This article is an excerpt from the Shortform book guide to "The Laws Of Human Nature" by Robert Greene. Shortform has the world's best summaries and analyses of books you should be reading.
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Why are humans afraid of death? Is this fear justified?
The answer to the question “why are humans afraid of death?” is simple—it’s against our nature to accept death. Humans have always sought ways to rationalize and understand death on their own terms.
Read more about the ways in which people avoid thinking about death, and find out the answer to the question “why are humans afraid of death?”
Why Are Humans Afraid of Death?
In the previous law, we looked at what people want. Now, we’ll look at what people don’t want—to die. So, why are humans afraid of death? And why do we avoid thinking about it?
Humans are the only animal aware of our inevitable mortality, and while this awareness and cognitive ability are why we’re top of the food chain, they also make us sad. To avoid this sadness, we try to think about anything but death. Most people take this so far that they don’t even think about being alive—instead, their minds circle the same few fears, irritations, and hopes, and they only give their surroundings half of their attention.
Interestingly, the more we try to repress death, the less alive we feel, which is known as the paradoxical death effect. It can also help answer the question “why are humans afraid of death?” This is because when we avoid thinking about death or desensitize ourselves, our anxiety about it strengthens. To avoid feeling this anxiety, we try to make our life more controllable by doing less, dulling our psyche with an addiction, avoiding new things so we can’t fail at them, and avoiding spending time with people because they’re unpredictable. All these responses actually make our life more death-like—isolated and unchanging.
Similarly, when we don’t repress death, we actually feel more alive. An awareness of death makes us pay more attention to the people and world around us. We realize nothing is permanent.
- For example, when writer Fyodor Dostoyevsky was imprisoned, one day he was taken to St. Petersburg and told he’d be executed in just a few minutes. Dostoyevsky’s senses and emotions went into overdrive—he noticed rays of light and people’s expressions. At the last minute, he was given hard labor instead of being executed. His new awareness of life stayed with him for the rest of his days.
In the past, humans dealt with death by inventing an afterlife and rituals associated with it. Moving from life to an afterlife couldn’t stop the physical pain of death, of the pain of separation from loved ones, but it did make death less frightening and even gave it some pluses. As we lose these rituals, we have to keep asking ourselves “why are humans afraid of death?”
- (Shortform example: The stereotypical image of heaven was a peaceful, bright place where you could be reunited with those who had died before you.)
Today, however, now that we know more about science, it’s harder for people to believe in an afterlife. We’ve come up with a few new strategies to make death less painful:
- We’ve hidden it. In the past, people regularly died in public places or their homes, and many people had witnessed the death of someone else. Today, in some parts of the world, death is relegated to hospitals, and most people have never seen someone die.
- We’ve made it cartoonish. In films and video games, action scenes are full of death, but it’s not taken seriously.
- We worship youth. We avoid old things because they remind us of how short life is. Instead, we focus on what’s new.
- We worship technology. Some people like to believe technology and advances in medical science will help us defeat death.
So why are humans afraid of death? It’s in our nature. But we can learn how to come to terms with this fear.
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- Why it's in your nature to self-sabotage
- How you behave differently when you're in a group
- Why you're wired to want the wrong things in life