Overcoming the fear of death

A life free of the fear of death is a great blessing. Are there ways to confer it?

Ever since the post-WWII baby boom hit, the life-stage the boomers are in at any moment has largely defined the national agenda.

In 1949, the boomers were in diapers, and Dr. Spock was rich and famous. In 1965, the boomers were in high school, and we had a sexual revolution (not to mention drugs and rock ‘n’ roll) and a crime wave. In 1980, the upper-middle-class boomers were starting to climb the career ladder, and greed was good. By 2000, the boomer men were discovering that they weren’t 20 anymore, and Viagra was a blockbuster drug. Now we’re looking forward to retirement, and Social Security and Medicare finance have become the central issues in fiscal policy.

After retirement come old age and death. That suggests that now would be a good time to start a career in genontology. It is no accident, comrades, that the advance-medical-directive movement got underway and assisted suicide became a public issue over the past few years, as the boomers faced their parents’ dying and started to contemplate their own. (Unlike the debates over IVF, genetic testing, and cloning, the assisted-suicide debate wasn’t triggered by the opportunities and risks of new technology, since all of the relevant technologies are old ones; it was strictly a demand-side phenomenon.)

Death is not to be feared. That’s a proposition on which all the great sages, philosophers, and religious traditions agree. But the great mass of ordinary human beings seems to be unpersuaded in practice, regardless of their nominal religious beliefs.

However, there has always been a minority capable of facing death (relatively) unafraid. That isn’t the same thing as the courage that risks death — on the battlefield or elsewhere — despite fear, though it can have some of the same effects. (Think of the difference between someone who gives away $100 because he has more money than he needs and won’t miss it and someone who gives away $100 he badly needs because someone else needs it even more. They both act generously, but there’s still a distinction between unconcern about money and altruism.)

Not to fear death is a great gift. It doesn’t imply carelessness about life: One might have excellent reasons for wanting to stay alive. But not to be burdened by the horror of dying makes life sweeter.

[I speak from experience. Four years ago, I spent a month knowing that I had cancer but not knowing whether it was a treatable or untreatable variety, and discovered — to my great surprise — that I wasn’t losing any sleep over it. Nor did I lose any sleep in the ensuing six months, once the doctors had figured out that I had the highly treatable HD, about whether the treatment would work in my case. Now I’m quite capable of losing sleep worrying about other things I can’t control: it simply turned out that dying wasn’t among the things I am afraid of. I’m still trying to figure out why.]

What, if anything, could confer that gift? Organized religion claims to, but without much evidence of success. I doubt that anyone can say with confidence whether or not the range of spiritual practices on offer in the New Age bazaar has any better record. Whoever said “All philosophy is preparation for a serene dying” clearly wasn’t talking about what goes on in contemporary philosophy-department seminar rooms. Psychologists have learned how to measure the fear of death, but not, so far as I know, to change it.

Those who have entered mystical states or undergone near-death experiences frequently report that they have lost their fear of dying. That’s one of the questions addressed by the “awe-inspiring experiences” project here at UCLA.) The mystery cults of the classical era (including the Eleusinian mystery) claimed to free their initiates (the “twice-born”) from the fear of death, and there is some evidence that the Eleusinian initiation involved the use of ergot, a precursor of LSD.

In the 1950s and 1960s, the glory days of scientific research with the hallucinogens, the Spring Grove group and other research teams, following up on the experiences reported by Aldous Huxley, claimed some success in easing the fears of those with terminal diseases.

It looks as if that research program, interrupted for thirty years by legal barriers and fear generated by the spread of “recreational” hallucinogen use, is slowly starting up again. Charles Grob at UC/Harbor hospital has permission to treat terminal cancer patients with psilocybin (the active agent in “magic mushrooms”). Judith Lewis’s account in LA Weekly is highly unusual: it’s a mass-media account involving the hallucinogens that is technically competent and non-sensational. Kudos to Lewis and her editors.

We should all hope that Grob’s experiment is a success, and is replicated elsewhere. If I had a dying friend or relative who met the selection criteria, I’d want that person to think hard about enrolling.

But in one way, the study seems perverse. Surely the best time to overcome the fear of death is before the Grim Reaper is on your doorstep. (That’s one of the themes of Huxley’s unjustly neglected Island. Given the demonstrated safety of psilocybin under research conditions, these studies ought to be carried out on healthy people as well as on those with terminal conditions.

A life free of the fear of death is a great blessing. Since no one doubts that, it’s rather strange how little we’re currently doing to learn whether that blessing can be spread more widely.

Update The quotation about philosophy and dying is put into the mouth of the philosopher Libanius in Gore Vidal’s Julian.

Author: Mark Kleiman

Professor of Public Policy at the NYU Marron Institute for Urban Management and editor of the Journal of Drug Policy Analysis. Teaches about the methods of policy analysis about drug abuse control and crime control policy, working out the implications of two principles: that swift and certain sanctions don't have to be severe to be effective, and that well-designed threats usually don't have to be carried out. Books: Drugs and Drug Policy: What Everyone Needs to Know (with Jonathan Caulkins and Angela Hawken) When Brute Force Fails: How to Have Less Crime and Less Punishment (Princeton, 2009; named one of the "books of the year" by The Economist Against Excess: Drug Policy for Results (Basic, 1993) Marijuana: Costs of Abuse, Costs of Control (Greenwood, 1989) UCLA Homepage Curriculum Vitae Contact: Markarkleiman-at-gmail.com