Fear of Death

3 February 2011


Last night, for only the third time in my life, I experienced a vivid and visceral fear of death. This experience was markedly unlike my first two experiences, which were the results of carelessness and accidents. In one instance (I can’t say the first, as I don’t remember which preceded the other) I was falling a tree and things didn’t go quite right. The tree did what loggers call a “slab,” which is when the tree, instead of falling at the point where the undercut lines up with the upper cut, splits vertically up the center. This happens so quickly one has no time to react. Suddenly, matters are out of your control. However, it did not happen so fast that I was not able to experience a split second fear of death.

In another incident, I was mowing the grass on a steep hillside on a riding lawnmower. This will sound a bit ridiculous, but it was in fact quite frightening. I fell off the riding lawnmower on the downhill side in just such a way that the mower appeared to be heading directly for me. Once again, for a split second, I feared for my life. I was lucky, since I got out of the way in time. I have had many accidents that have left me physically injured, but only these two accidents made me fear for my life.

In an accident, one’s survival is largely a matter of luck. When the tree I was falling got away from me, I was simply lucky that I was not in the way. In the film based on the Ken Kesey novel, Sometimes a Great Notion, the Henry Stamper character is killed by a tree that goes slab. Once you’ve experienced it, it is all-too-easy to understand how such accidents can be fatal. In fact, logging is one of the most dangerous professions (and has one of the highest worker’s compensation insurance rates) in the world today.

Not all incidents in which the fear of death can be experienced are of this variety, and my experience last night was not of the split second kind. I was exercising in my usual vigorous fashion, using a speedbag, jumping rope, and doing sit ups on an inclined board. When I rested between sets at one point, my heart began to beat in an irregular rhythm. Of course, I have many times experienced an irregular heart rhythm following vigorous exercise. What was different about last night was that, as I felt my heart beating oddly, at the same time I felt a fear of death coming over me, increasing as time passed. It lasted perhaps a minute, which was much longer than my previous episodes of fear of death — longer by many orders of magnitude. I discovered that fearing death for an instant is a very different experience from fearing death for a minute or so.

My fear did not manifest itself intellectually or emotionally. I did not say to myself, “I may be dying.” Nevertheless, I am old enough to have experienced fear many times, so I know physically what it feels like, and this is what I experienced: the visceral symptoms of fear, coupled with an instinctive, intuitive knowledge that it was my own death that I feared.

It occurred to me later that, if I am conscious when I die, some future iteration of fear of death will not be followed by survival and relief at the consciousness of that survival, but by my death, a fading consciousness of the reality of my death, and finally the peace that surpasseth all understanding.

Tonight, instead of exercising, I took a brisk walk.

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