The Atlantic offers a brief, interesting article on apeirophobia, the fear of eternity. Writer Bobby Azarian explains that he's had this fear since he was four years old.
... every time I thought I had a grip on eternity, it slipped further away. The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity. My primitive brain filled with an existential angst. The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death.
He still feels the same way, although "rather than trying to comprehend eternity, now I just avoid the thought altogether."
The condition is not listed in formal psychiatric manuals and apparently has not been the subject of any research studies, but for those who suffer from it, it can be extremely intense. An anonymous online commenter is quoted:
Now I’m in my 30s, and the thought of eternity still freaks me out. It usually hits at night when I’m trying to sleep. I’ve learned to push it out of my mind, but sometimes I can’t, and when that happens I start pacing the room and thinking that I might have to go to the emergency room or else I might kill myself.
Cognitive scientist Martin Wiener thinks the phobia may arise from the brain's own limitations. Azarian summarizes his view:
Maybe human brains, as finite instruments with limited cognitive and computational capacities, are flat-out not hardwired to have a conception of something completely absent from sensory experience. Evolution has done just fine without organisms that contemplate infinity, after all. Doing so wouldn’t have likely offered any survival advantages to pre-modern humans.
Wiener also suggests that fear of eternity is simply a variation on fear of death. Whether death is seen as eternal existence or nonexistence, it remains the unknown. And people do fear the unknown.
The article got me thinking. First, I wonder if some if the anxiety and anger exhibited by militant Skeptics regarding life after death is, in certain cases, grounded in a fear of eternity. I'm not saying that all skeptics, or even all uppercase (dogmatic) Skeptics, have this fear, but perhaps some do.
We often hear Skeptics say, "Naturally we'd all love to believe in eternal life, but there's simply no evidence for it." But maybe some of them would not love to believe it. Maybe the idea actually fills them with dread, which could explain why they do their best to dismiss the evidence out of hand.
Second, I don't doubt that Wiener is correct in saying that the human brain (whether it is the originator or only the mediator of consciousness) is too limited to grasp eternity. It's a Flatland thing. Mr. A. Square, while living in his two-dimensional world, simply cannot conceive of a third physical dimension. After being lifted into Spaceland (the three-dimensional world), he experiences a disorienting change of perspective and is able to perceive the vertical dimension, though he is not able to explain it in words to his Flatland friends.
People who have undergone NDEs, OBEs, certain kinds of psychedelic trips, vision quests, and other transcendent experiences often lose their fear of death and, apparently, any fear of eternity. Perhaps the best treatment for apeirophobia would be the medically supervised induction of "cosmic consciousness." (We are told that patients are currently treated by "medication and cognitive behavioral therapy," with mixed results.)
Third, I think the idea of eternity is improperly understood by many people, and this misunderstanding may be partly responsible for apeirophobia. Look again at Azarian's account of his first experience of the phobia at age four: "The largest number of years I could imagine failed to make a dent in infinity.... The idea of living forever was even more unsettling than the idea of no longer existing after death."
The mistake lies in thinking of eternity as a succession of years, rather than as a timeless now. The word "eternal" literally means "outside of time." The idea is not that time goes on forever, but that there is no time, or at least no time as human beings understand it.
If we look at mediumistic accounts, we find that the newly deceased report themselves existing in an earthlike world where time passes, lessons are learned, and new experiences are enjoyed. But this so-called Summerland environment is not the be-all and end-all of afterlife realms. It is more like a way station, a place to rest and recuperate after the rigors of incarnation. We are consistently told that higher realms await, and that these realms are progressively less earthlike.
The highest realm, our ultimate destination, is indescribable, but apparently it has none of the properties we associate with earthly life, including physical space and sequential time. It is the eternal now. In this state we are not marking off years like a convict in a cell. We are not seeking to "make a dent in infinity." Boredom, repetition, and other issues associated with lengthy time periods are irrelevant to a state of existence in which time does not exist.
Here is a story I've told elsewhere on this blog. A few years ago I was wondering how anyone could exist "forever" and not go crazy with boredom. That night I had a vivid dream in which I was a bodiless awareness in a humming void. I was suffused with feelings of peace and contentment; perhaps "bliss" would be the better word. All around me was a golden orange field of pure light.* I had the sense that this state of existence would continue indefinitely.
When I woke up, I felt that the dream had answered my question. That's how you can exist "forever" without becoming bored with it all. In that unchanging state, there is no past, no future, no time, no measurement, no desire, no frustration. There is only total unquestioning acceptance. Everything simply is.
If we think of eternity as merely a timeless moment, maybe it seems a little more friendly and a little less unknown.
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*P.S. The few times in my life that I've had anything remotely similar to an experience of cosmic consciousness, I've seen (subjectively) a bright orange field of light. I have no idea why. I don't even like the color orange!