I’m young, I’m healthy, and, most importantly, I’m relatively happy. I was born into a loving family and I have an excellent group of supportive friends. I’m on a gap year, and next year I’ll be starting university. Life’s swell. But still, I’m perpetually haunted by the thought of my own death.
It’s not so much old age, the sadness of incapacity, the pain of disease, or even the thought of dying that scares me – it’s what comes after. The everlasting emptiness; the utter lack of sentience and thought; the inconceivable nothing.
Of course, I try not to think about it. I distract myself by working, reading and socialising. But distraction is and can only be a temporary solution. When I’m alone, this harrowing thought always returns: that one day, I will no longer be able to think, to worry, or even to be afraid, a thought so eloquently expressed by Philip Larkin’s famous poem Aubade, in which he describes death as “The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always.”
And he’s right: there really is “nothing more terrible, nothing more true.” You miss the point if you claim that death is not to be feared because we will not be able to feel or experience it: this lack of feeling and experience is precisely what keeps me up at night. And what is more, death is the one event in our lives that is inevitable. Everything else is just a tiny blot on the timeline of eternity.
So perhaps I’m not the only one who harbours these fears: after all, Larkin felt the same. But Larkin wrote Aubade when he was in his mid-50s, and his life was largely a concoction of miserable circumstances. I’m only 18, and I have everything to live for. Shouldn’t I be enjoying my time as a teenager, unrestrained by the constant presence of the inevitable? Shouldn’t I be careless like everybody else my age? One thing is certain: I shouldn’t be waking up at night, fearful of time’s passing and the idea that every second I grow closer to the day of my death.
I know what I ought to think, that I’m lucky to be alive, and that I’m lucky to live comfortably in a secure environment. Of course I am. But that doesn’t dispel my dread; in fact, it makes it worse, because I know that one day my luck will run out, and that this glorious life that I’m so fortunate to have been blessed with will one day end. Even my agnosticism and the hope of an afterlife that I so pitifully cling to don’t help: they only make the future more uncertain.
To make matters worse, the more I think about the peculiarities of my dread, the more I feel estranged from the people around me. I’ve written countless poems about my fear, many of which were met by baffled awkwardness and laughter. Nobody else seems to feel as I do, of if they do, they hide it. I recall going to a councillor last year to discuss how I felt, and even she was puzzled by what I told her. If my angst is normal, it certainly doesn’t feel like it.
In fact, I’ve recently become embarrassed about my fear, as if there’s something dreadfully wrong with me that I have to keep quiet about. I almost feel ashamed. But doesn’t everyone feel as I do? Aren’t we all afraid of what is to come? Isn’t that why Hamlet’s “To be or not to be…” soliloquy is one of the most famous pieces of verse ever written?
According to Lisa Fritscher, an expert in phobias, fear of death is, in fact, quite common. Then why does nobody talk about it? Is it because we are all trying to forget about it and distract ourselves? Perhaps this is part of the problem: perhaps if others talked about their feelings, then we may all feel more comforted that we are not alone in our distress. After all, death is central to the human condition: poets talk about it, so why don’t ordinary people?
I try to live my life to the fullest and to embrace the opportunities I have, to enjoy myself and to help others. But it’s hard to do this when I feel not only afraid of what the future holds, but also alienated by others, alienated because nobody seems to share my feelings. If it really is true that my fears are not unique, then why do I still feel like I shouldn’t discuss them? Why is it still taboo to talk publically about our feelings, our fears and our anxieties?
It’s time to stop sweeping these problems under the carpet and telling people to “get on with it”. It’s precisely this stalwart attitude that has made my anxieties all the more potent, making me think that I am alone as a young person who worries about mortality.
In 2016, we must strive to bring mental health and issues like these more into the public sphere. Only then will people begin to feel less estranged by those around them. Only then will people feel more comfortable with discussing their fear or their sadness, and perhaps, through discussion, these problems may be overcome.