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Help me with my "research" on the fear of death?

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Heh. Well I'm not sure what else I could have said - you cant really tell an interesting story about not having a fear. And from your original post I thought you were interested in some sort of statistical survey as well as detailed personal experiences.

Heh, statistical survey wouldn't do much good . . . it's not the numbers I'm interested in, it's the whys and wherefores. If you've had experiences that are remarkably similar to those expressed in my theory, but you never were afraid, that'd be informative; it would help me refine my theory. As of now, it's still somewhat general.

But to make an actual contribution, its wrong to say that a fear of death is "literally a fear of nothing". A 'fear of nothing' implies an undirected fear - not being scared of anything in particular, but just having the raw sensation of being afraid, without knowing either why or of what. This can happen during anxiety attacks. A fear of death is quite different from this.

I disagree: the people I know that have anxiety attacks sometimes describe it as a sudden, debilitating fear of dying. Usually if you have an anxiety attack, you will focus on something as causing your fear.

Anyway, that's beside the point. Perhaps I should have been a bit clearer: fear of dying is fear of being nothing . . . something you cannot really project. Like I said, my theory still needs some refining.

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Heh, statistical survey wouldn't do much good . . . it's not the numbers I'm interested in, it's the whys and wherefores.  If you've had experiences that are remarkably similar to those expressed in my theory, but you never were afraid, that'd be informative; it would help me refine my theory.  As of now, it's still somewhat general.
The thought of dying has never bothered me much. However when I was younger the thought of heaven made me very anxious - the idea of being alive forever, and ever, and ever. Always one more day, never ending, never dying, having no final destination, and never having an ultimate perspective to ground my existence as a whole. Whenever the thought of an unending infinite experience entered my mind in this way, I used to get quite freaked out. And more recently, the idea of becoming old scares me. I can deal with death, but not with the thought of losing my youth.

I disagree: the people I know that have anxiety attacks sometimes describe it as a sudden, debilitating fear of dying.  Usually if you have an anxiety attack, you will focus on something as causing your fear.
I can only speak from my experiences, but this isnt necessarily true. Its not fear of anything in particular, although the fear may temporarily latch onto something concrete (like going insane). It's more of an acute self-consciousness, along with the realisation that youve just suddenly dropped out of your normal life.

Intuitively, I think that the fear of death is related to fears of insanity or 'infinity'. But I'm not sure that I could justify this.

Edited by Hal
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Thanks, Dwayne.  I do think that it's a specifically delimited phenomenon; perhaps caused not only by the fact that you believe you're wasting your time, but that you think it's never going to change, either.

Your welcome Megan...luckily things did change :) . If I had not allowed them too, then my fears would have been justified.

As you know, the real test of ones characters is not ones mistakes, but how one in time deals with them and learns from them in order to make themselves a better person.

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The thought of dying has never bothered me much. However when I was younger the thought of heaven made me very anxious - the idea of being alive forever, and ever, and ever. Always one more day, never ending, never dying, having no final destination, and never having an ultimate perspective to ground my existence as a whole. Whenever the thought of an unending infinite experience entered my mind in this way, I used to get quite freaked out.

That is interesting; and an infinite heaven isn't something you can really project, either.

I've been trying to avoid the cliche that fear of death is the fear of the "unknown", but that may play a part, too. It is a complexity. I think I will try to focus on the situation that gives rise to it, and not the various aspects of the fear itself.

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I think I will try to focus on the situation that gives rise to it, and not the various aspects of the fear itself.

Could you clarify what you mean by this - how would you talk about the various aspects of the fear itself?

I've been trying to avoid the cliche that fear of death is the fear of the "unknown"
Well, the problem with statements like this is that, if you want them to be psychological rather than philosophical, you really need some kind of supporting evidence. And its not clear where this is going to come from. This is most obvious in the writings of someone like Freud, who had a whole bundle of associations between dream images and their 'real meanings', without having any real justification of why his interpretations were more valid than anyone elses. If you wanted to say that the fear of death was the fear of the unknown, and someone else said "no, the fear of death is actually a manifestation of castration anxiety", how would you go about deciding who was right? And if the fear of death is some kind of basic human universal (which wouldnt really surprise me), it could be that it's activated in different people for different reasons rather than having a simple set of causes. Edited by Hal
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Could you clarify what you mean by this - how would you talk about the various aspects of the fear itself?

I'm more looking at it from a philosophical angle as; what events in life cause people to feel this fear?

I meant, to talk about specific objects, intensity of the emotion, when and where it happens, the sensation people had, etc., as being somewhat out of my purview; not because I'm not interested, but because, as you indicated, I'm not EXACTLY qualified to make judgements regarding them. But I'm as qualified as anyone else to make observations that people who do experience said fear have similar circumstances.

It's kind of like the difference between discussing sex from a philosophical perspective and talking about particular practices.

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You might be interested in one of Heinlein's novels, Time Enough for Love, which is about Lazarus Long, a biologically almost-immortal man and the oldest man in the galaxy. After thousands of years he's had it with life and even his body is wearing out, but he's unwittingly found by a group of people (some of his descendents, as are most in the galaxy at this point) and rejuvenated without his permission, leaving him with a fresh body but a stale perspective on life. How he gets interested again is one part of the book. Overall a very interesting story, though he does cover many aspects of sex, so this is not a "G rated" story.

This is not strictly on your topic, but I've considered the example of Ayn Rand's immortal robot, and I'm not sure I agree with her conclusion, for reasons that would apply to a biologically immortal man who can still die if he isn't careful (which is exactly the case of Lazarus Long.) The real issue is quality of life. Some people are bored with all of their prematurely short lives. But there are people who are very intellectually active who - assuming that the brain can continue to acquire information and the body overall could be maintained at a youthful state indefinietly - could profitably and enjoyably live for many thousands of years.

To take a man who is as mortal as the rest of us, Bill Gates - he has fantastic riches and could have retired many years ago, which is what many would have done with his wealth. But he goes to work every day - not because his physical survival depends on it, but because of his mental survival, the stimulus of dealing with difficult business and software issues (presumably - one can argue about Microsoft's quality lately but that's a side issue ...) In modern civilization it is very easy to attain the level of just physical survival. It is much harder to attain the level of ongoing intellectual interest, but I argue that that kind of interest could drive a person for an indefinite period of time, far longer than current human lifetimes, and that the motivation to live would not fundamentally be earning a living, but to keep on driving to improve one's knowledge and creativity. I think the contrast is not fundamentally between life and death in that case, but between: boring and exciting, and levels of excitement, in life. Note that all of the heroes of Atlas Shrugged are not motivated by their effects on the rest of the world - it's exactly their joy of working that the altruists have viciously harnessed in order to be parasites from the byproducts of their creativity.

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I've been trying to avoid the cliche that fear of death is the fear of the "unknown", but that may play a part, too.

I wrote a short story a few years ago, in which a character theorizes that most people are afraid of death precisely because of its certainty. "It seems wrong — inappropriate," she says, "much too dramatic and important a thing to come at the end a life filled with indirection, indecision and sloth."

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Jennifer, I would like to offer you this to consider in your thoughts on your paper.

To comment on the whole of this topic I would like to say that I have a different perspective on this issue of 'fear of death.'

I have come to realize that it is the very fact that we are mortal that requires us to be moral and lead a life as such. For if we all were immortal, in the sense that nothing would kill us, the necessity of seeking 'meaning' and and the leering of some indeterminate deadline would cease to exist, along with the need to procure one's own rights because our rights come from the right to life itself, which in this case, would be protected by default. Morality to the immortal as such would cease to exist.

To pull something off dictionary.com:

'Fear: 1. a. A feeling of agitation and anxiety caused by the presence or imminence of danger.'

To me, fear is the recognition of a threat to my life. So to say that I 'fear death' is meaningless because death as a concept, and not taken in the context of an emergency, is an absolute- something that is unavoidable and is not a "threat to my life" per se. I do not fear death (again, I am not saying I have no sense of self preservation or that I want to die, I am here, siting the 'concept' of death) I merely recognize it as something that is coming and as something without which 'life' as we know it would be meaningless and our concept of 'value' to such would not exist.

To fear an indeterminate date of death is to fear one's own nature and thus be afraid of life itself and any desire to live it.

That would indeed be a depressing existence.

Edited by Proverb
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To fear . . . death is to fear one's own nature and thus be afraid of life itself and any desire to live it.

This I believe names exactly the essence of the fear of death. (Again, by fear we mean a general and enduring feeling of anxiety.)

Or to put it another way: People don't really fear death — they fear life; they're made anxious by its nature and requirements.

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Or to put it another way: People don't really fear death — they fear life; they're made anxious by its nature and requirements.

Which would be why an empty/pointless/crushingly difficult life (real or imagined) causes said fear.

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Who wouldn't mind living till they were 500 or even 1,000 years old (considering youth was still relatively kept)? There is so much to do in this world, so much to learn that one cannot do in 100 years alone.

I wouldn't mind death if our lives were just a little bit longer (compared to the time scale of the universe).

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Who wouldn't mind living till they were 500 or even 1,000 years old (considering youth was still relatively kept)? There is so much to do in this world, so much to learn that one cannot do in 100 years alone.

I used to think this, too, but I don't any more.

I don't think you'd "live" more in 500 years than you would in 100. How many times would you want to go back to college to get a new degree to keep current with technology and innovation? How hard would it be to get up the motivation or courage to start on something really demanding if you knew you had plenty of time to wait? Could you scrimp and save and drive yourself to exhaustion? And then could you do it AGAIN in fifty years? And AGAIN? You'd go crazy.

The truth is, no one knows how long their life will be. Few people die of "old age". Don't envy the Galapagos tortoise his centuries. After all, he has to be a tortoise.

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I'm gathering info for an essay I intend to write in the future, so any assistance anyone could grant would be fantastic.  Please answer some or all of the following questions:

1. Have you ever, in your life, experienced a kind of "existential" fear of death?

2.  What do you think was the cause of said fear?

3.  What did you do about it?  Do you still experience it?

4.  My personal thinking, based on my own experiences, is that fear of death is actually the result of an unhappy, unproductive life; one filled with endless, repetitive, pointless activities leading nowhere.  Does this gel with your experience?  Why or why not?

Edit:  There's been a bit of confusion on this, so I just wanted to clarify.  An "existential" dread or fear is an all-consuming or all-permeating fear without specific object, it is literally fear of nothing, which is what fear of death is, the fear of the NOTHING.  As an aside, I noticed that at those times when I was experiencing my worst fear of death, I also had a punishing anxiety of wide-open spaces, of empty expanses of blue sky, of heights, of falling, and of being sucked into a void.  I wonder what the connection is?--Jennifer

Dear Jennifer,

I am a member who has been away for some time but I find your questions intrieuging and would like to contribute.

1. I have in my life experienced an "existential" fear of death. The fear does not cause me panic or grief rather, it snaps me back from whatever activity I may me engaged in, at random moments in my life and I contemplate death. I accept death and understand death in the terms of biology but psyhologically death fascinates me. This fascination stems from the fact that I do not know the answer.

Another important reason that I ponder the topic of death and at times feel a little apprehensive is becasuse I am only 26 and actively interested in the world around me. I also live with the chronic disease, Lupus so doctors, sickness, weakness, and struggle for a normal life is already a battle for me at times and at these times of battle the thought of death goes through me and repulses me because I am emotionally not ready. There are too many things that I want to do and so yes, the idea of death to me is unattractive.

2. I think I answered number two in question one.

3. What did I do about it. Well, I just went on living. I do from time to time analyze death as a concept and as a concept that pertains to me. On a lighter note, I continue to live my life, taking in each and every one of the small pleasures that populate my life.

4. I do agree with your conclusion of the fear of death. I do see similarities in that statement that relates to my resistance towards death. I feel my life is incomplete and have not accomplished all there is to accomplish. Then again, maybe in my own thinking has been distorted. On my death bed after possibly going through the spectrum of emotions that typically leads up to loss and death I may find that my lamentation is for not. After all, I am loved, I am educated, I have learned many fine skills in my life and have laughed, seen shooting stars, made love, danced, and dreamed with the best of them.

Oh, well. I hope I am that collected when the time comes.

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I don't think you'd "live" more in 500 years than you would in 100.  How many times would you want to go back to college to get a new degree to keep current with technology and innovation?  How hard would it be to get up the motivation or courage to start on something really demanding if you knew you had plenty of time to wait?  Could you scrimp and save and drive yourself to exhaustion?  And then could you do it AGAIN in fifty years?  And AGAIN?  You'd go crazy.

The truth is, no one knows how long their life will be.  Few people die of "old age".  Don't envy the Galapagos tortoise his centuries.  After all, he has to be a tortoise.

There are several issues here. First, the actual productive years of an adult person are not all that long, particularly if you're talking about requiring an advanced degree to even start working on a serious scale. The disintegration prior to actually dying certainly detracts from quality of life, and with modern medicine, there can be years at the "back end" where somebody can't work as they used to, or at all, but still be alive. What anti-aging technology should be able to accomplish is *at least* to extend useful, happy adult lifespan to more than the mere 40 +/- average years that it is now.

I have to respectfully disagree about the going crazy part. Assuming my brain could continue to function well, I would *love* to see what's going to happen over the next 500 years and to be a part of it. That proviso will be the hard part (brain functioning well). If the brain literally has the capacity, it would be possible again to be a true Renaissance man and to have time to actually do something with all of that knowledge, in a way that is now metaphysically impossible. I can easily imagine research projects, or developments (e.g. settling the solar system, experimenting with starship technology) that will, by the nature of them, require more than a current human lifetime or even several of them. One cannot expect that one's descendents will carry on such a project, but a man who lived 500 years and was smart enough to build a lasting, growing business, could embark on projects that would be impossible without such continuity. Such a man would also have the ability to personally accumulate working capital directly at his disposal on a scale that would be unprecedented, for such projects.

I also think there would be great value in a culture to have people with a mature perspective of a life lived across centuries, who could directly attest to the successes (and problems/failures) across their own personal historical observations.

It is precisely our conceptual nature and ability to continually expand our knowledge and minds that argues for greatly extending a lifespan. Centuries are *wasted* on the mindless tortoise (or, a mindless person), only a thinking human being could really make use of them.

Another way to look at it is this: with biological immortality (should that happen), death (barring accidents or murder) would be optional and up to the choice of a person, not the inevitable endpoint of a failing body. I don't see any virtue to being at the mercy of evolutionary processes rather than my own desire to continue living or not.

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  • 3 weeks later...
1. Have you ever, in your life, experienced a kind of "existential" fear of death?

Yes. When I was very young, perhaps between the ages of 8 and 11 I woke up one evening and began thinking about "not being around anymore" and was filled with dread.

2. What do you think was the cause of said fear?

A young child's normal contemplation on life.

3. What did you do about it? Do you still experience it?

I do not still experience such an overwhelming separation. The idea (as explained below) is still upsetting to me, but not in such a way that it hinders my life in any way.

4. My personal thinking, based on my own experiences, is that fear of death is actually the result of an unhappy, unproductive life; one filled with endless, repetitive, pointless activities leading nowhere. Does this gel with your experience? Why or why not?

This does not match up with my thoughts and subsequent fears of death. When I was very young, I became quite upset about death for two reasons.

1) I would no longer be myself. I did not like the idea of "disappearing from time". I did not like the idea of becoming nothing.

2) I would be unable to see what happens to the human race. My reaction was the exact opposite of the scenario you describe. I was upset that I could not stay around and continue learning. I knew I didn't have enough time. As I grew, these thoughts became more complex and eventually landed on a saddening sensation from the realization that I'm currently living in a very young civilization. It upset me that I would probably never get to travel through space, much less have time to explore the entire world. I suppose you could say that I'm very optimistic about human potential, and the realization that I wouldn't be around to see the future was extraordinarily frustrating.

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I don't think you'd "live" more in 500 years than you would in 100. How many times would you want to go back to college to get a new degree to keep current with technology and innovation? How hard would it be to get up the motivation or courage to start on something really demanding if you knew you had plenty of time to wait? Could you scrimp and save and drive yourself to exhaustion? And then could you do it AGAIN in fifty years? And AGAIN? You'd go crazy.

I would. I would study psychology, philosophy, biology, economics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, ...

I hate it that I only have one lifetime and I had a hard time picking a major.

I still read a lot in most of the above areas, but in some I am completely ignorant (and I don't like it).

If you do one job in one area of knowledge for a lot of years and it gets boring (it doesn't have to), you can start a new line of business.

You could learn ten areas of sports to perfection, art, music, you can travel the world, you could easily 'waste' five years of your life on some pet project of yours without feeling any guilt if it doesn't work out.

Hell, what a great human being could you become if you could live for 500 years.

I always thought that Highlander is very unrealistic because they have so little interest in science and knowledge. All they do is chop each other's heads off. :devil:

The truth is, no one knows how long their life will be. Few people die of "old age". Don't envy the Galapagos tortoise his centuries. After all, he has to be a tortoise.

:D Nice idea. But the cool thing is you don't have to be one. You can be a human for 500 years. How great is that?

On the general theme of the post:

There is a book by Nathaniel Branden called Honoring the Self which has a chapter on Fear of death. It may be worth checking out.

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I would. I would study psychology, philosophy, biology, economics, physics, chemistry, mathematics, ...

Why? I've discovered I have little interest in studying things just to be studying them. But then, I write fiction, so ANYTHING is possibly of use to me.

You could learn ten areas of sports to perfection, art, music, you can travel the world, you could easily 'waste' five years of your life on some pet project of yours without feeling any guilt if it doesn't work out.

Hell, what a great human being could you become if you could live for 500 years

Who's going to pay for it? People don't do this stuff now not because they don't have the time, but because they don't have the money. Heck, you can do all that in the lifetime you have now if you don't have to work for a living.

I'd prefer a more realistic benefit: figure out how to make it so people don't need to sleep. You get eight more hours out of the day when you can DO something as opposed to lying there like a lump. Sounds good to me.

Seems to me that fear of death is strictly an evolutionary product. A species that does not fear death is not going to be around for very long. I fear death even though I'm about 99% sure that I will feel no pain once I am dead.

A species that fears "death" is not going to get anything done. A species that fears specific things that can kill them will. Keep in mind that animals aren't capable of conceptualizing something so complex as "death".

Apart from that, even, evolutionary psychology is completely bogus.

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If you want to study something, you don't need the money. You may need it for the college degree, but not for the learning since there are public libraries (and there is ebay). All you need is time.

I would like to learn everything I have mentioned because it interests me and because I believe that if I knew all this I could invent cool stuff.

I admit that I can do a lot of it in this lifetime (and I will :D ), but in the end the only really limiting resource we have is time. There is just so much you can do in a human lifetime. And you can do five times this stuff if your lifetime is increased by a factor 5.

Besides, once you have a decent education, you can get a high-paying job and save a lot of money to invest, then live mainly by the means of collected interest. Still you need to work less because you are paid more. And you still have all the time in the world.

I don't see how this could be bad or not work out.

Some other thing:

Why is evolutionary psychology bogus? It may overemphasise its importance, but it does have merit.

(I'll start another thread)

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  • 1 month later...

I think I would be the poster child for your writings on the fear of death. I'm experiencing some of the physical responses right now, having just read the posts. I mainly feal a deep dread, a knotting in my stomach and racing of my heart.

I've read the standard Objectivist takes, especially the thoughts of Dr. Michael Hurd (which I bought in a pamphlet after a sleepless night) and I understand the "death is a nothing" argument. What I can't get over is the state of not existing. My fear stems from the question "How can I not be?" Imagining that sets me into a very unpleasant physical reaction.

The fear of my own death is also intertwined with the fear of the death of my loved ones. I didn't even think about death until my father died very suddenly and unexpectedly four years ago while I was in college. That was the first and strongest time I ever felt the finality of death. He was here one day, then he wasn't.

Your theory (#4) is interesting, and though it may apply to some, I don't think it fits my case. No matter how long I live, I don't want to *not* live. Dying is final. I don't know what it will be like and I can't fathom not existing.

In the end I decided to deal with my fear the same way I dealt with my fear of tornadoes as a child. I learned about meteorology and how to watch the Doppler radar and what to look for in the sky. Then I learned what to do to keep myself safe should I have to experience a tornado. No more fear.

Since I couldn't learn about death directly (that hung me up for a while), I instead dedicated myself to doing all I rationally could to prevent it. This meant learing about health. I found that the leading causes of death, including my father's, are chronic, preventable inllnesses (cardiovascular disease and cancer) and that a healthy diet and excercise would allow me to have a lot of control over my life expectancy.

Everyday that I eat healthy food and make it to the gym, I know I am adding valuable time to my life. This was actually the remedy for my fear. Feeling in control has been a huge factor.

Thanks for hearing my two cents. It was very cathartic.

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When I first saw an interviewer ask Ayn Rand if she was afraid of death and heard her explain that she wasn't, and that when she dies the world ends, I didn't understand what she meant. Not sure I still do understand her explanation, though I too do not fear death and do not remember ever doing so.

It is really curious and even seemingly contradictory. On the one hand, I completely identify with what "Unconquered" has said in this thread in terms of the ability to live (say) 500 years. I would absolutely love that. On the other hand, I feel a kind of unconcern at the idea that I might die tomorrow of some unknown cause. When I think "what if I die suddenly tomorrow", my only thoughts are about my insurance, instructions I should be leaving, wills, etc. Unfortunately, I cannot really explain it. If I get to be 200, maybe I'll figure it out!

On the other hand, I also do not have an interest at increasing my life by (say) 5 years if it means substantially reducing my enjoyment of it now.

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When I first saw an interviewer ask Ayn Rand if she was afraid of death and heard her explain that she wasn't, and that when she dies the world ends, I didn't understand what she meant.

Well, I wouldn't presume to speak for her, but I think I understand where she was coming from. I've noticed in my personal anxieties that fear of death also contains some element of hating the idea that the world will go on without you but you won't be there to experience it. That you'll be missing out.

I realized a while ago that this was completely nonsensical. The dead to envy the living? What's up with that? I don't envy the people that lived before I was alive, why should I envy the ones that will continue to live after I die? Sillyness.

So, I started thinking of it from Ayn Rand's point of view . . . when I'm not alive, the universe may as well not even exist, so it's not worth worrying about.

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JMeganSnow,

Interesting question!!

I have never been really scared of death. Before Objectivism, I have never realized the true beauty and value of life like I do now.

When I think of death now, I feel a huge sense of sadness, a sense of a huge loss. I don't want to leave, I love being alive, I don't want to miss out on anything.

I could easily live for another 3-4 hundred years. I would learn and do soo many things!! I don't ever want to leave, but I wouldn't have it any other way, because like you mentioned, "it is only the concept 'life' that makes values possible."

Kind of bittersweet......

~Carrie~

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