It is interesting to compare how people managed to cope with the fear of death during different times in history.
Almost like death was not scary enough, we invented something even scarier. By thinking about those horrific things with, we forgot about death — like distraction techniques people use, in order to avoid difficult questions, approaching an uncomfortable topic in a different way.
All those afterlife stories are almost like saying, “Shush now, we do not want to go there; we do not want to create panic again. Do you remember what happened last time we went there?”
In Christianity, there is a well-known concept of heaven and hell. Those who were righteous enough during their lives get eternal life in heaven for their earthly service — therefore getting a perpetual grant to enjoy all the inconceivable riches of this and that other world. On the short end of the stick, those who committed sins end up in eternal torment, burning through infinity. More or less, Islam copied most of the concepts from Christianity and has a similar philosophy.
Now, if you are like me, the first thing that will pop into mind is reciprocity. When you multiply something with infinity, you get infinity. For me, it seems somehow unfair in either way to get rewarded with infinite torment or happiness.
Let’s suppose you are Hitler, and you caused the suffering and death of 80 million people. Reciprocal punishment would be to experience the pain of each death and also experience the torment of each life at least for the duration of that life (we will round that number to 50 years). So, following the same argument, Hitler’s punishment would be 4 billion, give or take few thousand years in Hell, experiencing the death of each man, woman, or child whose suffering he caused. That seems fair doesn’t it? Infinity, on the other hand, does not.
Let’s say you end up in hell for stealing something. Do you really need to be in the same pot as Hitler, for infinite time? And what about that dilemma, “If a thief steals from another thief, is he a really a thief?” Or, what if he gives those things he stole to people in need?
And it goes same way for good deeds. Do you really deserve infinite bliss for behaving like a normal human being should in the first place? When you finish your daily job, do you get a salary for the rest of your life, or do you get the salary only for that day?
But let’s put all that aside, and let’s travel to the east. There, you will find cultures that created another type of fear — fear that was somehow greater than death itself: karma and the wheel of consequences of good and bad deeds that lead to a nicer or worse next life.
There, ancient philosophers and religious leaders convinced people that whatever they do in this life will reflect in the next life; therefore, the sins of the present will transfer into later sufferings. The more someone sins, the more he or she is going to suffer.
Even now, many genuinely believe in this; they are afraid that their actions will create suffering and pain after they finish their lives here, so they are putting significant effort into adjusting their actions accordingly. Additionally, whenever some atrocious thing happens to some innocent person, they will explain that as a consequence of that person’s actions in her or his previous lives.
There are many wrong things about this concept, some of which I already mentioned in the “About Science” story, but, this time, I would like to point to an interesting difference between East and West.
In the West, people are afraid of an infinite afterlife; in the East: about the perpetual next life.
The mutual things for both are infinity (in one way or another), the inability to control your circumstances (or lack of free will), and suffering.
Suffering is the interesting one — the state of mind where you can perceive pain as external or internal sensation. Regardless of being a physical injury, illness, mental condition, fear, distress, anxiety, sadness, frustration, or simply hardship in life as a constant struggle to survive, they can all cause someone to hate his or her own existence.
Suffering is something we all naturally tend to avoid; it is built in our DNA, it helps us survive and thrive, but, again, it makes us who we are. Physical and mental toils are those that build our character.
So then, why is fear of suffering greater for many than the fear of death?
Thoughts can imagine suffering, so, for the mind, it is easier to focus and make things it can imagine more frightening than those things it cannot imagine.
When the conscious mind tries imagining a place of non-existence, it gets to the point of paradox, where each thought and each realisation of non-existence creates a sorrow about an inevitable event that will happen one day in the future and also a fear of the unknown — especially a type of unknown that cannot be resolved.
Nearly every religion has a powerful tool to do this. Maybe it is a natural mechanism in-built to alleviate the fear of death by calming our minds. Some call it a prayer; others meditation. Despite the name, it has the same purpose: to calm the mind down through a constant repetition of words, sounds, or movements, and therefore to turn off the tinkering conscious mind.
In Buddhism, the ultimate goal is liberation of Saṃsāra, or the cycle of suffering and rebirth, therefore attaining the sublime state of nirvana. So, in Buddhism, after being fed up with the drudgery of boring existence and unnecessary drama, the goal is to find the exit.
Therefore, in some strange way, the goal of Buddhism is death and nonexistence. At this point, many atheists will recognise this as a consequential inevitability, so the question is why, then, we need all this “mumbo jumbo” of practicing, doctrines, and rituals?
Maybe one of our purposes while we are still alive is to learn how to die, to learn how to go with dignity and without fear. All those spiritual cleansing techniques and doctrines are there just to show the mind the way and how it looks when the conscious mind is turned off, therefore preparing the mind for the inevitable future of passing.
Those who meditate could tell you that, at the beginning, the practice can lead to an experience of time freezing just for a few seconds; with practice, that time will prolong. Now, someone may ask why losing time with this is beneficial, when you will die anyway.
Fear of death can be quite debilitating, often causing more pain and suffering than someone’s real circumstances, therefore making her/his life much more difficult than it could have been.
Practicing those ancient techniques could make the person more productive, more concentrated, and more focused.
So, on the path of achieving excellence in art, science, sport, or even war, the minds of those exceptional individuals need to be obsessively concentrated to a single goal. Removing the fear of death helps a lot in that process.
Why do we need excellence?
Well, excellence, combined with intelligence, is one thing that can help us to beat the worst fears we’ve had since the dawn of humanity. It can help us to cure illnesses, to travel to faraway places, to communicate over a great distance, to modify our bodies, to extend our lives, and — who knows — maybe one day to even beat the grim reaper, that dark shadow that lingers over all of us.
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