“We, no less than other, non-rational animals, are destined to die at the end of our lives. And death strikes indiscriminately – it cares not at all for the status or position of the ones it chooses; everyone must die, whether rich or poor, famous or unknown. Even good deeds will not exclude their doers from the sentence of death; the good die as often as the bad. It is perhaps this inevitable and unpredictable quality that makes death so frightening to many people. Especially those who put a high value on being in control of their own existence are offended by the thought that they too are subject to the forces of death.”

I never thought of myself as the controlling type—a control freak, we call them, those people who need everything to be just as they want, each detail imagined and designed to suit their individual needs, those people who lash out in anger when even the smallest thing deviates from expectation. Nor had I thought of the control freak as someone in pain, afraid; they always seem only mean, self-absorbed, and cruel. 

But when I started cognitive behavioral therapy to ease my anxiety, I found the word “control” surfacing everywhere, in my thoughts and in my spoken words. Life felt so entirely unpredictable; I needed to control what I could. I made up rules for what I could eat and when, for how I could travel, for which strangers to trust and which to stare down warily until they left my presence or I theirs. I created an illusion of control over a reality that is unstable to its core.

At the bottom of all this is, always has been, my fear of death, more specifically sudden, unpredictable, inescapable death: the fatal heart attack felling a seemingly healthy body, the gunshot or bomb or other act of violence imposed on an innocent crowd, the car striking the smiling pedestrian who steps off the curb too soon. “The clear blue sky from which the plane fell,” Joan Didion described those tragedies that strike amid sheer normalcy.

Stepping back from the precipice of fear has been an exercise in letting go of this control, and, yes, in accepting that I too am subject to the forces of death. I have found much happiness by living as though everything I want is attainable, but I’ve also inadvertently created a new source of stress: In a universe where everything is under my control, everything is also my responsibility, my burden. Any bad outcome is a result of my failure to foresee, to plan, to act properly. Death is the ultimate betrayer of that universe. It is the one thing I cannot escape, the one problem I cannot solve. A tragedy, yes, but in that tragedy—an opportunity. Freedom.

The title quote is from Elisabeth Kübler-Ross, a psychiatrist who first proposed the five stages of grief. 

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