Fear of death is mostly dread of the permanent loss of conscious awareness. We see that expiration, the snuffing out of the light, as the final irrevocable end of who we are, the irremediable dissolution of our identity. However, our consciousness is not who we are – it is only our way of knowing who we are. We prove this every night when we sleep and consciousness dissolves, only to magically reappear the next day. If consciousness is who we are, how do we survive this regular extinction? We survive because the self is who we really are.
The self lives in the unconscious and the unconscious never sleeps. Picture it as a well-furnished room. We store our memories there. Consciousness is the light that enables us to see and know them. Switch off the light – as in sleep – and the furnished room remains, and we see it once more when consciousness, the light, returns.
Among the contents of that room, the most vital of its furnishings, are our set of emotionally important ideas, and while our own set is unique in its combination, the individual ideas, even large clusters of ideas, are not. In fact, it is by recognizing these individual ideas and clusters in other people, especially those who have lived in the past, that we recognize we are part of a tradition, part of something that has existed in the past, still exists in the present day, and will continue to exist in the future.
Recognizing that we are not our conscious awareness and that we are part of an ongoing tradition ameliorates that dreadful terror of death that so many suffer from in these secular times. When we have departed, some part of us will indeed go on. A modern version of the idea is the passing on of our memes. This is another way of saying that overcoming self-alienation by abandoning our false persona and finding our authentic self puts life and death in perspective.
Tradition is a reliable source of comfort since everyone has a cluster of emotionally important ideas, or subjectively formed guiding principles, which others, in the past, have shared. The trick, of course, is to know ourselves well enough to know what our emotionally important ideas are!
The modern spread of self-alienation may explain the decline of tradition in its more visible forms. A people who no longer know who they are neglect their institutions and thus allow them to wither and die. When this occurs, the recognition that we are part of a tradition becomes more difficult and relies heavily on books and other transmissions from the past rather than interaction with others within a living institution. The inability of the self-alienated individual to recognize their own emotionally important ideas, even when they encounter them, worsens the problem of recognizing our tradition.
Without the sustaining power of tradition, the cessation of life appears to be the obliterating end of everything. With tradition, we can take comfort in the truth that an important part of who we are will live on.