Why are people afraid of dying?
The following is an opinion - it is not accessible to investigation using the scientific method. Just in case this isn't obvious, I wanted to clarify that. Neither is it a widely held belief by any group of professionals - it's just a part of my personal model of the human psyche that helps me understand my behavior. If it's helpful to you, then it was worth writing about.
I believe that the FEAR OF DEATH is the fear that humans have and that all other fears are built upon it - they are symbolic of it. The FEAR OF DEATH lives down in the medulla - in the oldest part of the human brain - next to (or maybe in) the "respiratory center". It's primary function is to make sure we breath. Beyond that, it drives all of our other instincts - who's purpose is, of course, self preservation.
Since the FEAR OF DEATH is so far down in the unconscious mind, it's easy to pretend that it's not there at all. If you ask 100 medical students if they are afraid of death, 95 will probably say NO!! In reality, becoming a doctor is a sublimation of the FEAR OF DEATH, but almost no one is aware of that.
The only time most of us are conscious of the FEAR OF DEATH is when we face a life threatening situation - being held up at gun point, nearly falling off of a tall ladder, being in a life threatening auto accident, or being told we have cancer. Soon after the event has passed, we banish the fear back down through the various layers of the sub-conscious mind - down into the unconscious mind - back down to the medulla - next to the respiratory center - where it lives. If we have to face it consciously - such as when we have stage IV cancer, it behooves us to make peace with it - to go through the stages of denial, anger, bargaining, depression - and to ultimately get to an acceptance of death.
Assuming you are one of the majority of people who say "I'm not afraid of death!!", try this thought experiment. (Unless you do this for a living) imagine that you ride up an elevator in a skyscraper that is under construction - to the twentieth floor. Then walk out on to a 10 inch wide steal beam - walk about 40 feet along it to the edge of the building - just like the construction workers do. If you are like me, you may have had nightmares about this very scenario.
The FEAR OF DEATH drives our instincts, which can be broadly categorized as protecting our need for Society, Security and Sex. As thinking animals, we take our instincts and "improve" on them so we can further remove our conscious mind from our FEAR OF DEATH.
Not so long ago in human history, living in society was essential to survival. If you pissed off the rest of your tribe, they might through you out of the village. Without the protection of others, you would likely fall prey to carnivorous animals, or at least not be able to hunt as easily, or to grow your own food. The SOCIETAL instinct is driven by our FEAR OF DEATH - many lower animals have this too (the herd instinct - running in packs, etc.). But instead of just being members of society, we want to become essential members. AMBITION is the byproduct of our societal instinct. We become doctors, engineers, programmers or we simply try to climb as high up the corporate ladder as possible. There's nothing wrong with ambition, as long as we realize that it is an exaggerated manifestation of our societal instinct - driven ultimately by our FEAR OF DEATH. To understand this may help us moderate our behavior - rather than simply being driven by Blind Ambition.
The exaggerated use of our instinct for Security may lead us to become miserly (the expression of the fear of financial insecurity) or, ironically, to spend more money than we have (the defense against the fear of financial insecurity). It may drive us to an unhealthy dependence on other people - demanding too much attention, protection and love - our protectors ultimately either flee or die - leaving us alone and afraid. Food may also be the focus of our need for Security and our exaggerated use of this instinct may result in gluttony. (Ironically, the over use of this instinct, driven by our FEAR OF DEATH may cause us to die prematurely.)
The over use of our sex drive can lead to promiscuity, serial monogamy - or - in pathologic cases - even rape.
We may also use drugs (including alcohol and nicotene) to numb our FEAR OF DEATH if we can't separate ourselves from it adequately by the exaggerated use of our instincts, which may, ironically cause disease or even death. That is, running from our FEAR OR DEATH can actually kill us.
Since death is inevitable, time is often the focus of our FEAR OF DEATH, causing a continual sense of urgency about everything we do (the expression of the fear) or resulting in procrastination (the defense against the fear). Pink Floyd's song Time describes this beautifully:
Ticking away the moments that make up a dull day
Fritter and waste the hours in an off-hand way
Kicking around on a piece of ground in your home town
Waiting for someone or something to show you the way
Tired of lying in the sunshine staying home to watch the rain
You are young and life is long and there is time to kill today
And then one day you find ten years have got behind you
No one told you when to run, you missed the starting gun
And you run and you run to catch up with the sun but it's sinking
Racing around to come up behind you again
The sun is the same in a relative way, but you're older
Shorter of breath and one day closer to DEATH