Fear of death was one of the defining emotions of my childhood. I remember it vividly. That icy anxiety that would radiate from my stomach throughout my body. There was no escape. I would have to die one day. I remember soothing myself by thinking that it was all far away. Old age seemed like something so distant that it was unreal, giving me the permission to push that fear away. A sight of a coffin, or even passing by a cemetery would trigger emotional paralysis that would take hours to dissolve.
I was raised in an atheist household. Something probably not ideal for a child of my nature, although I have always been glad that I was subsequently able to form my own views on various spiritual traditions and wasn’t indoctrinated in just one. My mother especially was a die-hard nihilist. “There is nothing after death. You just die and they burn your body. That’s it. You will get over it,” she told me when I was four, maybe five years old. That day, she read a story to me about a man travelling to a country where people never die. I wanted to go. “Perhaps in Germany?” I pleaded (Germany being that big abroad for my little Czechoslovak mind). “No, there is no such land,” she crushed me. For years to come, I would avoid films showing death and dying, wouldn’t be able to look at my deceased pets and disliked old houses. Those old houses that carry too many reminders of the past generations, the ghosts.
Recently, I have learned that there is a term for this paralysing fear of death and that it, just as in my case, frequently starts in children as young as five. It can cripple people’s lives but can be alleviated through therapy. Unfortunately, there was never much room for emotions and feelings in my family, so I had to deal with my thanatophobia alone.
My fear drove my spiritual explorations. I may have been 15 years old when I first read the Tibetan Book of the Dead. In my mind, I chose to accept that there is something after death because the idea of there being nothing was just too much to handle. But on the emotional level, the doubt and fear prevailed. I may have been 14 years old, in all the misery of my dysfunctional home, thinking that I would rather not have been born at all if there was nothing but death at the end. Life was miserable and didn’t seem worth living with the prospect of only death at the end. In fact, even though I managed to have quite a nice and eventful life at the end, I have not yet been able to say honestly that I am 100 per cent glad that I was born.
Some people think that religion and spirituality was born out of the fear of death. I have come to the conclusion that the need for something beyond is born out of the need to give suffering a meaning. Most people today push suffering outside of their field of view. It’s too uncomfortable. They don’t want to see it, they don’t want to think about it. The current COVID-19 pandemic, with all the moaners prevented from ‘living their entitled lives to the full’ is an epitome of that.
The reality is that human history is full of suffering, torture, humiliation, abuse and exploitation. The privileged get to live their lives to the full and feel entitled to that. The unfortunate and oppressed are and have always been surviving, struggling to make ends meet, their entire lives consumed by the effort to keep themselves afloat. Even today’s world is full of poverty and suffering, just that most of us don’t need to see it. There are people born with disabilities, there are people struck by diseases, undergoing cancer treatment, surviving in war zones. But we don’t want to see it, we don’t want to hear because it makes us too uncomfortable.
The new age gurus of the 21st century, selling their ‘you can manifest your perfect life if only you raise you vibrations high enough’ bullshit nurture delusional thinking in people. Their so called teachings lead to further ostracization of those suffering because their high-vibed followers are simply not able to face their own difficult emotions. The difficult emotions about their own vulnerability, helplessness and mortality. These emotions arise where we face someone struck by hardships and we need to rationalise their experience somehow just to avoid the thought of ‘could that happen to me?’. The lucky ones don’t want to understand their own privilege and luck. They want to see it as something they deserved (worked for by sitting in a lotus pose long enough).
These new age groups are terrified of people expressing difficult emotions, the notion of victimhood is abolished and victims are systemically shamed instead of supported and validated. Perpetrators are being excused. It’s a very sad state of humanity that these movements create. A very selfish an unenlightened state, a reductionist view of life and its nature veiled by pomp, grandiosity and self-importance.
It was going through my own hardships that actually made me appreciate the power of the old religions. It appears to me that both, Christiany and Buddhism, were born out of the need to come to terms with human suffering. You won’t hear the Dalai Lama spouting bullshit about manifesting and high vibrations. He talks about compassion and living a meaningful life through serving and helping others. It doesn’t sound fancy. It doesn’t sound magical.
I do believe that sooner or later, life in one way or another defeats all of us and we will have to let go of the omnipotent illusion of our youth. For me, that moment arrived this month. Years ago, I started this blog wanting to share my journey of treating my endometriosis by following a super healthy diet. It was meant to be an empowering victorious journey and for a while it seemed it was. My large endometriosis-related ovarian cyst, despite the doctors’ prognosis, shrank at one point to the level that the gynaecologists were no longer interested in monitoring me. Unfortunately, the cyst did grow back later despite my diet, most likely because of the severe emotional stress I have been dealing with for years. What never shrank were my fibroids. The doctors back then were not too concerned with them, they seemed small. But they kept growing. Over the last year, one of my fibroids increased in size to the level that I am now told I need surgery. (The growth may have been caused by a prescription of hormone containing drops that I got for my hair loss at the London-based Philip Kingsley trichology clinic. I obviously cannot prove that but it’s a strange coincidence.
Having to undergo a surgery is not only a major defeat but also the trigger of my biggest fears. Anaesthesia scares me. It feels like a mini-death to me. My old childhood panic and anxiety is back, full force. This time, I am trying to face it and embrace it. Not run away from it, not push it away. The one positive thing I am seeing, is how this experience brings me closer in touch with the helplessness and humility of the human experience. I am realising that my lack of understanding of what it entails to be going through a surgery made me less supportive and empathetic with my friends who went through surgeries in the past. My privilege of good physical health made me unable to fully comprehend the trauma of a complex medical procedure. I feel pain for how little my entire family supported my grand-mother when she was going through cancer treatment. So I am choosing to see this experience as a gift, in spite of all the anxiety and terror it’s triggering. I pray that this experience is just yet another struggle that will make me a more empathic and understanding human being. I am looking back at my life and seeing that despite of all the setbacks, it’s been great. I have been privileged. I made life great for myself, I have been lucky on very many levels, even though I was not always able to appreciate it because of the constant emotional turmoil stemming from my troubled childhood.
I am choosing to see my surgery as a boundary between my past and future life. A rite of passage. I hope that if all goes well, I still might have some good 60 years ahead of me. 60 years to come to terms with death and dying, 60 years to learn to face my fear, 60 years to embrace the true nature of the human experience and becoming more like the Dalai Lama and less like the entitled delusions-spouting gurus of today. I have always seen myself as dying old. In fact, my greatest role model is Paul McCartney, the ultimate beacon of longevity, the guy who at nearly 80 pulls off three-hour rock gigs, still radiating the playful boyish energy that made him an every girl’s dream in the 1960s.
I still have many questions about life after death. I like the idea of your life being shown to you like a movie made of how others have seen you, all the pain as well as all the good you brought to the world. And if there is reincarnation, which always seemed to be the most logical thing to me, having empathy with the world’s unfortunate hopefully increases our chances of someone having empathy for us if we end up being born unfortunate in our next experience.