I believe that fear can be overcome.
Many years ago, I was about to embark on an overseas airline flight, and in my moments of anxiety just prior to the flight, a friend said that what I needed to do was reconcile myself with the possibility of dying. At the time, this only served to frighten me more.
In the ensuing years, I gradually learned to distract myself from fearful thoughts as I flew, to turn my mind away from fantasies of carnage and mayhem, and focus it instead on the beauty of the clouds, or the phenomenon of what I could see below. I learned that the fear that had gripped me existed in my imagination, and that I could imagine something else instead. Still, this was not reconciling myself with dying; it was a step in the right direction in terms of conquering my fear, but it was more in the direction of realizing the unlikelihood of my perishing in a plane crash, than really accepting the possibility of that happening.
Some years ago, my friend Amy was diagnosed with breast cancer, just prior to her 40th birthday. During the months of treatment that followed, she felt that cancer was something that she would endure and overcome. But three years later it was evident that the cancer had not been overcome. Amy went through all the treatments that were available to her, while at the same time pursuing her spiritual practice and accepting what befell her as it unfolded. I remember her telling me during that time that suffering cannot be avoided, but it always ends.
Nearly three years later, having pursued all the available treatments and then giving herself over to the ending of her life, Amy died. Through the process of witnessing her gracious departure from life, I was able to appreciate all she had given me in her friendship, in her living and teaching, and in her dying. She taught me that dying is unavoidable, that each of us has our own death in the same way that we have our own face and character, and that the value of a life is not measured by its length.
I believe that in leaving those of us who loved her, Amy taught us to embrace the life we’re given and to release it when we must. That there are forces beyond our comprehension that dictate these things. Ultimately, that dying is as natural as breathing. There is this intellectual knowledge that we all die, but Amy helped me to know on a personal level that it really does happen to each and every one of us, and that it is not a tragedy.
So now when I fly, and indeed in every act of my life, I have this knowledge that what my friend said to me so many years ago is true; once we embrace death as the natural, inevitable, and often beautiful passage that it is, the fear resolves.
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider making a tax-deductible contribution to This I Believe, Inc.