Fear of Death by Arthur MacDonald 1921
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Modern pessimism is Buddhistic. Many thinkers have confessed that death was a poison or torment in their lives. Tolstoi regarded life as a blind alley, and death as a void, a complete annihilation, but that it was a natural event, and should not be feared. But it would seem that in the majority of persons the sensation of approaching death is painful. It appears that the fear of death in man is instinctive, just as self-preservation and love of life are. The fear of death may be physical or mental, or it may be mixed with indignation at the idea of annihilation or extinction. To counteract this, religion and philosophy have provided many remedies, which have gradually come to be doubted more and more. Few animals, except man, have any consciousness, premonition or fear of death. In man the love of life usually develops with age. Rousseau said that life becomes dearer as its joys pass away. People in great pain, or thinking they have a fatal disease, may desire death,—but if informed that possibly they may get well, then express a wish to live.
The fear of death is part of natural life though it is an exaggeration if not falsification of reality.
The history of martyrdom shows that religious devotion is one of the greatest antidotes to the fear of death.
Opinion of Physicians as to Fear of Death
An English surgeon of long experience said, that he never witnessed but two instances of dying, where there was fear of death; these were in unexpected hemorrhages, which it was impossible to suppress.
An eminent London consulting physician arranged to be called to every patient, who seems to be dying, and as a result of his experience says, that death has no terror for the sick man and there is nothing terrible to the dying in death itself.
Dr. Osler from notes on about five hundred death-beds, found that “ninety (18 per cent.) suffered bodily pain or distress of one sort or another, eleven showed mental apprehension, two positive terror, one expressed spiritual exaltation, one bitter remorse, but the great majority gave no sign one way or the other; like their birth their death was a sleep and a forgetting."
Three medical men, narrowly escaping drowning under very different conditions, said all fear left them, when their fate seemed certain. One for instance, did not have the least fear, until he began to wonder whether the rescue boat would reach him.
The great specialist Nothnagel, of the University of Vienna, says at the end of an address on death, that the feeling of dread of physical death exists only in the mind; and is only justified in a few cases, and here man is himself partially the cause of it.
Buy: The Oxford Handbook of Philosophy of Death by Ben Bradley
Different Attitudes in Fear of Death
It is stated that Dr. Johnson had an ever-present and solemn dread of death, and that Vespasian showed a flippant cynicism in regard to it. Between these extremes, there are doubtless numerous gradation and differences in attitudes of persons toward death.
At birth we are much alike, and at death also. It has been said that fundamentally we live in order to die, that is live in the right way in order to die happy
We live in the present and are accustomed to think of death as something very far off, and a distant danger is not feared. Some go along thoughtless, without any regard to death. But when death is felt to be near, then there is liable to be fear.
The fear of death may have several forms, thus the natural man has an hereditary instinctive dread of death; a drowning man we say grasps for straws; so even a would-be suicide, after throwing himself into the water, changes his mind and tries to save himself. One of the main things in military training, is to suppress the instinctive feeling of self-preservation so that the soldier will fight fearlessly. It is true that by a strong will, or through faith and prayer, this instinctive fear of death can be suppressed.
There are those who are conscience-stricken and fear the hereafter. At one time in history, the Church had to discourage martyrdom, as so many rushed into it, some believing that martyrs went direct to heaven.
Some criminals, before execution appear to have an exalted, though disturbed state of mind, but the majority seldom show either fear or remorse.
There are cases of pulmonary consumption, in which the desire to live is so entire, long after the patient was sensible of his approaching end, as to produce a distressing state of mind, differing little from that of those who expect a violent death. But this, as has been indicated, is very rare.
The composure and indifference of the patient are not always understood. The fear of death can even prepare us for death. While the criminal to be hanged or person to be lynched may have feelings of horror, but after languishing in prison, he may become resigned to his fate.
A writer in climbing the Alps fell over the edge of a crevasse, hanging to a frail rope for twenty minutes; suddenly he thought he was doomed, but had no fear, but only a dim wonder, as to whether the fall would kill him at once; his last thought was to get over the thing as soon as possible.
Cicero and Seneca looked upon death as pleasurable. In some cases the approach of death is indicated by strange sensations, and where consciousness lasts the feelings are easily comprehended. Premonitions of death may give rise to restlessness. Thus some will suddenly desire to be dressed to go down stairs, or have the location of the bed changed.
Fear of Death Superficial
The fear of death is superficial because it is so easily overcome. Before action in war begins there may be anxiety, but in the heat of battle fear of death is forgotten. The normal fear of death seems to consist in a protest against extinction, but this is usually lost when death arrives. A nurse said, when facing a very dangerous operation, that in health she shrank from death, but on the edge of the precipice she had no fear.
A young man falling from a lofty building and escaping with a few bruises said that in his long fall to earth, which seemed to cover an eternity, he had not the slightest fear. There is a case of a young man who went to the mountains to drop from a precipice, but on seeing a wolf in his path came back. A man was about to commit suicide by jumping off the wall of a fort, but seeing a soldier point a gun at him, he changed his mind.
We may fear death similar to the way in which children are afraid of darkness. The fear of death is mostly illusion. Loche speaks of an Irish Cavalier, who was ungrateful to the one who had restored him to life, after being submerged.
Tacitus says Tiberius still disimulated, though his other powers were gone; that Verpasian called his courtesans to him and laughed like a maniac saying, “I perceive I am God.”
Little or no Pain in the Dying Hour
As has been noted, most persons are unconscious during the dying hour and so without pain. A few may suffer severe headaches on account of brain tumor, or pain from peritonitis, or great agony from burns, also a few suffer much from dysponea and longing for air. But these cases are decidedly exceptions. Yet such pains do not occur in the dying period and are not conditioned by it, but occur before this period they belong rather to the disease.
“Death-agony" is therefore a falsehood, for in most cases as just noted, a person dying is unconscious of the final stages of his disease, labored breathing and convulsive struggles do not indicate any suffering on the part of the patient. In epileptic convulsions the muscles may even be torn and the tongue bitten, but the patient has no knowledge of it. Some diseases ending fatally may be attended with much pain; but this is not the dying hour which puts an end to the sufferings. On the other hand, many fatal diseases have little physical pain.
The idea that dying is accompanied with severe suffering may arise from misinterpretation of the physical and pathological bodily phenomena accompanying it; also the deaths act is confounded with the symptoms of disease, which precede and lead to it, which are as severe and often move so in those who recover. Dying begins after these symptoms have subsided, there seems to be a pause in nature, the disease has conquered, the battle is over, the body is fatigued by its efforts to sustain itself, it is ready to die and all is tranquility.
In even the most severe inflammation of the lungs, there may be little or no pain, though the difficulty of breathing, cough and fever, which accompany it, frequently exhaust the feelings as much as pain; in chronic forms, however, it is often but little distress even in these last ways.
In serious and specially tedious illness, there is usually sufficient bodily suffering and change or perversion of tastes, to blunt the sensibility, so that the love of life lessens. There are also those to whom death comes so easily that not a ruffle is seen on the body, when it is very difficult to fix the moment when life has gone. Here dozing may be dying. In old age, especially, death is often the last sleep, not showing any difference from normal sleep.
From the experience and observations of many living in all generations, almost from the beginning of history, the general conclusion is that the ideas of the dreadfulness of death and its physical pain are for the most part in the imagination.
Whether it is the brain, heart or lungs, which begin to give the signal of death, it is almost always the brain forces which are weakened or destroyed first and as a result, sensation lessens or ceases. As to the mental condition during the death period, if there be consciousness to the last, or conscious at times, that depends upon the disease and mental and moral character of the person dying, including surrounding conditions.
According to Nothnagle, those who die of old age simply go to sleep, without struggle, pain or grief. In partial apoplexy groans are unconsciously uttered. The suicide finds life much more painful than death. Emperor Adrian said, "Oh, how miserable a thing it is to seek death and not find it."
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