When I was a young teenager, I was afflicted with obsessive and terrifying fears of death, fears so great that my parents sent me into psychoanalytic therapy [something that was then quite experimental in the orthodox Freudian world.] The therapy seems to have worked, because the fears subsided. The odd thing about them was that when I was lying frozen in bed at night, I would comfort myself with the thought "Maybe I will die before it happens," which, it will occur to you, was irrational, unless the fears were a cover for something else, more fearful than death. I never did find out what that something was, although I have always thought it had to do with my father [either that or my mother, right?] The therapy kept me from following my sister to Swarthmore, which was my first choice in colleges. In those days, therapy was a no-no, and Swarthmore told me that they would not admit me unless Harvard, the only other school to which I had applied, turned me down. Well, getting into Harvard was not hard in those days -- my year, about 2200 applied and 1600 were admitted, of whom 1250 enrolled. So I went off to Harvard at the age of sixteen, and the very first course I took was Willard Van Orman Quine's Symbolic Logic. The rest, as they say, is philosophy.
Last night, at about 2 a.m., I suddenly felt the old half-forgotten fears. I jumped up out of bed [causing something of a fright for Susie] and distracted myself with FreeCell games until the fear went away. What caused the fears to reappear? My best guess is the prospect of an impending colonoscopy, which tells you everything you need to know about what a wimp I am.
This morning, quite by happenstance, I read Oliver Sacks' hauntingly beautiful NY TIMES column about his own fast approaching death from cancer. Sacks is one year older than I and he very much doubts he will see his eighty-third birthday. He exhibits that calm, stoic gravitas that the ancient Romans so admired. Not in my wildest dreams do I imagine that I could ever achieve the sad, peaceful acceptance of death and celebration of life that Sacks achieves in that essay. His death at what is now so early an age is yet one more proof, if indeed we needed it, that there is no God.