With the song Reverend Mr. Black, the Kingston Trio put a fine point on one of life’s bitter universals.
“You’ve got to walk that lonesome valley,” they sang. “You’ve got to walk it by yourself. There’s nobody else who can walk it for you, you’ve got to walk it by yourself.”
Death is the final clause in the contract for the living. And, as the Kingston Trio reminded us, it’s a trip we make alone.
The Father of American Psychology, William James, said “Back of everything is the great spectre of universal death, the all-encompassing blackness” that is the worm in the apple of existence. Novelist Vladimir Nabokov called life the cradle above the abyss.
No matter how poetically put, we are very aware of our finitude. Just recently, death claimed Queen Elizabeth II at the age of 96; it may claim you tomorrow. Or, next week. It can be unfair and it is always unavoidable. Appropriate lifestyle choices and medical intervention can delay the inevitable, but it is only pain deferred.
In his landmark 1973 book, The Denial of Death, anthropologist Ernest Becker noted: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else. It is a mainspring of human activity.”
It should be recorded that Becker’s death came early and with unfortunate effect. He was 49: his book won the Pulitzer Prize just weeks after his passing.
Becker believed the fear of death was so all-encompassing, it impacted civilization at its very foundation.
Our activities are aimed at creating some last memorial that will allow us to symbolically triumph over decay and death. We seek to prove our existence mattered — “I was there and what I did made a difference.”
Accumulating a fortune, writing a significant book, or raising a family can be considered as accomplishments which will not be erased by mortality. These pursuits allow us to avoid dwelling on our extinction.
Becker told philosopher Sam Keen: “We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness…”
A decade after Becker’s passing, social psychologists, Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Thomas Pyszczynski, took up the cudgel. All three had a desire to understand the fundamental motivations of human behavior; all three viewed the denial of death, as explained by Becker, as the best prism to view these motivations.
In their 2015 appropriately titled book, The Worm at the Core, On the Role of Death in Life, the trio of PhDs delineated how they expanded and scientifically researched the original Becker theories.
Greenberg, Solomon, and Pyszczynski named their new schemata Terror Management Theory. While it does incorporate death denial concepts, TMT enhances the model well beyond what Becker may have imagined. And, they use fundamentally sound scientific research to back up their claims.
In The Worm at the Core, the authors wrote: “There is now compelling evidence… the awareness that we humans will die has a profound and pervasive effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in almost every domain in human life — whether we are conscious of it or not.”
More than thirty years of research — literally hundreds of studies– revealed that the denial of death is “one of the primary driving forces of human action…subtle and even subliminal reminders of death increase devotion to one’s cultural scheme of things…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, shop.”
The researchers posited a few answers about the best way to cope with our consuming awareness of death. Chiefly, they believed we have to accept the notion that due to biological forces, humans are predisposed to fear death — it’s an irrational fear, but death will not be banished. Acceptance and strengthening our devotion to life-affirming, but not destructive, behaviors is the best hope.
In an interview with Deutsche Welle, Solomon concluded this: “I think the joy and exuberance that comes with the full appreciation of life requires that we accept that tragedy is inevitable…accept the downside of life while being just humbly grateful for the ultimate privilege which is just to have been here at all… I’m grateful that I got my stint.”
Solomon told Arterritory he is aware that his own death is always imminent. He also said humans have every right to fear their demise. “I think we should be afraid,” he said. “You know, the person who’s not afraid of death is likely already dead. If you can imagine an entity that’s devoid of anxiety, they’re at the bottom of the gene pool…I think the trick is to have sufficient apprehension, to be aware of the vagaries of one’s surroundings in the service of staying alive.”
Solomon cited the philosophy of the Roman poet Lucretius: “It was Lucretius who recommended thinking of life as a giant and delicious meal. But if you just sat at the table and kept stuffing yourself like a glutton, well, that wouldn’t be satisfactory…a great meal isn’t great unless there comes a point where it ends…your life isn’t complete until it’s over. It needs to be over in order for it to cohere, despite the fact that you won’t be there to appreciate that. I think that’s the task each of us is confronted with.”