I’ve been reading The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (New York, Random House. 2015) by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszcynski. It’s a book I strongly recommend for book clubs, church discussion groups, and anyone trying to get a handle on the whole death thing.
The authors are psychologists who, inspired by cultural anthropologist Ernst Becker, have been working together for more than thirty years to develop a theory of the “terror management” that, they argue, each of us must employ in order to survive, What is the source of our terror? The gnawing fear of death that we acquire as children and that lasts throughout our lives.
Like all living creatures, humans will do just about anything to stay alive, but evolution has made us self-aware. With that awareness comes the knowledge that we will ultimately die no matter what we do — hence, our terror. If humankind had let that terror overwhelm us, we would have been at an evolutionary dead end, unable to hunt for food or take risks and launch new ventures for fear we might be killed.
One of our coping tools has been religion, and particularly a belief in the soul. This has helped us convince ourselves that in some sense we will never die. Another tactic is to identify with institutions that seem immortal, such as the church, the state, or our alma mater. We research our ancestry and cultivate strong families to give ourselves a sense that we are part of an undying chain of being. We go to great lengths to appear youthful for as long as we possibly can. We seek wealth so that others will respect us as particularly important people. We engage in risky but enjoyable or exhilarating behavior to distract our minds from death. On the more positive side, we play our expected roles as dutiful children, good parents, and wise elders in order to affirm to ourselves that we are valued members of an ongoing society.
Self esteem is our most important coping tool, and we try constantly to strengthen it to keep that gnawing terror at bay. Some of us seek literal immortality by believing in an afterlife. Others settle for symbolic immortality through our achievements, as well as through the fond memories we hope others will hold of us and the good reputation that we try to leave behind.
The authors don’t conclude from all of this that life and striving are meaningless. Far from it. Instead, they encourage us to do those things that can stave off the terror and help us get through life. It’s a good thing to build self esteem in positive ways, such as giving to charity. It’s OK to seek transcendence by expressing ourselves in art, participating in rituals, or enjoying nature.
There is a danger in our coping mechanisms, however. In seeking transcendence by identifying with our culture and our nation, we can be tempted to exert our will over other people and other cultures. In order to affirm ourselves and our ways of doing things, we may try to humiliate those who don’t think and act as we do. (Anyone reminded of Germany and Greece here?) If we can force millions to believe and act as we do, then we must be right. Our coping mechanisms can themselves lead to death, as the martyrs of our time confirm through their suicide slaughters. In fact, in a world with thousands of nuclear weapons, coping mechanisms gone awry could threaten the survival of our species. But we are a species uniquely skilled at finding solutions to problems, and the authors conclude on the hopeful note that since we now understand this one, we can solve it.
Read this book. It’s bound to make you think. And if you read it as part of a group, it’s bound to provoke discussion.
Here are just three favorite quotes.
“Forced to choose, most would agree with Woody Allen that literal immortality is preferable: ‘I don’t want to achieve immortality through my work. I want to achieve it through not dying.”
“Being ‘comfortably numb,’ from drugs and alcohol is a great way to banish death thoughts from consciousness, but not so great for staying healthy and alive.”
“Come to terms with death. Really grasp that being mortal, while terrifying, can also make our lives sublime by infusing us with courage, compassion, and concern for future generations. Seek enduring significance through your own combination of meanings and values, social connections, spirituality, personal accomplishments, identifications with nature, and momentary experiences of transcendence. Promote cultural worldviews that provide such paths while encouraging tolerance of uncertainty and others who harbor different beliefs.”