At points like this, the work of the poets and writers who, as Sophocles put it, seek to “see life steadily and see it whole,” may be a useful corrective to the constructive tendencies in our scientific preoccupation with the neurotic forms of behavior. Death is a concern in poetry of all sorts, and one certainly would not presume to lump all the poets under the category of neurotics. A person of poetic imagination, for example, may contemplate the ocean from a rocky promontory and “consider the brief span of my life, swallowed up in the eternity before and behind it, the small space that I fill, or even see, engulfed in the infinite immensity of spaces which I know not, and which know not me,” and he may “wonder to see myself here rather than there … now rather than then” (Pascal). Such feelings are terror that he may drown, and retreats from the visual experience and the contemplation. Both are anxiety, but the former is normal and the latter neurotic. On the contrary, the poetic feelings of the immensity of time and space and the brevity of one individual’s existence (together, of course, with the realization that man is the mammal who can transcend the brevity in the respect that he knows it, as other animals do not, and that man is the mammal who can wonder)—these feelings can highlight the value and significance of the individual’s present experience and his creative possibilities, whether in the aesthetic, scientific, or any other realm.
The normal anxiety associated with death does not at all imply depression or melancholy. Like any normal anxiety it can be used constructively. The realization that we shall be eventually separated from our fellows can be a motivation for achieving closer bonds to other human beings now. The normal anxiety inherent in the realization that our activity and creativity will eventually be cut off can be a motivation—like death itself—for the more responsible , zestful, and purposeful use of the time in which we do live.
Rollo May, The Meaning of Anxiety