Fear of death

First of all, realize that you’re not even kind of alone in these feelings. We’re all going to die. Even the entire solar system is going to die, eventually.  Your sadness is rooted in 3 intense irrational thoughts:

  • 1 Nothing you do matters in the long run
  • 2 You exist without purpose, and
  • 3 You should be acting differently than you do.

The only way to “win” against irrational thoughts is to call them out for what they are and argue against them. So let’s do that, one by one.

1. Nothing I do matters in the long run.

First, recognize the type of irrational thought: This is an overgeneralization. Just like answers that include “always” “all” “none” and “never” are almost always wrong on multiple choice tests, thoughts that include “everything” “nothing” “always” and “never” are almost always irrational overgeneralizations. Why is it easy to recognize that?  Because few things in life play by all-or-nothing rules.

Step 2 is to question the assertion. Is it really true that *nothing* you do matters in the long run? If you have kids, your DNA is likely going to continue into the future. Even if you don’t have kids, odds are that you’ve introduced people to one another. The bonds that exist from even a basic platonic relationship that would not have existed without your intervention may influence the lives of others. It’s like the Butterfly Effect. The butterfly just knows that it’s flapping its wings. It’s never conscioius of even the possibility that it could be affecting weather. There’s no way for anyone to properly estimate or acknowledge the fullness of the effect that they have on society — especially not 200 years down the line when they’re not alive to see it.

When you take a moment to think about how other people in life have affected your actions and thoughts, and you realize that we humans can’t see the future or know exactly how our actions affect everyone even in the present, it’s easy to know that the thought “Nothing I do matters in the long run” is a lie.  And lies don’t deserve to be given air time in your thoughts.

2 You exist without purpose

First, recognize the type of irrational thought: This is all-or-nothing thinking. You can tell that it’s all-or-nothing because it is a judgment that is either black or white. Very few things in life are all-or-nothing, so it’s reasonable to take a moment to examine the veracity of the statement.

Step 2 – questioning the assertion: First, let’s ask this question: Who determines what your purpose is? Is it you? Is it society? Is it God?  Let’s take this 1 by 1.

If you determine what your purpose is, then you have the ability at any given moment to decide what you believe your purpose is, and to live in accordance with it. Thus, the choice to exist without purpose is one that you are consciously making for yourself and can change at your whim.

If society is determining your purpose, then finding out where you fit in the grand scheme of society will help show you what your purpose is. Do you have a particular job that you do? How do you live? Are you social? Society is comprised of billions of people working together and coming up with sets of rules for how to exist that we all accept. Most people’s purpose within society is to serve a certain job function and to make life better for themselves and others in some way. It doesn’t need to be more difficult to define than that.

If God is determining your purpose, then you have to take a step back and realize that no one can ever know the mind of God. The fact that you exist at all means that you are serving a purpose. Otherwise, why would God take the time to create you and watch over you? Is your life a cautionary tale for others? Are you meant to plant a seed of creative inspiration in someone else? Are you there to bring comfort to a family member at a particular time?  There’s no way to know, because in this scenario, a divine presence has both created you and chosen when your ride on this planet is over.  If God’s the one in control, you gotta give up the search for purpose and just know that you have one, even if it isn’t readily apparent to you.

3 You should be acting differently than you do.

First, let’s identify the irrational thought: This statement is a “should” thought. Critical words like “should”, “must”, or “ought” can make us feel guilty or like we have already failed.  If we apply them to others, the result is often frustration.The world almost never is as we believe it “should” be. 

So, let’s question this irrational thought! You have to ask yourself, “Is it true that I *should* be doing anything differently?  How would acting differently affect the root of the problem that is bothering me?  Do I even have any control over what gets remembered and what doesn’t? What inner-voice is telling me that I am not good enough the way I am? Is it the truth, or am I punishing myself rather than acknowledging that I want to change something about myself.”  If you were addressing this question with a friend, what would you tell him/her?

Is it the truth that you *should* be acting differently? Or is the truth that you *want* to be acting differently?  If what you’re feeling is actually a desire to act differently, then you are in complete control of changing your behavior.

As humans, we cannot ever control the automatic negative thoughts we have, but we can always control our reactions to those thoughts and the behaviors we choose to enact.

You asked, in your post, how you can be happy. The truth is, you already know. The answer is inside you, underneath all that disappointment! You want to make a difference within society, or to feel proud of yourself and to be remembered. No stranger on the internet is going to have the answer about how you are going to go about achieving that, because no one else knows what makes you tick. Everyone’s different.

There are some things that I can suggest that have worked well for me, in learning how to be happy.

1.) Finding the rainbow in the rain: Instead of focusing on the things in life that make living more difficult or things that are upsetting, look inside those situations for the positive lesson or thing to be happy about that can be taken from it.

2.) Practice gratitude. Every day, make a list of 3 things that happened the day before that you are happy about. It will help you remember your life more pleasantly.  If you’re having a particularly crappy day, make a written list of everything you can think of that you feel fortunate about. List items can be as simple as “I’m grateful that I’m not in the hospital right now.”

3.) Bring your focus back from looking at the future, and instead, focus on the moment that you’re living in, right now. No one can affect the past, and we can only plan for the future – we can’t change anything that isn’t occurring in this moment. This moment is all that any of us has.  For some people, meditation helps realign thoughts to the current world. For others, it’s yoga or weightlifting or target gun practice… whatever makes you fully present.

Lastly, remember this one important thing: You’re not dead yet, so there is nothing but potential in front of you. This means that you still have time to do the things you want to do, to change your perception of yourself, or even to have that ultimate purpose. (How you die may be part of it! You never know.)

If the dark thoughts stick around, I wholeheartedly recommend talking with a counselor – a psychologist, MFT, or clinical social worker can help you realign your thinking in a way that posts online simply cannot. I wish you the best, and hope that you realize that simply by asking this question, you’ve affected strangers in a positive way.

Recomended book: Fear: A series of discourses by Acharya Prashant

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