I've got no problem admitting that I'm afraid of dying.
I've grappled with a primal fear of nonexistence. I've asked our attorney, when drawing up our wills (or living trusts) to substitute the word "gerbils" for "dies" when speaking about me, as in When Brian gerbils, his possessions will go to...
But my fear of death has moderated quite a bit as I've grown older. (I'm 67 now.) I'm still more than a little interested in the subject of death, though. So when I heard about a book called "The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life," I couldn't resist asking Amazon to send me a copy.
After reading a few chapters, I wrote Afterlife myths enabled humans to cope with fear of death. Today I finished the whole book, having learned more about how we Homo sapiens handle death.
In short: as best we can, yet often not very well.
Here's the basic problem, as described by the authors in their final chapter, "Living With Death."
From a biblical standpoint, the knowledge Adam and Eve gained by partaking of the apple made them mortal. From a scientific standpoint, the development of the human neocortex spawned symbolic thought, self-awareness, the capacity to reflect on the past and anticipate the future, and the knowledge of our mortality.
In this way, the "fall of man," the allegorical foundation of Western religion, converges with contemporary science: with increasing knowledge came the awareness of death -- and that changed everything.
The knowledge of death, rather than death per se, is the worm at the core of the biblical apple. It is that knowledge that made us human and initiated our unrelenting quest for immortality -- a quest that profoundly influenced the course of human history and persists to this day.
Now, this book is unique in that the authors are psychology professors who have conducted a lot of original research into attitudes toward death, and how reminders of death affect behavior.
So their conclusions are based on a lot more than philosophy (though philosophers such as Epicurus, they say, have echoed modern understandings of how humans deal with the fear of death). Here's how they speak in the final chapter about the work of a pioneer in this area, Ernest Becker, who wrote the classic The Denial of Death.
Once we formalized Becker's analysis of the human condition into terror management theory, we began fashioning experiments to test the many hypotheses that spilled readily out of the theory.
Some thirty years and more than five hundred studies later, there is now overwhelming evidence confirming Becker's central claim that the awareness of death gives rise to potentially debilitating terror that humans manage by perceiving themselves to be significant contributors to an ongoing cultural drama.
We found, as Becker posited, that self-esteem buffers anxiety in general and anxiety about death in particular. We discovered that subtle, and even subliminal, reminders of death increase devotion to one's cultural scheme of things, support for charismatic leaders, and confidence in the existence of God and belief in the efficacy of prayer.
They amplify our disdain toward people who do not share our beliefs even to the point of taking solace in their demise. They drive us to compulsively smoke, drink, eat, and shop. They make us uncomfortable with our bodies and our sexuality. They impel us to drive recklessly and fry ourselves in tanning booths to bolster our self-esteem. They magnify our phobias, obsessions, and social anxieties.
Regarding the last point, the idea is that instead of being afraid of one Big Unmanageable Thing -- death -- people are afraid of smaller things, as when someone who doesn't like public speaking says after a talk, "I felt like I was going to die on stage."
Of course, the most direct way to deal with a fear of death is to convince yourself that you won't really die. This is why religious beliefs about the afterlife provide so much solace. Though almost certainly untrue, those myths prosper because they assuage peoples' anxiety about dying and being gone forever.
To someone with a religious mentality, physical death is real, but not the "gone forever" part.
Since for a long time I believed in an Eastern/Indian view of immortality, my soul consciousness could merge with a universal cosmic consciousness, I understand the appeal of a belief system that views death as a crossing over into a form of life even better than what we enjoy now.
This fantasy would be fine, even if untrue, if it didn't typically come with serious side effects. As the quote above says, our fear of death leads us to cling to beliefs that keep this fear at a comfortable distance.
It is rare to come across a religious or philosophical belief system which posits that everybody is equally likely to enjoy an eternally appealing afterlife. Usually there are conditions attached: one must have faith in such-and-such, or do this-and-that, in order to be saved from either existential obliteration or consignment to a nasty hell that is worse than death.
(Reincarnation arguably is an applies to all philosophy, but here too the teaching is that it is in our power to have a better or worse next-life depending on what we do in this one. So there still are winners and losers.)
There's no easy or clear answer to the problem of dealing with death in "The Worm at the Core." A concluding section says:
These modes of death transcendence are all grounded within a culturally constructed scheme of things, and some cultural worldviews guide us toward more constructive paths of transcendence than others. The question then becomes, as Ernest Becker put it, "What is life-enhancing illusion?"
It may sound harsh to call all forms of transcendence illusory. However, the authors did a good job of convincing me that they are.
In this sense, bluntly put: The universe doesn't give a shit. It really doesn't. There's no objective meaning to life or death out there. The only meaning exists in here, in individual human minds.
When we try to bolster our death-defying attempt at transcendence (biosocial, theological, creative, natural) -- which can be a secular sort, such as feeling that our actions in life have helped create a better world that will live on after us -- we're giving ourselves more credit than, most likely, we really deserve.
First, little of what we do during our life is going to make much of a long-term difference. Second, there's no guarantee that what we value so highly while alive will be a benefit to the world after we're dead.
This is tough to admit.
I like to think that supporting progressive/liberal/environmental causes is a good thing. I can come up with persuasive reasons (to me, at least) why this is true. But who knows for sure? Maybe history will conclude that electing Hillary Clinton in 2016 was a terrible thing for the United States and the world.
Yet here I am today, feeling that working for her election is a meaningful way to make the Earth a better place for future generations after I'm gone.
It's helpful to distinguish, say the authors, between "rock" and "hard place" worldviews. As noted in these quotes, rock-type worldviews aren't as good for the Earth, though they're undeniably appealing to people who hold onto them. (I've added the boldface.)
The rock is a black-and-white scheme of things, with explicit prescriptions for attaining literal and symbolic immortality. Unfortunately, many people who subscribe to rock views fervently proclaim their beliefs to be absolute truth, and they insist that they can unambiguously differentiate between good and evil.
"Isms" -- fundamentalism, fascism, communism, and some forms of free-market capitalism, are rock views. According to Protestant theologian Paul Tillich, the fundamental problem with all "isms" is confusing their way with The Way: "It makes its myths and doctrines, its rites and laws into ultimates and persecutes those who do not subject themselves to it."
Because rock worldviews provide clear and simple bases of meaning, self-worth, and immortality, they afford seductive psychological security for those who sustain faith in, and feel valued within, them.
...Such gritty acknowledgment of our mortal fate has its appeal, but serving the ashes of ancestors and the temples of one's deities has perhaps led to more atrocities and killing than all other human motives combined. Why? Because the rock-type worldview tends to foster an us vs. them tribal mentality that, as we have seen, breeds hatred and inflames intergroup conflicts.
The alternative to rock worldviews is the hard place: conceptions of life that accept ambiguity and acknowledge that all beliefs are held with some measure of uncertainty. Hard place worldviews are malleable. Although adherents of the hard place take their beliefs and values seriously, they are open to other ideas and refuse to claim sole ownership of the truth.
They recognize that right and wrong, and good and evil, cannot always be disentangled. Consequently, they tend to be more tolerant of those who are different.
The hard place means accepting that meaning and values are human creations. We each combine bits and pieces of our experiences with the ideas and "truths" that we encounter to construct the reality in which we live and to become the kind of people who can make the best of that world.
Perhaps there is an ultimate meaning and truth out there, but we can never fully grasp it, because our awareness is constrained by the limits of our sense organs, our mental capacities, and our cultural blinders. This can be a disturbing realization, but it can be a liberating one as well.
We do not have to accept the vision of reality that others have given us. Rather, we can strive to fashion meanings that maximize what we can get out of life and minimize the harm we do to others.
...So we are caught. The rock provides psychological security but takes a terrible toll on those victimized by angry and self-righteous crusades to rid the world of evil. The hard place yields perhaps a more compassionate view of the world but is less effective at buffering death anxiety.
Somehow we need to fashion worldviews that yield psychological security, like the rock, but also promote tolerance and acceptance of ambiguity, like the hard place.