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The last chapter of Deuteronomy records how Moses at age 120 had “his vision undimmed and his vigor unabated.” Deuteronomy does not describe his emotional state. Many centuries later rabbis speculated that Moses wanted so much to live on, and see what happened next, that he agitatedly pleaded with God to keep him alive, even as an animal. In the rabbinical story God says no, so Moses calms down, blesses his people, and says he will see them again at the resurrection of the dead.
Israeli author Hillel Halkin, 77, offers that story in his After One-Hundred-and-Twenty (Princeton, 2016). Then he admits to FOMO: “I fear an end to the habits and joys I’ve grown used to. … How can a life that has existed cease to exist without a trace? ... How did it go by so fast? This must be a universal reaction to growing old. Everyone my age seems to have it.”
Without a trace. Judaism has long included differing views on what happens after death. Christianity is clearer about heaven and hell, but Christianity has so lost its grip that many among the old worry mostly about nonexistence. British writer Julian Barnes, 71, writes, “People say of death, ‘There’s nothing to be frightened of.’ They say it quickly, casually. Now let’s say it again, slowly, with re-emphasis. ‘There’s NOTHING to be frightened of.’”
Death is scary. Robert Browning, who died in 1889, wrote, “Fear death?—to feel the fog in my throat, / The mist in my face, / When the snows begin, and the blasts denote / I am nearing the place, / The power of the night.” But Browning saw such misery as temporary: “The black minute’s at end, / And the elements’ rage, the fiend-voices that rave, / Shall dwindle, shall blend, / Shall change, shall become first a peace out of pain, / Then a light, then thy breast, / O thou soul of my soul! I shall clasp thee again, / And with God be the rest!”
FOMO is scarier. What if there is no God, and thus no more clasping? French author Jules Renard, who died in 1910, wrote, “The word that is most true, most exact, most filled with meaning, is the word ‘nothing.’” Julian Barnes writes of his brother who “does not fear extinction [and says] ‘it would be irrational to have such a fear.’ … IRRATIONAL? It’s the most rational thing in the world—how can reason not reasonably detest and fear the end of reason?”
Christianity has so lost its grip that many among the old worry mostly about nonexistence.
For British poet Philip Larkin, according to his biographer, “The dread of oblivion darkened everything. … As he entered his sixties his fears grew rapidly.” Larkin wrote, “I don’t think about death all the time, though I don’t see why one shouldn’t, just as you might expect a man in a condemned cell to think about the drop all the time. Why aren’t I screaming?” A friend visited Larkin the day before the poet died in 1985 and said, “If Philip hadn’t been drugged, he would have been raving. He was that frightened.”
Here’s part of Larkin’s most famous poem, “Aubade”: “Waking at four to soundless dark, I stare. … the dread / Of dying, and being dead, / Flashes afresh to hold and horrify. … total emptiness for ever, / The sure extinction that we travel to / And shall be lost in always. Not to be here, / Not to be anywhere. / … this is what we fear—no sight, no sound, / No touch or taste or smell, nothing to think with, / Nothing to love or link with, / The anaesthetic from which none come round.”
Hell is misery forever, but those who under-fear Satan may grasp the comfort of consciousness, and consciousness brings hope. But 19th-century French writer Gustave Flaubert, at a dinner with others who were atheistic or strongly agnostic, admitted, “People like us should have the religion of despair.”
Some contemporary evangelists speak of hell, but I wonder whether FOMO is a bigger motivator: All the world’s a stage, and we don’t get to watch? A political fan fears never knowing who will win the election of 2080. History lovers want to know the history of the future: What is the world like in 2100? We can say how foolish such concerns are in comparison with the hope of heaven, of being with Christ. C.S. Lewis described the folly of wanting to play in a mud puddle when the ocean is nearby. But let us not scorn the small wants.