Why Do We Feel So Robbed When People Die Young?
What does it mean to die young?
Many months ago, I was visiting the famous New York City to attend an event of curious young persons who ask big questions. On the final day of the event, we gathered in Rockefeller Park just by World Trade Center One. Beyond the fact that the date was September 10th, there was something special in the air.
Gathered in a circle, we formally introduced ourselves, shared our family heritage and, if we wanted, spoke about our greatest fear. My brain racked through its memories and feelings with hesitation despite my full well knowing what my greatest fear was from the moment of the prompt.
At the time, for many months, I had been experiencing profound, sporadic bouts of anxiety due to a fear of dying at any moment through some unpredictable freak occurrence. In other words, I had a fear of dying young and having been in New York City for five straight days, those feelings of anxiety had been multiplied.
New York City is chaos on a good day, and with a fear of dying by randomness, I felt unable to measure my surroundings. My entire stay I found myself actively measuring up objects and people. I was fearful of buses clipping me, bicyclists running me down, AC units falling on me, subway shooters, or worse. I didn’t intentionally think these thoughts, but that micro-second hesitation before decisions flickered with fear.
The thing is these were not new thoughts for me. In San Francisco, my previous home, for many previous months, I had felt the same. In any city, really, I found these feelings. Even in suburbia Virginia, I found myself anxious running along a sleepy 35 mph neighborhood road fearful of that one guy who would lose control.
As someone who has climbed abandoned water towers, taken mopeds through Asia, kissed a wolf, and traversed South America alone, I wondered what was happening to me. I had many questions;
• Is this part of growing old?
• Is this going to get worse?
• Will I always live like this?
It was frightening. I didn’t want to live like this forever. I was only 23.
For answers, I sought deep meditation to figure out the root of my fear. I found my discoveries interesting and worth sharing.
So here it is.
As I have come to articulate it, I had a fear of sudden, unwarranted death. I didn’t want to die prematurely.
I thought a lot about why I was so scared for seemingly no reason. The culprit, I think, has been over empathizing with stories in the news. The internet has made premature mortality easy to conceive. We have all read enough stories to know that a spray of bullets will kill a 20-year-old just as fast as it kills a 50-year-old. And with Facebook making it so easy to keep up with everyone you’ve ever met, who hasn’t had an old friend show up in their feed to the tune of condolences and prayers?
For me, all of this helped the idea of dying young deeply materialize in my mind. When I read that a 24-year old has died out of nowhere because of a mysterious brain tumor every Doctor missed, who can’t help but wonder what surprise might be awaiting them. For every story you hear, someone else is living it wondering why it was them.
There's something about the concept of dying young that is haunting. Not just my own, but for anyone. When these news headlines come out, as one has seen in Virginia recently, “12-year old jumps from overpass and kills 23-year old driver” we all feel like we have been robbed. We have this gut feeling of senselessness and absurdity. And as I have come to learn, it seems the younger the person or the more random the death, the more intense our pain and sorrow.
We are sad because the younger they are, we think, the more they missed. And the more random the incident, we think, the more undeserved the death.
If we are trying to ask ourselves why dying young is so soul-crushing to us, we have to look at these two factors, age, and randomness, to inform us because I’ve come to see these are the two key criteria that wrench our stomach the most.
I’ve thought a lot about the randomness of death and death by age, and I’ve come to notice there is one common thread: loss of unlived life.
Dying randomly, we feel robbed. Dying young we feel robbed. We feel robbed because we think there was more to that story.
To us, that life will now go unlived.
So, what is unlived life?
Unlived life is exactly what you think it is: friendships from school that never matured, tough breaks up that never happened, books that were never written, dreams that were never explored, art that was never created, and ideas that were never discovered.
For those who die young, we wrench at the idea of the careful education and love given to someone through their childhood to prepare for their own adventure only to see it vanish; the diapers changed, the thousands of hours of studied, and the new clothes for college then poof. That bright young journalist you grew up with is split in half by a speeding motorcycle.
For those who die to randomness, we wrench because as humans we love to believe in some type of order to our universe and that to die because of random chance is unjust. We boldly affirm that life consists of three key stages: being young, being adult, and being old. A proper life includes all three, and the more of that you ‘miss out on’ the more sinister the loss.
As I began to meditate more on the above discoveries, it became clear that the fear associated with dying young was this indeed unlived life. I began to look deeper into philosophy on the subject for more opinions on life and death.
Reading about the philosophy of death it becomes clear a lot of folks aren’t just worried about unlived life but more so: what is life after death? But I don’t find this question too worrying. I am actually okay with the concept of being dead (dying maybe not but being dead yes) and I will tell you why.
A lot of us are scared about life after death because we don’t really know what happens, and that doesn’t fit our desire for order and predictability. The uncertainty of it all is what eats us up.
It doesn’t bother me, though, because from my meditations on the topic I realized something obvious, life after death is binary: either there is something or there is nothing.
I see that once we are dead, if there is something (another life), then the journey continues and we’ll have plenty more questions and things to do. But if there is nothing, that is also okay, because even though we don’t realize it, we have all experienced nothingness before: the nothingness of death will be equal to the nothingness before life.
In other words, what was life like before you were born? Imagine that and that is what life would be like if there is nothing after death. In a weird way, there is something really comforting about this. Knowing that we have experienced nothingness makes nothingness less intimidating.
If you find as much comfort in that realization as I do, then you come to the same outlook on death as I have now: the idea of being dead isn’t so bad because we know the outcomes of death, something or nothing, instead, the real fear associated with death is the fear of losing unlived life. As we discussed, what we truly fear are the missed contributions to the world, fears of stories left of untold, jokes left unspoken, hugs never given, tears never shed, and words never woven.
Let’s think back to our fear of losing unlived life. Let’s imagine the person who dies young or the person who dies by random accident. Why does this bother us so much? Why does missing out on shared stories or given hugs bother us so much?
I don’t think it’s that complicated. We feel robbed of unlived life because, for all we know, this is it. We have life right now but we don’t know what it is. We don’t know where it came from. And we don’t know if there’s more of it after we die. That’s scary to us. Even if you practice a faith, you really don’t know otherwise you’d just kill yourself to get to the promised land. We all live with this subconscious fear that this could be the only experience we have, our only opportunity to experience and our only opportunity to contribute.
Whatever the fate may be after death, if we have a desire to experience and contribute, dying young is cutting short what might be our only opportunity to do so. That’s why even in a meaningless universe, we still want to thrive because if this is it, why not at least make it worthwhile?
Really then, a fear of losing unlived life, is a worry that we won’t be able to make the most of our one chance we have at life. And dying young, we feel robbed of our opportunity to that.
This is really important. Our subconscious mind knows all of this and it influences our behavior.
How do you think a lot of people respond to this fear?
Well, most people try to live the most life they can as fast as possible thinking that if they do that someday they will pass some magical threshold where they are content and have lived enough life. Importantly this looks different for different people because everyone defines ‘life’ in their own way.
For some people, life is about making a contribution, so they work really hard to write books, build companies, or create some type of legacy. For others, life is about indulging into hedonism, so they have lots of sex, party hard and eat lots of fatty foods.
Judgements aside, both parties are trying to sprint towards a non-tangible amount of life. No matter what you achieve there is always something bigger, and no matter how many times you party, there is always another celebration.
As you can imagine, sprinting to accumulate life experiences doesn’t have the effect people want because they never actually pass the threshold. There is always more.
Sprinting to acquire experiences doesn’t work. We end up spending life in pursuit of life, as it coincidentally passes us by. For the person who fears death and fears missing out on life’s contributions and experiences, this isn’t going to work.
Thankfully, there is an alternative. Consider the point made by Marcus Aurelius, Roman Emperor and inquisitor to death, who spoke something on this topic which was profound:
"the longest-lived and those who die soonest lose the same thing. The present. The present is all that they can give up since that is all you have and what you do not have, you cannot lose."
Marcus’ point here is that the present is all that exists and that the past and the future are delusions that only exist in our mind, which is true. This is obvious but can take a while for us to truly realize it in our behavior and actions.
The key point though that I want to apply to the discussion on death is that Marcus’ emphasis is on the now or in other words, the present. We must realize the way we segment life are built on these imagined quantities of time. Being young, adult, and old, are completely made up framings of time and life. Day, weeks, and years are also completely made up framings of time.
All that exists is right now, I cannot repeat that enough. Time is not like an old movie film where the clips still exist after they have played. There is no reel in life, there is only a perma-state of what is happening at this moment.
This is important because one of our greatest mistakes as humans is that we imagine that there is some giant gap of time between life and death. Obviously, though, this isn’t true.
As discussed, humans have two states: life and death. What comes after life is death. Since life is in the present, what comes after the present is death. In other words, there is no gap of time between life and death. It is just the present, then what comes next, which is death.
My grandfather put it best, “the only thing separating life and death is a short phase of transition.”
Look around your room, this is life. This is now. But on the immediate other side of this is death. There is no gap of time or space.
This could seem depressing to some, but I do not find it so. It’s reality and liberating. It drives home the point that Aurelius mentioned, that the present is literally all we have. Whether you are 90 years old or 20 years old, we are all just “one short phase of transition” away from death.
So how does this all relate to dying young? Let’s recap.
There are two reasons we hate the idea of someone dying young. The first is that when someone dies young we feel wrenched about the preparation and potential lost in that human. The second is that most people who die young, die through random chance events, which makes us feel even worse as we perceive the death as unjustified.
(note: dying by random chance events at any age is enough to make us sick because it still remains unjust in our eyes.)
Dying young and dying by random chance have one thing in common: a loss of unlived life. Above, we unpacked unlived life and found that because we are uncertain about life after death, we want to maximize this experience we have and contribute what we can.
Trying to maximize life, people sprint to acquire experiences which is unhealthy. We then investigated the present moment alongside Aurelius where we emphasized the present is all that exists, and within the present is where all life exists.
Reviewing the information above, there’s a clear operative here.
The root of our discontent is a fear of not making contributions and having diverse experiences.
This can be handled by everyone differently, but the important note is that living by way of bucket list is not a good answer. Life is now, a bucket list exists in the future and the past. It’s a list of things you want to do and things you did do.
The best we can do is to live a quality life in the moment. A quality life includes struggle, happiness, wins, and losses. The present moment doesn’t mean just lay on the beach for eternity. It’s a state of mind. To conquer a fear of dying young, or at a fear of dying at all, is to foster a frame on the world that is content with now always.
I don’t want to get too deep on solutions here because it is largely subjective. A lot of my motivation in writing this was to diagnose the root of a pretty widespread fear. In my attempts to do that, I used objectivity and unbiased reason. How to live in the present, well, my only advice could be subjective and biased.
To not leave readers on a cliffhanger, though, I personally find there to be three key philosophies to live by.
1. Managing Expectations
I am sure there is a more academic way to say this, but the gap between reality and expectations are truly the origins of discontent. If you expect a $1000 bonus and get an $800 bonus, you are sad, regardless of the fact that you just got a bonus.
More relevant, the idea of losing unlived life is an expectation. We expect to live through the phases of life (young, adult, old) like we are owed.
2. Value Added Judgements
Deriving from Buddhism, there is a frame of mind that works to remove the learned judgments we have on things. For example, we look at weeds as ugly and bad. But really, a weed is just a plant. Buddhism works to look at a weed and see it not as good and not as bad, but as a plant that can be beautiful.
There is a famous Chinese proverb that discusses this.
• A farmer’s horse runs away. The whole village tells him how unfortunate that is. He says maybe.
• The next day the horse comes back with five other wild horses. The whole village tells him how lucky he is. He says maybe.
• The next day his son, while trying to train one of the horses is thrown from the horse and breaks his leg. The whole village tells him how unfortunate that is. He says maybe.
• The next day the military comes to recruit for the draft and his son doesn’t have to go. The whole village tells him how lucky he is. He says maybe.
Applying this point of view onto life, it’s endless contentment.
3. The Myth of Sisyphus
20th-century philosophy, Albert Camus, wrote a story called the Myth of Sisyphus where a man is banished to the worst punishment of all time for his sins: rolling a stone up a hill for eternity without ever reaching the top.
The meaning is that rolling the stone up the hill forever is the worst punishment of all. But as Camus argues, “Our fate only seems horrible when we place it in contrast with something that would seem preferable."
In other words, if Sisyphus is able to forget about all of the other places he wishes he could be, then it isn’t so bad.
I’ve used this frame of mind when I find myself in my worst moments and they immediately improve. Stuck in traffic, I just think, “well I don’t really have any other fate” and your outlook can help but improve. On a bad date, I just think, “well this sucks, but I am here so I might as well own it.”
And so forth.
That’s the most I am willing to share. This piece was a thorough inquisition into the fear of dying young rather than subjective solutions. The answers are for your own finding.