What is the sine qua non of being human rather than just another primate? Is it language? Art? Abstract thought? In the 1960s and 70s psychologist Ernest Becker offered another answer, one that accompanies (and perhaps inspires) the cognitive ability to talk, sculpt, and contemplate. So far as we know, humans are the only earthly creatures aware of the inevitability of their own deaths. There is nothing new about this answer, but Becker believed we give it insufficient prominence, which itself is a revealing act of denial. Becker, whose mind was focused by his own terminal illness, told us that we spend most of our energies denying that terrible knowledge; in the process, we develop civilization, art, religion, and neuroses. His book The Denial of Death, written in 1973 as his own demise loomed at age 49, won a posthumous Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
I read Becker’s book several years ago. Last week I followed it up with The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenburg, and Tom Pyszczynski. The trio of Becker enthusiasts are experimental psychologists who since the mid-1980s have devised numerous tests of Becker’s assumptions and conclusions. The results strongly back Becker. Judges in Tucson, for example, typically set bail for prostitutes at $50; when reminded by a questionnaire of their own mortality, however, the average bail was $450. (The cases, unknown to the judges, were fake, so no ladies were over-penalized in the tests.) People become much more protective of group norms and values when reminded of death because identifying with a larger entity (country, ideology, legal system, sect, party, ethnicity, etc.) makes us feel part of something that needn’t perish, so we are harsher toward violators; judges are not immune to the tendency. Being protective of one’s own group typically means being less tolerant of others, so those reminded of death are more hostile to “outsiders” of any kind. It works in reverse, too. Canadian and Australian test participants who were assigned to read highly negative commentary on Canada and Australia afterward used many more death-related words on a word association test than did the control group; those who read positive commentary used fewer. People reminded of death smoke and drink more to get their minds off it – even when the reminder is a public service warning about the lethality of smoking and drinking. On the upside, people reminded of death also get more creative in hopes of leaving some legacy that will survive in some sense.
The legacy gambit doesn’t always succeed at cheering the creative artist. Woody Allen: “I don’t want to live on in my work. I want to live on in my apartment.” John Keats, whose poetry was not well appreciated during his lifetime, despairingly left instructions for his tombstone not to bear his name, but to read, “Here lies One whose Name was writ in Water.” Edgar Allan Poe at least achieved some recognition in his own time though one would be hard pressed to write something more expressive of mortality than The Conqueror Worm. Needless to say, both writers have me outclassed, but I can relate in principle. My efforts at fiction over the years have been desultory at best, but my most productive phase (two novellas and a couple dozen short stories) was in the two years following the loss of the last of my immediate family. It wasn’t a conscious attempt to leave something of myself behind, but the timing is hard to miss.
Solomon, Greenburg, and Pyszczynski acknowledge, of course that other animals fear death from an immediate threat. “All mammals, including humans, experience terror. When an impala sees a lion about to pounce on her, the amygdala in her brain passes signals to her limbic system, triggering a fight, flight, or freezing response…And here’s the really tragic part of our condition: only we humans, due to our enlarged and sophisticated neocortex, can experience this terror in the absence of looming danger.” They designed their experiments to demonstrate just how many of our creative and destructive (including self-destructive) impulses derive from – or at least are heavily influenced by – an often unconscious fear of death
Dealing with death has been a staple of human lore from the beginning. The oldest literature (as opposed to business contracts and tax lists) that still survives is the Epic of Gilgamesh, which is about Gilgamesh coming to terms with the death of his friend Enkidu. The ancients approached the matter of death in the same various ways we do today: some with religion, some through their children, some through their work, and some by repressing the whole subject while trying to think of something else. The ever practical Epicureans argued that the experience of death is literally nothing and it is silly to worry about nothing. This is logical, but there are some subjects about which humans have a hard time being logical, and most are not satisfied by this argument. Solomon, Greenburg, and Pyszczynski list the standard ways most people strove and still strive to transcend death: biosocial (having children or identifying with some nationality or ancestral line), theological (belief in a soul), creative (art or science that survives the artist/scientist), natural (identifying with all life), and experiential. I’ll let them explain themselves on that last one: “experiential transcendence is characterized by a sense of timelessness accompanied by a heightened sense of awe and wonder.” Some of my acid-head friends in college used to talk like that. I think the authors left out “acceptance with a cynical humor” such as we see in Poe, Camus, and modern-day celebrations of Halloween.
The authors wrap up by asking the reader to assess whether he or she handles thoughts of death in ways that are beneficial or harmful. “By asking and answering these questions, we can perhaps enhance our own enjoyment of life,” they say.
So is the book worth a read? Yes. Their experiments are interesting though there is something of “a hammer in search of a nail” quality to them. If they had reminded those judges about sex before setting bail, would that have affected the outcome? Would it have affected subjects who afterward took word association tests? They didn’t run those experiments, so we don’t know, but my suspicion is yes. In short, I think the old Freudian Eros vs. Thanatos (love and death) dichotomy is closer to the whole truth. Nonetheless, I agree that we all too often try to banish the Thanatos side of that from our conscious thoughts with results that are often unhealthy. We’re better off if we can learn to deal. So, on balance, Thumbs Up.
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