If you hold back on the emotions—if you don’t allow yourself to go all the way through them—you can never get to being detached, you’re too busy being afraid. You’re afraid of the pain, you’re afraid of the grief. You’re afraid of the vulnerability that loving entails.
Morrie explains that detaching from emotions such as fear and pain requires first experiencing those emotions fully. Once the emotion is fully experienced, the feeling can be accepted and then put aside. He is teaching himself this Buddhist practice so that he can accept his inevitable death with serenity. He notes that both pain and love can be feared emotions, pain for obvious reasons but love because this feeling potentially makes one vulnerable to emotional pain. Morrie advises against trying to avoid any emotions out of fear, including love, but instead encourages accepting and then detaching from the fear.
Morrie’s approach was exactly the opposite. Turn on the faucet. Wash yourself with the emotion. It won’t hurt you. It will only help. If you let the fear inside, if you pull it on like a familiar shirt, then you can say to yourself, “All right, it’s just fear. I don’t have to let it control me.”
Mitch explains how Morrie detaches from fear to conquer the emotion. First, rather than trying to avoid fearful thoughts, he fully immerses himself in the fear. Immersion allows him to realize that the fear itself is not dangerous: Fear is just an emotion. Once the fear is felt, the feeling is accepted and then set to one side. Morrie is teaching himself this practice so that he can die serenely, even if death comes via a coughing fit, which creates the terrifying sensation of drowning. He does not want to spend his final moments in this world frightened.
I told Morrie I was already feeing over the hill, much as I tried desperately to stay on top of it. . . . I had gone from being proud to say my age—because of all I had done so young—to not bringing it up, for fear I was getting too close to forty and, therefore, professional oblivion.
Mitch talks to Morrie about his own fear of aging. Mitch observes that society reveres youth and disparages or ignores the old. While not disagreeing that society seems to worship youth, Morrie thinks youth worship exemplifies another way that society emphasizes the wrong values. As Morrie points out, everyone ages, and the process can’t be helped, so fearing aging just wastes time. Also, with age comes wisdom or at least knowledge. He describes the many reasons why young people feel unhappy. While society may continue to fetishize youth, he exhorts Mitch not to envy the young.
People are only mean when they’re threatened . . . and that’s what our culture does. That’s what our economy does. Even people who have jobs in our economy are threatened, because they worry about losing them. And when you get threatened, you start looking out only for yourself.
Morrie recognizes that people’s unkindness to one another results from fear. He notes that because of how our economy works, people have an understandable fear of losing ground. Resources are scarce. Morrie blames our culture, not the individual people, for “making money a god” in an effort to protect their own future. But he regrets the shortsightedness of materialism and strongly recommends ignoring the culture as much as possible. Instead, he believes people should create and defend their own values. Morrie adds that not caring what society thinks will result in less fear and more happiness.
We are so afraid of the sight of death . . . [A]s soon as someone dies in a hospital, they pull the sheets up over their head, and they wheel the body to some chute and push it down. . . . It’s not contagious, you know. Death is as natural as life. It’s part of the deal we made.
As someone who is soon to die, Morrie might be expected to fear the sight of death, but he does not and thinks such a fear represents yet another silly aspect of contemporary society. The fear of death suggests that people have forgotten, or would like to forget, that humans die just like everything else in nature does. Morrie advises fully accepting the reality that we will die and making peace with that fact because that, and only that, allows one to fully live.