to achieve.
Finally, do not kick yourself, dear friend, for you have done what any one of us would have done – in fact you have far more than many of us would have been willing to do.
I do not know what path lies before you friend, but I do know this – I am here to help as much as I can.
I am trying to embrace life, friend, and I am trying to shine that light as much as I can. I want you to see that the darkness is often of our own making – for surely as that wolf does hunt us down, it is but a hungry dog, and as soon as we realise this and recall the leash is in our hands – then we may very well be able to recall the dog to heel and take control of it once more. He will never leave us friend, I can’t promise you that – but we can keep him under control. We can seek out the sunshine and bask in its warmth.
You have tremendous sunshine friend. Allow yourself to feel it.
You are worth it friend.
How do I know? Because I was willing to give up the last three hours of my life to consider and write these words.
Further, I do hope it helps, if only by you realising and understanding that it is because you are a wonderful person.
With all of my affection,