Religion & Philosophy

ReligionWeek: When faith only deepens our fear of death

Belief in reincarnation can open the door to a whole host of anxieties about death.

OuroborosAdmit it: When people say they don’t fear death, you don’t believe them. What’s faith to them sounds like mindlessness to you. Their idea of peace of mind seems to be averting their eyes from the pain and sorrow of death and, instead, gazing starry-eyed at a fantasy of the afterlife. To them, a belief in salvation seems to be an excuse to gloss over the realities of death.

Sure, an enlightened few exist whose equanimity about death is genuine. Some may actually be atheists, whose acceptance of impending extinction strikes us, at first glance, as courageous. But, like those faith-based who don blinders to avoid dealing with the details of death, they seem to wear them for the opposite reason: to methodically block out all evidence of an afterlife. With all due respect, we’ll leave it to mental healthcare professionals to explain what makes someone invested in the total annihilation of the self.

Unacknowledged fear of death can erode our spiritual foundation. But it can also animate the spirit. Arguably, fear of death is a key factor in igniting outstanding careers in the arts and public service. It’s also capable of stoking narcissism on a grand scale.

The stereotypical example is Alexander the Great. In our time, with his 50-plus palaces, Saddam Hussein harbored designs on other states even though we live in an age when conquering has become an anachronism. The evidence suggest that when fear of death is kept damped down in the basement of our subconscious, it can’t help but attract psychic black mold. One way to help heal a soul thus sickened is to break its fear of death down into parts and examine them.

Despite how obvious it is, fear of death’s first chronological component — dying itself — is often overlooked. But who doesn’t dread the shock and trauma of a heart attack or stroke, never mind violent death? Equally as frightening is a slow, cachexic wasting away with the accompanying loss of body function and dignity. It’s critical to designate a health proxy and filling out an advance directive (or living will) with our doctors. But, they’re of limited use in easing our anxieties about our actual exit from this world, whether sudden or protracted.

Concurrent with concerns about our inevitable, um, corpsification run our emotional misgivings about dying with projects unfinished and families for whom we feel we have inadequately provided. Meanwhile, those of us with religious faith worry that our sins are too great or numerous for us to be granted admittance to heaven. Much as we believe in a forgiving God, we can’t help wondering how many times we can beg His forgiveness before He calls in his markers. If He’s keeping tabs, He’s keeping it close to His vest.

Perhaps most common is a simple fear of the unknown. After all, when we travel on earth, we consult books or websites to acquaint ourselves with our destination. Of course, guidebooks to the afterlife, such as the Tibetan Book of the Dead, have been composed. It’s at this point that we’re often undone by a riddle: we fear death because we don’t understand it. But we’ll won’t understand it because our fear prevents us from looking death in the face.

Still, many of us seek to conquer our fear of death through prayer, therapy, or meditation. In theory, among the most effective forms of overcoming our fear of death is a belief in reincarnation (in the Hindu religion) or rebirth (in Buddhism). The former believes that, after death, the soul migrates to a new body; the latter imagines that it’s the soul’s energy, not the soul per se, that finds a new home since it doesn’t believe in a permanent self. (Hold your cards and letters — I’m not a theologian.)

In practice, though, belief in reincarnation or rebirth provides no assurance we’ll transcend our fear of death. In fact, it exposes us to a whole host of fears to which atheists or Christians — who believe that the door to life that closes when we die is stamped “No re-entry” on the outside — aren’t be prone. Since it’s what I’m more comfortable with, I will enumerate them from the perspective of reincarnation, as opposed to rebirth.

In the chorus of his disturbing song, Only Fear of Death (as in, “My Only”), the late acclaimed rapper Tupac Shakur sang:

Only fear of death, you ghetto niggaz
Only fear of death is comin’ back reincarnated

In other words, why would he want to reincarnated to a life like his (not one of ghetto poverty, but one flush with fear that he’ll be killed in the rap wars in which he’d became enmeshed)? Only, apparently, if he’s reincarnated as a “motherfuckin mack.”

Of what benefit, then, is reincarnation in relieving our fear of death unless we expect our next life will be an improvement over, or at least no worse than, our present life? Of course, apprehension about what becomes of us when we die has always been the carrot and stick of religion — to Christians, heaven or hell; to worshippers in Eastern religions, the nature of your next reincarnation.

Some of the latter believe that our first destination after death is the afterlife, but, instead of a final resting place, as a way station (bardo to Tibetan Buddhists). Or, as I see it, the afterlife is both r&r before we’re shipped back out to the front and a chance to both debrief our last life and perhaps even help plan our next.

However, properly considered in advance, the afterlife — to Christians, as well as those who believe in reincarnation — is a minefield of anxiety. For example, even though the afterlife is ostensibly suffused with love and compassion, how can we luxuriate in our surroundings while worrying about the loved ones we left behind, not to mention the state of the world? In fact, shouldn’t failing to experience such anxieties detract from the likelihood of an advantageous reincarnation?

On a less intense level, the absence of eating or sex in favor of the privilege of wafting around unencumbered by bodies is a fair enough tradeoff (for a while anyway). But how will I survive my stay, especially if it’s of indefinite length, deprived of art and the ability to create? I suppose that I could audition for the celestial choir or take a class in painting the Sistine Chapel by numbers. But spared the need to paint while supine on scaffolding because I’m incorporeal is small consolation for the loss of the ability to freely express myself.

Furthermore, while basking in the light of the afterlife can’t be underestimated, what if I’m barred from face time with the Big Guy (or Gal) him or herself? We just assume that we’ll be afforded the opportunity to commune with a greater intelligence and finally learn the answers to existential enigmas. But let’s face it: chances are, we’ll glean no insights into questions like: Why do You allow so much suffering in the world? Where did life come from? Is the Big Bang theory true? How many universes exist?

While still alive, we may also find ourselves wondering if we’ll be reunited with our pets. What about extraterrestrials? If it turns out that we meet no one from another planet in the afterlife, does that mean life doesn’t exist elsewhere in the universe? Or have they — as well as animals — been assigned their own distinct afterlives?

In all likelihood, only the afterlife’s inner circle, the most illuminated of illuminati –those who’ve transcended the cycle of death and rebirth — are privy to that information. Frustration aside, though, along with seeking an advantageous rebirth, the hope of one day learning the answers to the big questions can help motivate us to live worthy lives.

Let’s now zoom out from afterlife-based anxiety and focus instead on what Tupac sang about: fear of reincarnation. An Internet commenter with the user name Protagonist X writes:

I can fall into deep despair just thinking about being reincarnated as someone else, not knowing my family again and so forth. … I think coming back again, and your memory from your past life being expunged from your mind forever is depressing.

Why must our minds be turned into a blank slate before each rebirth? It’s as if operatives of the afterlife were running their own version of the CIA MKUltra program and deprogramming our minds. But, look at it this way: were not our memory cards wiped clean, we’d be reborn over and over as world-weary as the 250-year-old vampire Lestat in Anne Rice’s novels.

Contemplating the actual birth process is at least as disconcerting. First, our budding life is thrown into turmoil when we’re expelled from the womb — never mind if we’re a breech baby. Next, we’re overcome with panic that we’ll suffocate when the umbilical cord is cut and our lungs struggle to kick-start themselves. Of course, thanks to the IT department of the afterlife pressing our reset button between lives, we don’t remember these shocks to our system. But blithely disregarding our next inevitable bout of near-suffocation simply because we’re secure in the knowledge that we won’t remember it is an especially flagrant form of denial.

Childhood, glazed with nostalgia, is remembered as a lost paradise by some. But we forget how powerless we felt then and the extent to which our lives were governed by others. And who among us really wants to be a teenager again?

Once grown in our next lives, will we be better equipped to take care of ourselves and our loved ones financially than we have been in this life? In other words, however prosaic, will we be rich or poor? As unspiritual as that sounds, disavowing material cares is even less so.

Meanwhile, we live in a time when some question the ethics of a process as natural as bringing a baby into the world. It’s not uncommon to hear the aged often exclaim that they’re glad they grew up in earlier era. A child born today will live on a planet reaping such effects of global warming as storms, drought, and famine. As if that weren’t enough, resource depletion, with its ensuing wars; pandemics; and the omnipresent threat of nuclear apocalypse all loom, as well. Operating under the assumption that reincarnation occurs in a linear path and we’re reborn into the future rather than the past, those who believe in it need to accept that this is our likely future when we die.

For me, no fear trumps that of emerging into a dystopia. In a world become a black comedy, the prospect of falling victim to a likely high infant-mortality rate provides some small consolation. But in an even crueler joke, I’d probably find myself born again and again until I’m finally hardy enough to grow into adulthood.

I’m sorry if I sound a little neurotic (okay, a lot). But, ultimately, the phenomenon of reincarnation requires that we behold it in all its fierce glory. Anyone who believes in it and insists on remaining oblivious to the suffering it inevitably incurs is living in a spiritual la-la land. Judgmentalism aside, though, some may have simply failed to take into account the stumbling blocks to coming to terms with death, afterlife, and reincarnation.

In the end, the white light and loving acceptance that many with near-death experiences report as welcoming them don’t immunize us to heavenly trials and rebirth tribulations. On the other hand, I’m well aware that my anxieties about reincarnation reflect less a fear of death, than, like Tupac, a fear of life.

6 replies »

  1. My comments are only based on personal experience. I’ve studied religion academically, sat under hellfire-and-brimstone preachers, experienced the ceremony and reverence in both Catholic and Episcopal services. I have studied mindfulness and Zen practices and am drawn to those for reasons beyond religion. While as certain principles of scripture – not judging others, having compassion for those in poverty and wealth, treating others as I want to be treated (and not treating them as I have been treated at times in my life) – provides a certain depth to a life well-lived mindfulness provides a focus on this moment. As someone who has been plagued with the need to plan, make to-do lists, and set deadlines it provides a way for me to slow down and savor moments each day. I am not entirely free of my need for structure and planning but I’m further along than if I had not been exposed to mindfulness (many thanks to my best friend’s brother for that one). I don’t see people with different viewpoints than mine as better or worse….just different. I am no longer one of many regular church attendees but my faith and spirituality has, in some ways, deepened. It may be a simplistic view to some but it works for me.

    I know it works for me because of an incident in 2010. I was in a very bad car accident that year and as my vehicle turned over everything seemed to slow down. Even though I saw and felt the reality of what was happening I also ‘saw’ people, places, events from my past like a film on fast forward. In those few minutes I experienced fear, regret and peace. My fear was not so much of death but of pain (which I don’t even handle well in normal situations), my regret was in all the things I had left undone and unsaid, but the peace replaced all of those things and blanketed me with a calm I have yet to fully comprehend.

    Obviously, I survived (I’m not writing to you from the afterlife) and I made significant life changes hoping that when that moment really arrives I may have fear but not so much regret. When I think about it now I can still feel that serenity and peace. I know that will be there again when I leave this life.

  2. Black Sabbath’s new album 13 has a song that rather aptly suits this post, I think…”Live Forever.”

    • Stevie Ray Vaughn doing Hendrix’s “Little Wing” Frank, that’s my idea of life, soup to nuts, up and down, in and out. A single human’s existence played out in six minutes and forty nine seconds of awesomely heartfelt guitar work

      That’s what I’d like played at my Viking Funeral/Beer Bash as they light the pyre. And he who fears death fears life. Accept death and we free ourselves to live. Life never has a happy ending but by Odin we can revel in the gift until last call and lights out.

      • Hear, hear! Personally, I rather look forward to death as the next great adventure (or oblivion), come what may. I’m just in no hurry to get there, in which case I may as well make the best of my descent.


  3. Thanks for sharing, leasartwork. Take heart, Frank D. — Stevie Ray (huge favorite of mine as well) may have been reincarnated and could be somewhere woodshedding as we speak, whether on a guitar or a plucked instrument of another cultures.