Editor’s Note: “How to Build a Life” is a biweekly column by Arthur Brooks, tackling questions of meaning and happiness.
As a kid, I was sure that all old people must be afraid of death.
As I have gotten older, however, it turns out that this is mostly wrong. There are, certainly, people my age (56) who are morbidly afraid of dying—there’s even a diagnosable psychiatric condition for this fear, called thanatophobia, and a whole movement, called transhumanism, dedicated to attempting to postpone death or avoid it altogether. But most older adults I know aren’t really terrified of death per se, but rather of being destroyed as sentient beings. No surprise, then, that what they—we—fear much more is a gradual, de facto death from decline.
In a famous 2014 Atlantic article about why he wanted to die at 75, the physician and bioethicist Ezekiel J. Emanuel summed up the fear of decline very neatly: “[Old age] renders many of us, if not disabled, then faltering and declining … It robs us of our creativity and ability to contribute to work, society, the world. It transforms how people experience us, relate to us, and, most important, remember us.”
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Fear is a primal negative emotion, processed in the brain’s limbic system involuntarily as a means of self-defense against mortal threats. It was very useful half a million years ago, but it is generally a maladaptation to much of modern life and work. A bad tweet is enough to set off many people's fight-or-flight response. The prospect of a minor career setback can create the same sensation as a threat of physical harm. And full-scale professional or social decline can feel, to some, as threatening as death itself. According to the Cambridge University philosopher Stephen Cave, the fear of death is an innate fear of nonexistence. For many of us who organize our lives around professional and social competence—who talk about our “life’s work”—life is synonymous with achievement and abilities. When those abilities decline, it can feel like you are in the process of ceasing to exist, of being destroyed.
The good news is that it’s possible to work on extinguishing the terror of this virtual death by borrowing from techniques used to vanquish the fear of physical death.
The fear of literal nonexistence through death is addressed by many philosophical and religious traditions. Many Buddhist monasteries in Southeast Asia, for example, display photos of corpses in various states of decomposition. “This body, too,” Buddhist monks learn in the Satipatthana Sutta to say about themselves as they look at the photos, “such is its nature, such is its future, such its unavoidable fate.”
Some monks engage in a meditation called maranasati (“mindfulness of death”), which consists of imagining nine states of one’s own dead body:
- A swollen corpse, blue and festering
- Being eaten by scavengers and worms
- Bones held together with some pieces of flesh and tendons
- Blood-smeared bones without flesh but held together with tendons
- Bones held together with tendons
- Loose bones
- Bleached bones
- Bones more than a year old, in a pile
- Bones that have turned to dust
At first, this seems strange and morbid. The objective, however, is to make death vivid in the mind of the meditator, and, through repetition, familiar. Psychologists call this process desensitization, in which repeated exposure to something repellent or frightening makes it seem ordinary, prosaic, and less scary.
Western research has tested the idea of death desensitization. In 2017, a team of researchers recruited volunteers to imagine that they were terminally ill or on death row, and then to write about the feelings they imagined they would have. The researchers then compared these thoughts with writings by those who were actually terminally ill or facing execution. The results, published in Psychological Science under the title “Dying Is Unexpectedly Positive,” were astounding: People imagining their deaths were three times as negative as those actually facing it. Death, it seems, is scarier when it is theoretical than when it is real.
Contemplating death can also inspire courage. There is an ancient Japanese story about a band of lawless samurai warriors notorious for terrorizing the local people. Every place they went, they brought destruction. One day they come to a Zen Buddhist monastery, intent on violence and plunder. The monks ran away in fear for their lives--all except the abbot, a man who had completely mastered the fear of his own death. He sat quietly in the lotus position as the warriors burst in. Approaching the abbot with his sword drawn, the samurai leader said, “Don’t you see that I am the sort of man who could run you through without batting an eye?” Calmly, the master answered, “Don’t you see that I am a man who could be run through without batting an eye?”
These lessons about getting comfortable with death can be adapted to make us comfortable with decline. We should not avoid thinking about the loss of our abilities. On the contrary, we should lean into this thought—contemplate it, consider it, meditate on it. Here’s my version of the maranasati, in which I mindfully meditate on each of the following states:
- I feel my competence declining.
- Those close to me begin to notice that I am not as sharp as I used to be.
- Other people receive the social and professional attention I used to receive.
- I have to decrease my workload and step back from daily activities I once completed with ease.
- I am no longer able to work.
- Many people I meet do not recognize me or know me for my previous work.
- I am still alive, but professionally I am no one.
- I lose the ability to communicate my thoughts and ideas to those around me.
- I am dead, and I am no longer remembered at all for my accomplishments.
There are other ways to contemplate decline. For example, here is a meditation that Roman Emperor Marcus Aurelius wrote for himself: “Some indeed have not been remembered even for a short time, and others have become the heroes of fables, and again others have disappeared even from fables. Remember this then, that this little compound, thyself, must either be dissolved, or thy poor breath must be extinguished, or be removed and placed elsewhere.”
The fear of death is much worse when it is an amorphous phantasm—something lurking menacingly in the shadows—than when it is a plain reality. And so it is with decline. Unacknowledged, it is scary. Acknowledged and contemplated, it can become a normal, natural part of life’s cadence.
It is true that Western society glorifies youthful beauty and the machinelike efficiency of homo economicus. But you don’t have to play along with our culture’s neurotic exercise in futility. Become the master who, when your social or professional standing is threatened by age or circumstance, says, “Don’t you see that I am a person who could be utterly forgotten without batting an eye?”