Well, at least my fear of death is…
Well, at least according to the late great interdisciplinarian philosopher Ernest Becker.
Yes, according to Becker, it is this death anxiety of mine – and of yours too so you might want to pay attention – that really drives much of my life’s behavior.
I guess I should have titled this entry, “Death is my pilot,” or better yet, “I am Death’s co-pilot.”
It seems that this mostly unrealized, or at least unacknowledged fear of our eventual turn into worm food is fed mostly by our desire for immortality, which then feeds into our pursuit of it by other and any means possible: by our offspring, by our profession, by whatever means that allows us to achieve some sense of our being being realized long after the worms that fed upon us have passed.
But few of us are able to achieve even this, this immortality by other or any means possible because of our fear of life itself, by our not having the courage to engage it, life, to the magnitude required for us to transcend our mortality by other and any means possible.
From Becker’s monumental book The Denial of Death, one which I cannot recommend highly enough:
Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.
Actually, this whole death anxiety thing is something of a theme of my soon to be finished work in progress.
But that is not what prompted this entry today.
What prompted it was the PsyPost article New psychology research indicates hatred toward collective entities inspires meaning in life.
Heck of a lede, no? I hardly have to quote from the article because the author seems to have crammed the gist of it into the title.
But reading the article, we find that its title is actually as much a mouthful as is the title of the study upon which the article is based: Hate and meaning in life: How collective, but not personal, hate quells threat and spurs meaning in life.
Now, I haven’t actually read the study – I don’t feel like shelling out the $35.00 it would take to do so.
But I kind of want to because I would like to know if Becker is referenced in the study seeing that he was telling us pretty much the same thing way back in the Swingin’ Seventies.
However, according to Becker, this hate (as manifested by racism, sexism, homophobia… you get the picture) that brings us together in collective and harmonious accord is driven by, you guessed it, our collective fear of death.
It was this theory – that our fear of death feeds our hate – that led a mixed group of researchers and huge Becker disciples to put it to the test/studies to see if it could be proved.
Which it could, at least according to them, and which led them to develop the Terror Management Theory (I wish I could come up with such a cool-sounding theory) and which they discuss in detail in their fantastic book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.
In one early [Terror Management Theory] study assessing the [Mortality Salience] hypothesis, Greenberg et al. (1990) had Christian participants evaluate other Christian and Jewish students that were similar demographically, but differed in their religious affiliation. After being reminded of their death (experimental MS induction), Christian participants evaluated fellow Christians more positively, and Jewish participants more negatively, relative to the control condition. Conversely, bolstering self-esteem in these scenarios leads to less worldview defense and derogation of dissimilar others.– Wikipedia
Must be legit because even the National Institutes of Health published a death anxiety study called Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 Pandemic.
Well, they also published a study called Why Most Published Research Findings Are False, so… there’s that.
Anyway, long story short…
We all should be doing those memento mori meditations like the Stoics and other ancient smarties told us we should be doing long ago and then, hey, we would have absolutely nothing to fear…
Don’t look down on death, but welcome it. It too is one of the things required by nature. Like youth and old age. Like growth and maturity. Like a new set of teeth, a beard, the first gray hair. Like sex and pregnancy and childbirth. Like all the other physical changes at each stage of life, our dissolution is no different.Marcus Aurelius, Meditations
Except, maybe, fear itself.