Everybody has some idea of what conditions might make death seem desirable: an inoperable cancer, perhaps, or some terrible event like being trapped without food or water and with no hope of escape. We envy those whose philosophical or religious outlook allows them to endure approaching death with something like peace of mind, and yet when we look at it this way, we do not understand what such people are actually showing us. They are not afraid of their imminent death now precisely because they have previously learned how to handle Life.
Spend some time with a serious Christian, Buddhist, Jew, or a committed follower of some other faith, and you will soon see that their attention is focused much more on the details of how to handle the life that immediately confronts them than it is on their eventual end, which is referred to, if at all, in very general terms. Anyone with a seriously philosophical bent also has this same focus; for example, the Roman emperor Marcus Aurelius once remarked “And thou wilt give thyself relief, if thou doest every act of thy life as if it were the last.”
When a human being tries to figure out their place in Life and what it all means, that individual has stopped running around without understanding anything and can now start to build something meaningful. Many detailed systems of belief, secular as well as religious, have come into existence this way down through the millennia and are still around today, although we modern people have so many effective ways to put off experiencing the pains and tribulations of ordinary life that we generally don't even know those systems are there.
Once someone has subscribed to a belief system, their life becomes a very interesting one that is full of affirmations, choices, and results (both good and bad, but improving over time). We have seen how intensely valuable Marcus Aurelius found it to always live each moment “as if it were the last.” In the Pali canon of the Theravadan Buddhists, the story is told of a young monk who is tempted to enjoy the pleasures of the senses. He replies, “I, friend, do not reject the present moment to pursue what time will bring. I reject what time will bring to pursue the present moment...This Dhamma [teaching/Truth] is here-present, out of time, inviting inspection, leading onward, to be realized by the wise each for himself.”
Those of us who spend our lives running from pleasure to pleasure generally find such talk very boring. We mock people like these, calling them “old fogies” or “repressive,” little noticing how satisfied and peaceful they are and how restless we are in comparison. It is very difficult for us to acknowledge our own inability to find lasting peace and satisfaction in any one thing, or how we always quickly lose interest in one thing and are driven to seek another—something new, something that can better entertain us and keep our minds away from thinking about the really serious matters of life and death that all of us were born to face.
Eventually time runs out. Death must come to all, but can any fear it who has “pursued the present moment” throughout their life? Their life has been full and they can now leave it without regret. Their last moment is merely to be experienced like any other and then relinquished. Pity the ones who have never established a basis in Life and yet must now, for the first and last time ever, face the inescapable termination of everything in Death.
Truly the people who are most afraid of dying are the ones who have always been the most afraid to live.