Tag Archives: philosophy

The Worm at the Core — A Book Worth Reading

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.Worm at the Core

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.”


Treasure In Heaven: A Viable Concept Today?

In Ransom of the SoulPeter Brown discusses the ancient idea of storing up treasure in heaven. The concept, common to both Christianity and Judaism, held that happiness in the next life could be achieved by deeds of kindness and mercy in this life.

Wealthy Roman pagans had sought immortality through grand gestures, such as paying for lavish games, financing a public building, or building an opulent tomb.

By the third century AD, Brown argues, both Christians and Jews came to regard giving alms to the poor as the most effective way of storing up treasure in heaven. As time passed, under the influence of the great church fathers, such as Augustine, Christians increasingly gave their alms to the poor through the church. By the time the Middle Ages approached, the money was going to great monasteries and convents, where monks and nuns prayed for the souls of the donors.

Brown notes that theologians today give the idea of storing up treasure in heaven little attention. The idea that a person could ransom her soul and achieve eternal life by paying money to the church just seems a little too medieval for the modern mind.

But what if we’ve come to feel that the idea of eternal life is itself a touch medieval? What if we seek only to be well remembered by our friends and family? Then the idea of storing up treasure in this life becomes relevant again.

Lavish games and opulent tombs are probably not the way to go. But deeds of kindness and mercy can certainly help.

The Michael Bloombergs, Bill Gateses, and Warren Buffetts of this world will be remembered for their acts of charity far beyond their circles of friends and family. For the rest of us, worthy causes abound, from religious institutions to public broadcasting and funds for fighting particular diseases.

It’s interesting, though, how many of the worthy causes we support have so little to do with helping the poor in our own communities, as the ancients did. It’s easy to give money to a university, with billions of dollars in its endowment, but not so easy to give money to help the hungry and homeless nearby. Still, opportunities exist at the local level. We’ll explore some of these in a later post.

What about leaving something for the children or for other younger heirs? You’ll be well remembered by them, hopefully, but a legacy could serve a broader purpose as well. With pensions, Social Security, and Medicare under attack, the young may well have a more difficult time in their later years than we do. If we can help them, we’ll deserve some credit after we’re gone.

What are your ideas on how seniors can store up treasure in heaven?





Friendliness: A Virtue Seniors Should Pursue

Aristotle listed friendliness as a key virtue in attaining happiness, and Cicero specifically recommended it for seniors in his essay De Senectute, or On Old Age.

Cicero. Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

Cicero. Thorvaldsens Museum, Copenhagen

Cicero had a point. If we make a conscious effort to be friendly, we can avoid becoming the grumpy old person that none of us wants to be.  Friendliness can be useful too.

Donna and I knew a senior in assisted living who took a turn toward grumpiness. This made it difficult for friends and staff to offer her the emotional support they wanted to give.  We knew another senior who remained friendly and welcoming through three years in a nursing home. He had a steady stream of visitors, including some who took him out for drives or to restaurants.  He never lacked for coffee milkshakes, his favorite, which friends brought from the local ice cream parlor.

Anger in seniors can have physical causes, such as dementia or the side effects of medications. Depression, fear, and loss of a loved one can play their role.

But to the extent possible, we should resist becoming grouchy. We ought to send cards, give presents, keep in touch, be cheerful around company, and not be rude. That’s what the ancients would have recommended — and moderns do too.  We’ll feel better about ourselves, and we’ll have more friends around us when we need them.





Happiness: Wisdom of the Ancients

How can seniors be happy? We know that difficult times, followed by death, lie ahead. We have already lost friends and closest family members. We have every reason to be unhappy, yet polls consistently show that seniors tend to be happier than the young. As one headline puts it: “Happiness Grows With Age, Researchers Say.”

Donna and I have been exploring what philosophers have had to say about happiness over the centuries — something we hadn’t taken a close look at since college days. We’ve read Darrin McMahon’s Happiness, A History, and lately we’ve been listening to Fr. Joesph Koterski’s lectures on Aristotle’s Ethics, part of the Great Courses series. Stephen Greenblatt’s The Swerve  set us off on an excursion into Epicurean philosophy.

We’ve found a great deal of common sense among the ancients, and have come to suspect that many seniors have reached the same conclusions they did, some through study perhaps, but most through life experience.

Aristotle.  Ludovisi Collection

Aristotle. Ludovisi Collection

Let’s take Aristotle, who reasoned that happiness is in fact the purpose of life. Seniors understand this truth. For decades, they have worried about jobs, promotions, performance reviews, and their children’s college prospects. Some have been through wrenching divorces. Now these things are in the past, and seniors know that the time has come for some peace and quiet, and for enjoying life.

Aristotle taught that the way to happiness lay in developing and practicing certain virtues. Theologians have focused on what they call the four cardinal virtues, which were also mentioned by Plato. These are courage, justice (giving everyone his or her rightful due), temperance, and prudence.

Seniors know they must have courage to face the challenges of age, and time and again we have seen friends and family display just that quality in dealing with a health crisis or the death of a loved one. We know that we are happier when we treat others fairly, and that temperance is key in maintaining our health. We’ve learned that prudent decision-making, taking into account all relevant factors and considering the advice of others, is essential to financial security. With “financial advisers” trying to sell us everything from variable annuities to reverse mortgages, we need prudence.

We know these things, but of course it’s easy to slip. Fear can get the best of us. Emotion can push us into unwise decisions, and after that, temperance can go out the window.  But deep down, we understand intuitively what it takes to be happy.

Aristotle listed other virtues beyond the basic four, including friendliness, liberality, magnanimity, and patience. We know full well that if we practice these too, our lives will be happier.

Even though we know intuitively where the keys to happiness lie, it’s a good idea to remind ourselves from time to time of what the ancients had to say on the subject.  Donna and I will be doing that at Common Sense for Seniors.