Intimidated by Immortality; Or, a Mormon Girl’s Fear of Eternity

And thou art after the order of him who was without beginning of days or end of years, from all eternity to all eternity. —Moses 6:67

 Therefore, eternity was our covering and our rock and our salvation . . . . —Abraham 2:16

16500feetmilkywaykc2_brunier.jpgI didn’t realize that apeirophobia had a name until my husband forwarded this Atlantic video my way last month, with the comment, “This seems important.”

He had a feeling it would be powerful for me to know that I am not alone in my inexplicable fear of immortality; he was privy to my occasional eternity-related panic attacks during our first year of marriage, a particularly trying time for my neurosis considering how often a young married newlywed is reminded of eternal blessings and perspectives.

David was right—this Atlantic piece has been important to me. Hearing testimonies from those who “get” this strange, immobilizing fear that so few people seem to understand has brought me a relief like that of when I learned the word for sleep paralysis, a thing I had experienced many times throughout my life and had always assumed were attempted demonic possessions. As it turns out, it was just interrupted REM sleep.

Like the people in the video, thinking about eternity has a physical effect on me. If it strikes me, I bolt upright, I can’t stay sitting. I pace with desperation, like maybe I can outrun the unwelcome thought that entered my head; I put my hands against walls, breathless, trying to stay in the room, in my head, in some form of sanity. Sometimes the fear hits me when I am trying to explain the fear to others. When this happens, it’s embarrassing and I am apologetic. I want to say, “I know that eternity clearly has a very different effect on me than on you. I’m sorry.” I want to tell them I’m not faking. I guess a lot of fears and anxieties are like this: real to you but hard for others to understand.

Behold and lo, mine eyes are upon you, and the heavens and the earth are in mine hands, and the riches of eternity are mine to give. —D&C 67:2

And if ye seek riches which it is the will of the Father to give unto you, ye shall be the richest of all people, for ye shall have the riches of eternity. —D&C 38:39

I remember sitting in Primary as a kid, sweaty hands in my lap, playing with the folds of my Sunday dress, trying to focus on my breathing. “Don’t you want to live with your family forever and ever?” My parents are not sealed in the temple, so this was already a triggering lesson for me. My view of eternity was always black and empty, like a hole or the lengthy expanses of nothingness in outer space. I feared death because I knew that, unless I could convince my father of thetruthfulnessofthegospel, my family would be lost in the swirling eddies of nebulous star clusters and space clouds I had seen pictures of in Encyclopedia Britannica’s The Young Children’s Encyclopedia.

“Jesus has promised us eternal life if we keep his commandments.” I used to bite the insides of my cheeks, tapping my feet against the floor, trying to keep myself from getting sucked into the vacuum of fear that swallowed me up when I considered what it meant to have no end, to live forever. It felt like falling. It felt like that dream when you fall off a bike but suddenly find yourself miles and miles in the sky, plummeting down and down but never crashing. A schoolyard friend told me once that people have died from hitting the earth in a falling dream, though I never asked her how that claim could be substantiated. For me, the endless plummeting is worse. When I have falling dreams, I crave a crash, but it’s never happened yet. I jolt awake still feeling like I’m endlessly falling.

We ask thee, Holy Father, to establish the people that shall worship, and honorably hold a name and standing in this thy house, to all generations and for eternity. —D&C 109:24

“Now look in the mirrors over the altar and you will see your own eternal lives and progeny, begun at this moment in your sacred matrimony.” I knew the moment was coming because the Celestial Room mirror trick is a favorite of temple open house guides, and because I had performed proxy family sealings for the dead as a returned missionary. A wall of mirrors reflect another wall of mirrors on the opposite side of the room just so, so you can see not only your own reflection, but a neverending number of them—a trick I used to play with my parents’ three-way mirror growing up, until my stomach started to hurt from looking at so many unending clones of myself.

On the day I married David “for time and all eternity,” I clutched him close during the mirrors part. I knew I loved David more than any being I had yet met in life, because I told him, seriously, that I thought I could stand eternity if I was really able to spend it with him. When I looked in the mirrors, I tried to ignore the eternal repetition of our images and focus on our closest reflections: the reflections of us, right now, right then, in that moment.

From eternity to eternity he is the same, and his years never fail. —D&C 76:4

My favorite film growing up was What About Bob? and I continue to be in love with Bill Murray for providing me respite from my worrying when the worry dolls and the worry stones that my sweet mother had purchased for me didn’t work (I can still remember the rubbed-rawness of my thumb against the smooth scoop in the crystal rock that was supposed to carry my worries for me; I can still remember telling my poor mom in panicked, short breaths, “It isn’t working—it isn’t working—my worries are still there”). My favorite scene is the sleepover with young Siggy, and Siggy, in total non-comical seriousness asks: “Are you afraid of death?” and then: “There’s no way out of it. You are going to die. I’m going to die. It’s going to happen. And what difference does it make if it’s tomorrow or eighty years?”

Whenever I watched this scene as a kid, it felt sacred. It felt more sacred than church most of the time, to be quite honest. It poked me right where it hurt, only Siggy’s words would reverberate inside me invertedly: “Are you afraid of eternity?” and then: “There’s no way out of it. You are going to live forever. I’m going to live forever. It’s going to happen. And what difference does it make if forever lasts four thousand years or a hundred trillion years—it never will end. I will never end. There is no end.”

Bill Murray deserves serious credit for the soft, endearing, goofy acting of his eyes in this scene. There was something about Bob Wiley being able to empathize with worrying—even worries that nobody else ever worries about—that enabled me to be distracted from eternity by sharing his company.

Thus saith the Lord your God, even Jesus Christ, the Great I Am, Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the same which looked upon the wide expanse of eternity, and all the seraphic hosts of heaven, before the world was made. —D&C 38:1

This isn’t to say that I am not afraid of nihilism, too, which is still eternity, just a non-conscious one. My father tried to comfort me some nights, when I was young, and rambling to him through tears about how I didn’t want to “live forever (and ever and ever and ever and ever),” and he would tell me that heaven was just a place they tell old women about to make them feel better about dying. I let this sit in my mind for a moment, but an eternity of nothingness didn’t seem like an appealing alternative. Later that same week I watched some obscure Muppet movie with a witch in it that only woke every four hundred years or so. I thought maybe that would work as a useful compromise—maybe God would let me wake up once every four hundred years to break up eternity a bit? But the thought didn’t resolve the ache and twist of my stomach, like the wringing of a washcloth.

. . . and his heart swelled wide as eternity; and his bowels yearned; and all eternity shook. —Moses 7:41

The worst part is that I don’t want to be afraid of eternity. I want to desire it. I want an endless amount of days to love my family and friends and people. I never want to stop learning and adventuring and growing. I want to be like our own universe—fathomless and mysterious, endlessly growing with ever more space beyond the space it currently inhabits, expanding and multiplying and exploding with diverse lights and creativity and movement. I want to believe that Christ broke the bands of death, and I want to believe that He can teach me to embrace eternal life, that he can excise my fear completely, that I remember my fear no more.

And ye cannot bear all things now; nevertheless, be of good cheer, for I will lead you along. The kingdom of yours and the blessings thereof are yours, and the riches of eternity are yours. —D&C 78:18

When I was eight months pregnant with my first child, my back ached so terribly that David bought me a thirty-minute session at a local sensory deprivation chamber, bless his good intentions. The chamber was shaped like an egg, smooth and white. Naked and very pregnant, I hoisted myself into the lukewarm salt water and closed the hatch to the chamber. It was roomy enough, and not too claustrophobic. The inside of the chamber glowed a soft blue until I flicked the switch to turn off the light. True to description, I didn’t feel the sides of the chamber or the water I floated in. It felt like I had been transported to the depths of outer space. I couldn’t tell if I was floating in one place still inside the egg chamber or if I had been somehow transported or twinkled away to a different dimension or universe—I suddenly feared I was propelling endlessly through a starless night, that pit growing in my stomach like when you are a kid sleeping on a trampoline suddenly considering what would happen if gravity decided to stop and you were pulled straight up into the infinite black sky above you. I felt like I was in the bowels of Dreadful Eternity.

I gasped a bit, tried to talk aloud to myself, reassure myself that all was well. In that moment of terror, I was called back to the moment in the Real when I felt my baby come alive inside me. I lay still and relaxed, letting my unborn child roll and prod and explore within me. The chamber suddenly felt less like boundless space and more like a womb. I tried to feel what my baby might be feeling, placing my hands where she was pushing, so she would know she wasn’t alone in this vast universe either. My fear left me as I transferred my attention onto this small, curious person sharing my space.

I don’t know if I will always be afraid of eternal life. Perhaps there are crosses some of us continue to bear even after death, should an afterlife indeed exist. But the longer I am alive on earth, the more convinced I seem to be that even as awful and gutting and horrible and sickening the prospect of never ever ending seems to me to be, it is a cross I am more willing to bear if I get to share this inexhaustible store of time with the people who make me wish that time would stop altogether, so that I might never stop holding their hands, hearing them laugh and cry, watching their faces, sharing their spaces.

To close this essay about how nothing ever closes, here are the forever haunting words of William W Phelps:

There is no end to matter;
There is no end to space;
There is no end to spirit;
There is no end to race;
There is no end to virtue;
There is no end to might;
There is no end to wisdom;
There is no end to light;
There is no end to union;
There is no end to youth;
There is no end to priesthood;
There is no end to truth;
There is no end to glory;
There is no end to love;
There is no end to being;
There is no end to being;
There is no end to being;
There is no end to being;
There is no end to being;
There is no end

Comments

  1. Mark N. says:
  2. Ha! I wish that gave me reassurance, Mark N. *shivers*

  3. FarSide says:

    Very interesting reflections. Thanks.

    One piece of advice: Under no circumstances should you ever read Steven Peck’s “A Short Stay in Hell.”

  4. It’s funny how much comfort I got in reading this. I’ve never met anyone else that is freaked out by the concept of eternal life.

    The only way I can get through Hie to Kolob is to sing “There is no end to this hymn” at every line.

  5. This is fantastic. Reminds me a little of Gene England’s essay “Enduring.”

  6. You’re right. I don’t understand your phobia. And you don’t understand mine. That’s what makes existence so fascinating. But eternity does have its big questions. For instance, what would we do in an eternity filled with peace and contentment? Booooooooooring! I have a feeling we’re all going to be quite surprised.

  7. I think there is an element of fear for everyone who attempts to contemplate it’s definition according to our current dimension of existence. We are bound by time and therefore forced to define existence by time’s boundaries. Such that no matter how hard we try to make “eternity” seem better, it comes back to immortality in this existence which I don’t think is appealing to anyone. We pretend it is, but I think we are fooling ourselves. To be cognizant of the fear inside is more honest in my opinion. The hope is once we break free of time and fallen earth that what is meant by “eternal bliss” will finally begin to make sense and our fears will dissipate.

  8. HDP, I was hoping to find some kindred spirits through this post. “There is no end to this song” made me laugh out loud.

    FarSide, I absolutely WILL read Peck’s Short Stay in Hell someday, but I’ve told myself I need to be done with my dissertation and have a small, peaceful garden to sit in afterwards if I’m going to attempt it.

    Wally, your comment reminds me of my favorite (though not unterrifying) Talking Heads song: “Heaven—heaven is a place where nothing—nothing ever happens.”

  9. Shit-eating son-of-a-bitch… bastard, douche-bag, twat, numb-nuts, dickhead!

  10. I appreciated this. I am also terrified of eternity. Especially the Mormon version. I’d like to share with you a stanza from one of my favorite poems, The Garden of Proserpine by Swinburne (it calms the shakes):

    From too much love of living,
    From hope and fear set free,
    We thank with brief thanksgiving
    Whatever gods may be
    That no life lives for ever;
    That dead men rise up never;
    That even the weariest river
    Winds somewhere safe to sea.

  11. Hahaha, it really is a gloriously cathartic moment of the film, gst—almost a mantra that reminds me I’m okay and you’re okay (though I’ve sometimes wondered if it is a bit too insensitive toward people actually experiencing Tourette’s Syndrome). But still a most excellent scene, and with the perfect closer: “I’ll be quiet.” “I’ll be peace.”

  12. Well, Moss’s poem is good too.

  13. Oh! Moss’s comment hadn’t shown up yet while I was responding to your comment, gst. That is a lovely piece from Swinburne—I’m pocketing that one away for myself. Thank you, Moss.

  14. And RC, I hope you’re right. I have often calmed myself by concluding that eternity is terrifying to me because I do not have an eternal brain or a godlike ability to comprehend endlessness. But the fear has less to do with a fear of eternal mundaneness or an eternity of earth life so much as it has to do with the terrifying awe that nothing will EVER end. That I will always ever exist, and that, even if it is a blissful existence, it will never stop—awareness and awakeness will never go away. I can’t explain it really. It’s not that I’m afraid of eternal pain or eternal boredom—it’s the idea that I will never stop *existing* that makes me break out into sweats and pace the floors. It could just be that the concept of time has thrown a wrench in the works. I hope you’re right.

  15. Sheldon L says:

    Emily, thanks for this post. I didn’t know there was a name for it, but now that I do, I feel a little less alone. My panic occurs at the moment of waking up, especially from naps, in that transition from the unconsciousness of sleep to a realization that I exist. I literally gasp like I’m coming out of water as the thoughts of eternal existence flood my mind. The faster I can cross that bridge and come to full consciousness the better.

    I have found some comfort in the NDE literature. Near death experiencers report that in the other world they completely lose any sense of time. One minute or a thousand years, it’s all the same because these are human constructs meant to measure this physical world but have no relevance there. They’ll say things like they could have spent an eternity just looking at one flower, where to a mortal mind that sounds pretty boring. This is just has hard to visualize as eternal existence or oblivion, but it makes me realize my panic likely comes from imposing an earthly sense linear time into a realm where that just does not make sense.

    Whatever it is that awaits us in the next life, I do not believe it’s just a continuation of earth like living and experiences (wouldn’t hanging out in gardens with friends and family get old after a few billion years?). But it’s only small comfort…I still have those weird waking panics.

  16. I’ve never thought about being afraid of eternity. I’m mostly afraid of *this* life never ending. Like, if the next life is just a continuation of this life, it’s time for me to panic. I suppose I’m also always thinking about a future date, when *this* (whatever *this* is at the moment) is over. I guess I’d really be screwed if there wasn’t a future date when whatever *this* (whatever it was) would be over. But I’m also very good at pretending there isn’t a future where the thing I don’t want to happen ever happens. I guess I’ll just deal with immortality when the time comes.

  17. Thanks for sharing your profound feelings. I have family members with similar feelings, but more about dreading an eternity with people they don’t particularly get on with in mortality. People tell them, “but then, things will be different” but that is small solace. For myself, when contemplating it, I think, I hope I like myself!, as there’s no getting away from oneself, unless you believe in nihilism. I suppose that’s motivation to be your best self.

  18. Kevin Barney says:

    I think it was only a few years ago I learned that this type of fear is a real thing. At first I couldn’t wrap my head around it or relate to it. I’m probably a theist largely because of the hope it gives for life after this mortality. But over time I came to a place where, although I don’t personally share the fear, I think I can understand it better than I once could. Now, I think I would be ok if this life were the whole shebang. The way I get there is by thinking about time before I was born. I obviously have no memory or cognitive relationship with that time (whether due to a veil or due to a complete lack of existence). But I was fine then; I wasn’t in pain, I had no worries. If eternity mimics that same state (basically a lack of conscious existence), I think I could live with that.

  19. John Mansfield says:

    Yayoi Kasuma’s notion of eternity is pretty whimsical. Besides her infinity mirror boxes with the dots and pumpkins, there was “Eternity of Eternal Eternity.”

  20. John, I only *just* barely learned about Yayoi Kasuma last week, so thank you for that reference. I’m quickly getting obsessed with her work.

  21. I appreciate you putting this out there. If thinking about it or talking about it gets the anxiety going, I’m sure writing about it for others to see does as well. While my anxiety on the same topic may not have been as strong, I remember as a child laying in my bed thinking through some of these same things – how can we have started from nothing, there must have been something, but when did that something start, and so on through what will I be doing forever and ever and ever? As I write it out and think back to how I have felt about those things, I can still feel it. That said, I found something in the scriptures, several years ago, that honestly wiped out almost completely that same anxiety. One particular scripture in Revelation all but did it for me, although there are a few scriptures to me that together make a more full picture of it all. There are more, but I’ll share these three. Alma 40:8 “Time is only measured unto man.” By itself that’s not that helpful, but let’s keep going as it sets a foundational concept. Abraham 5:12-13. “In the time thou eatest thereof, thou shalt surely die…for as yet the Gods had not appointed unto Adam his reckoning.” What this tells me is that Adam was in God’s presence, and he was not subject to time yet. In a way, time = death. It’s not actually eternity that is the problem. It’s time that’s the problem. Time has a beginning and an end and an order in between. But God has no beginning or end. Being cast from God’s presence and subjected to time, with its beginning and end, Adam and the rest of us are subjected to an end, which is death. We know it’s not really THE end, but it’s AN end. The problem is that because we are currently subject to time, we can’t understand what comes before the start or after the end. Revelation 10:5-7 “There should be time no longer.” The angel blows the trumpet and declares that time is done away. The artificial limitation on our understanding will be removed. The blinders are taken off. The veil (which I believe is our earthly bodies, although that’s a whole different conversation) is removed, and we will understand eternity, since we will no longer be subjected to beginnings and ends and death. It doesn’t help me know what will come next forever and ever, but it helps me to know that I will know, and I’m looking forward to it…when it is time (pun intended).

  22. Thank you Grover. What a beautiful post.

    I have experienced intense horror, a feverish kind, when I considered not being able to escape (from) myself. Like a hostage situation — where is my agency to ditch this gig altogether? (and maybe it’s what Wittgenstein felt when he said, “The real question of life after death isn’t whether or not it exists, but even if it does what problem this really solves.”)

    Your words came as close as I’ve read to articulating the seemingly inarticulate.

    I’m struck by the curiosity that both ‘claustrophobic straightjacket’ and ‘endless expanse, forever falling’ describe the same nightmare. Walls too close, or no walls at all both haunt me.

  23. Jen K. I love that. And just before reading your comment I had just finished rereading a line in Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale that describes the character Moira as “like an elevator with open sides. She made us dizzy.” An “elevator with open sides” also seems to hit that weird parallel between the anxiety of claustrophobia with the anxiety of “endless expanse.” I’m going to be mulling over that.

  24. I wouldn’t say I have this fear exactly, but something related.. I imagine it as that moment of standing on a high ledge and looking out. It’s not the thought of falling to the ground that makes me panic, but the thought of all the wide open space up, down, and forward of me. I’m afraid of falling out into open-ness (forever-ness?). So the opposite of claustrophobia? I don’t even know how to explain it, but reading your story of your fear *felt* the same.

  25. ReTx, your comment reminds me of Edmund Burke’s descriptions of the sublime, and how there has always seemed to be a fine line between enthusiastically appreciating wide expanses and high cliffs or being driven to madness by the very same.

  26. N. W. Clerk says:

    “I heard a voice from heaven saying unto me, Seal up those things which the seven thunders uttered, and write them not. And the angel which I saw stand upon the sea and upon the earth lifted up his hand to heaven, And sware by him that liveth for ever and ever, who created heaven, and the things that therein are, and the earth, and the things that therein are, and the sea, and the things which are therein, that there should be time no longer.”

    So relax.

  27. FarSide says:

    Grover, perhaps my greatest anxiety about eternity is the Mormon vision of a perpetual, never-ending family reunion. I love my family and everything, but . . .

    Also, a few years ago I read a short book called “Ignorance,” by Stuart Fierstein, which explores the messy process of scientific discovery. At the beginning of the book, the author uses an interesting metaphor to describe what happens when we expand our knowledge.

    He compares what we currently know to a small island surrounded on all sides by a sea of ignorance. As we learn more stuff, the shore line of our island grows. But this expansion pushes outward on the sea of ignorance, making it larger than it was before. In other words, the process of solving one mystery, reveals ten new ones that we previously didn’t know existed. I don’t know whether I find that exhilarating or depressing.

  28. Count me in. Like Sheldon L. I didn’t know there was a name for this phenomenon but I remember the very first time it happened. I was in the back seat of the family station wagon, riding home from Primary, looking out the window and it hit me. No impaled me. This great and glorious thing was choking me. Now I know what it is. Recently I have added the night version, too. So much fun.

    Ironically my daughter and I were just discussing this. She has night terrors, so we were comparing. I can’t wait to show her this. Thanks big time. Just knowing others have it makes me feel calm. At times I was sure God was showing me my eternal outcome. I feel better that if he was, a whole bunch of us are going the same way.

  29. Ha! Totally, Cat. Solidarity here. It sounds like we are in good company—certainly much more company than I ever thought possible before today, honestly.

  30. This is a beautiful post. Is the thought of annihilation scarier than an eternity of existence? I’m not sure.

  31. Hedgehog says:

    Interesting insight.

    Was reminded of the time I was in labour with my first child and it was all taking rather too long, and it felt like I’d been awake for ever (I do not do sleep deprivation well at all), and I was getting quite distressed. The medical staff asked me what I wanted, and I said “Oblivion. I want oblivion”.

    Count me as another who also doesn’t like standing on the edge at height. All that potential energy sucking me in!

  32. Nothing to say, except that I had no idea this fear of mine had a name either, or more than one or two kindred spirits. It’s not like you can make a comment about this in relief society.

    I did once find another real life person who experiences this. But I couldn’t talk to her about it more than just telling her I felt the same way.

  33. it's a series of tubes says:

    One piece of advice: Under no circumstances should you ever read Steven Peck’s “A Short Stay in Hell.”

    Indeed. If you read “A Short Stay in Hell”, you will discover that the very, very large (but finite) is even more terrifying than the infinite.

  34. Good to know I’m not alone!

  35. I’ve been waiting to find a moment to read this post, and it did not disappoint. There’s real beauty in the honesty and courage it took to write this. I admire you for it!

  36. I never knew this could be a phobia. I always pictured eternal life (maybe not the same thing as eternity in the broad sense) as a long visit to the house of Elrond in Lord of the Rings – peaceable, time enough to learn or rest or play or be together with others​ or space to be alone for a bit. Not unending sameness; more like enough time to do anything.

  37. Since we’re talking about stuff you should never, never read, Grover, I’d add to the list Stephen King’s short story “The Jaunt.” It’s been 30 years now since I encountered it, but even now it’s the most awful thing I have EVER read. Gypsy curses and clowns in sewers pale in comparison.

    So even though this is not a fear that I share, I think I catch a glimpse of how it would feel. One of the things that used to worry me as a child, which I was never able to articulate to anyone, is why am I me? Out of all the people around me, how come my consciousness is me? Even now it’s hard to describe, but at least with time that one has faded.

    Excellent article. Thank you for this.

  38. Di, I think I can understand you. I’ve had a few moments myself of staring in the mirror and wondering why I am me, or what I might have looked like or been had my spirit been put into a body of some other family out there. (And also, as a kid, wondering if I was the only person in existence with actual consciousness, which I found out later is something that some serial killers have, so—yikes.)

    I will add “The Jaunt” to my list of things I shouldn’t read but consequently definitely will.

  39. Bethany West says:

    I’m glad to learn the name for this. I don’t have as intense of a reaction as you do, but I still don’t like it. For some reason, I can ignore the concept in church just fine, but when I started Calculus in high school, the idea of infinity would actually make me mildly nauseated. Graphing an asymptote is no bueno. You can get infinitely close to a line but never ever touch it.
    I just have to keep repeating: it wouldn’t be heaven if it were awful. Helps for all manner of problematic Mormon doctrines.

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