How You Can Subdue Your Fear Of Death And Live A Fuller Life - Men's Health Magazine Australia

How You Can Subdue Your Fear Of Death And Live A Fuller Life

An exclusive interview with father-and-daughter psychologists Ross and Rachel Menzies, authors of Mortals: How The Fear of Death Shaped Human Society.

Warning: if you read this story, you will die. But instead of quietly dreading your certain demise, is it possible to accept it – serenely, dispassionately, nonchalantly – and get busy making the most of your time in the sun? 

I WOULD HAVE BEEN five years old when it happened, tucked up in the lower tier of the bunks I shared with my older brother. We always talked before nodding off, usually about fun stuff. But on this night he chilled me with four words.

 “You’ll die one day.”

While I intuited the statement’s truth, I’d never thought about this before. On the edge of tears I went looking for a parent.

“Every living thing dies eventually,” my dad said mildly. “But you don’t have to think about this for a very long time.”

Based on what I know now about how best to talk to kids about death, my father did all right that night. He was honest and plain-speaking, if a little too quick to close down the topic. Unfortunately, my fear of death didn’t go away. On the contrary, it intensified over the years to the point of spoiling a good part of my childhood. The nightly news was a frequent trigger: any mention of natural disasters, escalating superpower tensions, escaped prisoners, people getting cancer, climate change, funnel-web spiders or, yes, disease outbreaks would tighten my stomach and fill me with dread. Though I developed a few ways of dealing with my anxiety, these, I would come to see, were all textbook symptoms of obsessive-compulsive disorder. Every bit as strong as the fear was the sense of loneliness because I hid everything about what I was feeling.

Of course, that concealment was misguided. Any kind soul would have pointed out that this fear of mine was natural and, to some extent, universal. Some feel it more viscerally than others. Some deal with it more directly, more wisely. But for everyone, the realisation that we are, as anthropologist Ernest Becker put it, “a small, trembling animal who will someday decay and die”, tends to change things forever.

As the years passed, I got past the worst of the fear – that awful, engulfing type reserved for childhood – but evolved nonetheless into an adult who sweats things like blood-pressure checks, long-haul flights and whale-watching cruises. I’ve long felt I’m driving the highway of life with the handbrake on.

Giants in the field of death anxiety, father-and-daughter psychologists Ross and Rachel Menzies have co-written a sweeping book (Mortals: How The Fear of Death Shaped Human Society) that probes the ramifications of mortality for a species clever enough to grasp them. 

While the authors, both Sydney-based, stop short of arguing that fear of death is the sole driver of human behaviour, they make an airtight case that it’s a big one. In a thumping tome, Sapiens-like in its scope, they deal with umpteen studies showing how subliminal references to death can alter the way we vote, dispense justice, view issues of war and peace . . . and go about our everyday lives.  

To assuage the fear of death, they argue, we humans cling, desperately and too often aggressively, to our religions, cultures and ideologies. Likewise, we glue ourselves to societal norms instead of finding and being ourselves. Trying to ‘beat’ death, many of us pursue a host of futile strategies – obsessive exercise, strict diets, vitamin guzzling – or strive to perform astounding feats, memories of which will, we hope, outlive our physical selves. We are, it seems, unwitting saboteurs of our capacity for calm and contented living.

As topics go, death is heavy – but it’s not going away. In this exclusive interview with Men’s Health, the authors reveal how you can subdue your fear of extinction and live a fuller life. We found a pair of thinkers enamoured with the Stoic philosophers, who made great strides in this field some 2000 years ago. “Life cannot be free from worry for any man who thinks too much about extending it,” declared Seneca. “Make your life joyful by putting aside all your anxiety about keeping it.” Easier said than done. But a goal worth pursuing to your last breath.

What’s the difference between an unhealthy fear of death and a strong survival instinct?

Ross Menzies: A desire to survive, or fear in the presence of a threat, which all animals display, isn’t a psychological problem. It’s an asset. But an underlying, unconscious dread of death that’s bubbling away below the surface and that you’re trying to treat in various ways, typically without knowing it . . . that’s where things go awry.

What’s gone wrong in nature’s most intelligent being that we alone are hung up on the prospect of death?

Rachel Menzies: It’s simply a by-product of the advanced nature of our brain. We seem to be the only species that can imagine and predict far into the future. And while this gives us a lot of advantages, it comes at the cost of our knowing that we’re all headed for the grave.

When does death awareness kick in?

Ross: One of the mistakes people make is they assume that one day you’re not aware of death and then suddenly you are. Death awareness develops in stages during the first decade of life. It begins as early as three years of age and then, slowly, across the next five years, you begin to understand that death is irreversible, that it happens to all living things and therefore will happen to you, and that it’s about bodily system breakdown.

When that awareness becomes a problem, what does it look like?

Rachel: Around the same age that you develop an awareness of death, we begin to see phobias in children. This could be a phobia of dogs, fear of the dark or monsters, or intense separation anxiety. These could all be manifestations of that underlying fear of death.

And you contend that although it evolves, the fear of death for most of us never really goes away, that we simply adopt more sophisticated strategies for coping with it?

Ross: Very much so. Once you have that full death awareness by eight or nine, what we’re arguing is that much of the rest of life is you dealing with it. Appeals to religion might begin very early in life, pursuing immortality or eternal life that way. For others it will be shining like the tallest poppy in the poppy field, the most successful person around, to be remembered for your virtuous acts, your heroic achievements. Or you may seek to extend the self through children, to cheat death by reproducing. There are so many solutions that we pursue, and we’ll start looking for them by the end of the first decade of life.

Are there gender differences at play here?

Ross: Men seem very driven to solve their dread of death through achievement, through goal-directed behaviour, through record-breaking. We did an analysis of The Guinness Book of Records and found the more outrageous records are dominated by men – who’s put the most mushrooms on a pizza, that kind of thing. Why do men do these things? Because they want a record of their presence. They want a record of having been here and having won something. Women are less so inclined. There’s evidence of far less daydreaming of success by women. They don’t even enter competitions in the arts in the same proportion.

Rachel: Men are also much less likely to have conversations about death, even in palliative care. It’s a minority of men when they’re dying who will start these conversations with a chaplain, while most women, without prompting, will talk openly about their thoughts and fears.

Is it necessarily a fear of death that makes a man want to set records? Perhaps he’s grasped the finitude of life and resolved simply to make the most of it, to leave his mark.

Ross: I think that’s simply a restating of our argument. What did that person have to realise? That his time is finite . . . so I might as well make a mark. He wants to be in the record books. He wants to exist beyond the self so when the self isn’t here anymore, he is still, in effect, here.

I set that mark and, therefore, exist beyond the self. We’re not suggesting for a second that the only reason humans do anything is death. But it’s clearly a big driver of their desire to leave a legacy.

But you can be aware of death without fearing it, can’t you? You can acknowledge your impermanence and be motivated by it without fearing the end?

Ross: My father regularly says, “I’m not afraid of death”. And I say, “No, I know you’re not, Dad, because you’ve extended the self through children and grandchildren, and you’ve achieved in your workplace. You’re not afraid because you’ve dealt with it.”

How might the rational man view religion?

Rachel: As one of the oldest ways we’ve tried to solve this problem. Every religion we know of has offered some solution to death, whether through a soul that’s reincarnated or an afterlife where you’re reunited with loved ones. When you look at history, religions that have offered more appealing visions of an afterlife soon supersede those that have offered less compelling versions. There’s a reason we don’t all worship Zeus and Hades anymore.

As a magazine, we promote working out and sound nutrition, and examine other ways to increase lifespan. We also subscribe to the idea of ‘healthspan’: making the time you have as potential-rich as possible by looking after yourself. Would you say we’re playing to fears of death?

Rachel: There’s nothing wrong with exercising, being mindful of what you eat or seeking medical advice to ensure a better quality of life. But what we’d suggest is asking yourself a question: Why, really, am I doing these things? Why am I spending hundreds of dollars a month on vitamins when the research indicates they do nothing to increase lifespan? Make sure you’re acting with your eyes open. Same with spending an hour on the treadmill every day. Are you desperately trying to prevent anything that might kill you? If you can embrace these activities while simultaneously acknowledging that at any point you could leave your house, get hit by a bus and this will all be over, that’s okay. But if you’ve bought into the idea that exercise is somehow going to keep you safe and healthy forever, then that’s probably not a helpful way to be going about things.

Ross: And one of the motivations for exercise, clearly, is the fear of death. There are death-priming studies in which reminders of death lead people to claim they’ve exercised more than they really have. But, yes, you might look at your grandparents and say, “You know, Grandpa really looked after himself and, jeepers, his life was better in his 80s and 90s than Grandma’s – and I want to hit old age in reasonable shape”.

There’s nothing wrong with that. But if you look closely, you may find that fear is driving some of your intent.

What does a life devoid of death anxiety look like?

Rachel: It would be a life lived more authentically. What most of us do to cope with this fear is do what our culture tells us. That could mean striving for that promotion, buying the luxury car, or having children. What we’re encouraging people to do is to accept that this is all going to end one day, and nothing you do is going to give you immortality. Once you accept that, it opens doors to different ways of living. You’ll ask yourself, “How do I really want to spend the time I have?” You may find yourself working less and spending more time with the people you care about the most.

Ross: You’ll be living at least slightly differently to most of us. You may have turned to creative pursuits while shedding a desire for great wealth. There’ll be various markers that you’re dancing to the beat of a different drummer.

You’ll have loosened your grip on the cultural pillars?

Ross: Exactly. We cling to culture because it gives us a backstory and the promise we’ll be rewarded for living according to certain principles and commandments. So, you pursue the goals that your culture deems markers of success – maybe it’s the religion of money or the religion of sporting achievement. What do we call our greatest rugby league players in this country? Immortals. 

We betray ourselves with our language, don’t we?

Ross: We do. We want to be the stuff of legend. We want to be talked about and remembered fondly when we’re gone.

You venerate the Stoic concept of a “neutral acceptance” of death. What is that exactly?

Rachel: The Stoics wrote a lot about the importance of accepting death. Specifically, they understood the importance of being indifferent to death because it is something outside of our control. Death is neither good nor bad. I accept death because it is a natural part of life. I can’t control it. I can’t prevent it. So, fearing it is only going to cause me distress.

Ross: Neutral acceptance is the same attitude that I have to the weather. I accept it will be what it will be because it’s beyond me. If it’s sunny today, that’s nice. But I refuse to desire it. Likewise, I accept death in a neutral way. It’s going to get me. It could get me soon, or later. COVID provides a neat example. You’ll be anxious if you’re desiring with a desperation that you’ll never be afflicted. Neutral acceptance would be: “I don’t know what this latest variant would do if I got it. I don’t know how my body would react. I don’t know what my current vaccination status would or wouldn’t do to protect me. So, I will take the available precautions and enjoy today, tomorrow and the next day with the unperturbed awareness that not everything is in my control.”

This is the way forward for the modern man?

Rachel: Absolutely. It’s an approach that’s associated with much better psychological outcomes than other kinds of acceptance.

There’s also ‘escape acceptance’ – the idea that life is so painful (partly because of the gnawing fear of death) that death can be viewed as a relief. You run the passage from Julius Caesar where the conspirators reason they’ll be doing Caesar a favour by knocking him off: “So we are Caesar’s friends that have abridg’d his time of fearing death”.

Rachel: That’s right . . . death as an escape from the pain of living. There’s also ‘approach acceptance’ – I accept death because I see it as a gateway to a better life, such as an afterlife. All three kinds of acceptance are associated with reduced fear of death. But neutral acceptance is associated with the best outcomes in terms of lower rates of depression and anxiety, and overall better wellbeing. The more you can strive for that indifference to death, the better off you’ll be.

Ross: Shakespeare, by the way, was the greatest psychologist who ever lived. Nobody understood humans and human motivation better. I’ve not read anyone in the history of our field – in psychiatry, clinical psychology – who matches him. In more than half his plays, his characters express terror of death, terror of where they’re going and of the life to come. He was deeply troubled by death himself.

How can someone who’s been battling death anxiety their whole life turn things around?

Ross: Firstly, recognise what’s been going on. Step back and admit that you’ve spent much of your life ticking the boxes that your culture or subculture told you were grand. Now question whether that’s really what you want to keep doing. Did you have hobbies or interests that you abandoned for lack of time? What stops you from living a simpler, more pleasurable existence? What stops you from finding purpose or meaning? What has been directing your life? Has it been your culture or the echoes of parents or grandparents? I see a lot of people clinically who’ve been terribly successful but aren’t terribly happy.

Can you achieve neutral acceptance on your own or will you need professional help?

Rachel: A lot of people will be able to make progress on their own. Usually, humans will avoid things that make them anxious. They’ll change the topic when death comes up in conversation. But we’ve known for decades in psychology that the more we avoid things, the worse we’re going to end up feeling. Watch films to do with death. Read books about death. Start conversations with loved ones. The more we start seeing death as something normal and natural, the better.

Ross: What we’re asking people to do is not easy. Remember we’re saying that from very early in life, unconsciously, so much of what you’re doing is a desperate dealing with death. So, this requires work – daily work.  

What can a dad do to raise children untroubled by a fear of death?

Ross: Above all else, avoid denying it. We overly protect children against it and make the mistake of going into denial. As a young father, I fell victim to that. When Rachel, as a little girl, was in the car with me, we would see a dead animal on the road and she’d look upset. I would tell her it was a stuffed toy, and she would smile and seem relieved. Now that’s the sort of thing that, as an older man, I would never do. I think pets are wonderful. Pets give children the full gamut of vibrant life and then death. They get to see a life cycle and then witness death and retain fond memories and practise grief and know this is a reality. There’s good research showing children with a good, open relationship with death have a lower fear of it. The more it can be openly described, the less fear there is. 

Rachel: Children will have a lot of questions about death from the ages of four to 10. Trying to answer those questions as matter-of-factly as you can is the way to go. Often there’s a tendency to cloud what you say in euphemisms. But children can take this stuff better than we think. 

By Dan Williams

Dan Williams, Men’s Health’s Associate Editor, is the magazine’s most experienced presence. While his body protests more than it used to, he still insists it honour the MH way, with regular dawn workouts mingled with punishing sessions on the tennis court – all against a backdrop of abstemiousness: he turns into a pumpkin at 10pm.

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