Conquering the Fear of Death

The Way of the Samurai is found in death. Meditation on inevitable death should be performed daily [Hagakure]

Most existential thinkers and psychologists agree that at the root of our angst lies the fear of death, that great destroyer which has the potential to crush our sense of self (the ego). If unchecked this fear can metastasize and cause all kinds of pathologies including  anxiety, worry and depression.

How to deal with this?

A clue can be found in the instruction of the Imam al-Sadiq to one of his companions.

عن أبيه، عن سعد بن عبدالله، عن أيوب بن نوح، عن ابن أبي عمير، عن مثنى بن الوليد، عن أبي بصير قال: قال لي الصادق عليه السلام: أما تحزن؟ أما تهتم؟ أما تألم؟ قلت: بلى والله، قال: فإذا كان ذلك منك فاذكر الموت، ووحدتك في قبرك، وسيلان عينيك على خديك، وتقطع أوصالك، وأكل الدود من لحمك، وبلاءك، وانقطاعك عن الدنيا، فإن ذلك يحثك على العمل ويردعك عن كثير من الحرص على الدنيا

Abu Basir reports: al-Sadiq عليه السلام said to me: Don’t you feel grief? Don’t you feel sorrow? Don’t you suffer pain? I said: Indeed I do by Allah! He said: When that happens then recall death, your solitude in your grave, the overflowing of tears over your cheeks, the breaking-up of your joints, the eating of your flesh by worms, your agony and your dislocation from the world, for this will encourage you to act and will dissuade you from hankering [after the world].

Notice the irony inherent in this instruction. We are made to believe that  relief can be found in the act of reflecting over the ‘enemy’ – the very thing which is ultimately feared. Furthermore, abstract thinking over death is not enough, one needs to visually contend with the gruesome picture and the go over the tiniest of details.

How can pondering over death snap someone out from his depression [which is connected to his fear of death]?

One answer, which I feel aligns perfectly with what the Imam wants us to accomplish, can be found in the words of one of the highest authorities of Modern Orthdox Judaism, the philosopher, Rav. Joseph B. Soloveitchik (d. 1993):

Halakhic man vanquishes even the fear of death, which, as was explained above, is rooted in his world perspective, by means of the law and the Halakhah, and he transforms the phenomenon, which so terrifies him, into an object of man’s observation and cognition. For when death becomes an object of man’s cognition, the fright accompanying death dissipates. Death is frightening, death is menacing, death is dreadful only so long as it appears as a subject confronting man. However, when man succeeds in transforming death-subject into death-object, the horror is gone. My father related to me that when the fear of death would seize hold of R. Hayyim, he would throw himself, with his entire heart and mind, into the study of the laws of tents and corpse defilement. And these laws, which revolve around such difficult and complex problems as defilement of a grave, defilement of a tent, blocked-up defilement, interposition before defilement, a vessel with a tight-fitting cover on it in a tent in which a corpse lies, etc., etc., would calm the turbulence of his soul and would imbue it with a spirit of joy and gladness. When halakhic man fears death, his sole weapon wherewith to fight this terrible dread is the eternal law of the Halakhah. The act of objectification triumphs over the subjective terror of death (Halakhic Man, p. 73)

 

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