The reality is that you will die. This remains our only exit strategy from life. So let’s work backwards. How do you want to die?
We feel very uncomfortable with that question. Most readers have already stopped reading. Not you it seems, so there is a surprise that awaits you.
In psychology there is a whole area of study devoted to just this uneasiness you feel when you read that question. Known by the rather strange title of ‘terror management theory’, it has formed the basis for how psychologists examine our fear of death. In doing so, we find the meaning of life.
American psychologist William James (1842-1910) acknowledged that within us lurks a “worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight”: that while we strive to be happy, there is a rotten core inside. The core is the awareness that we will eventually die. The fear comes from that awareness.
Psychologists have been showing that this fear forms a core personality strategy – we behave the way we do because we have this fear in the back of our heads. We try to lessen this fear of death. This process is strong enough that being reminded of death – yours or someone else’s – results in an overreaction to support those beliefs that lower the fear of death.
Hundreds of studies support this prediction. A classic study occurred with a group of judges who were divided into two groups, with one group being reminded of death before they were asked to review the case history of a prostitute and to suggest a bail bond amount in dollars. The group reminded of death came down harshly on the prostitute, assigning an average bond of $455, while the group who were not reminded of death averaged only $50.
Being reminded of death makes you hold on more rigidly to your moral beliefs and you punish others who are different. We increase the distance between ‘us’ and ‘them’. Sounds familiar?
Because it is very easy to create this fear of death – just mentioning death or asking questions about death can create the condition – it can be abused or manipulated. There are many examples of such abuses.
As an example, the top concern of Americans is terrorism, although a Washington Post article by Andrew Shaver in November 2015 titled ‘You’re more likely to be fatally crushed by furniture than killed by a terrorist’ highlights the misplaced fear we have. Fear is manipulated for good political reason.
Our concern with death, consciously and subconsciously, determines how we conduct our life
This fear can be dealt with in two ways. The first is to deal very harshly with anything or anyone that reminds us of the threat of death. Anyone that is associated with death (e.g. terrorist) will be more severely punished than similar people or items that do not (e.g. furniture). We are not afraid of cars that kill the equivalent of a planeload full of passengers every day, yet we are afraid of airplanes. Fear is irrational and malleable. Politicians are masters of this.
The second strategy is to diminish the permanence of death, by believing that somehow, even after death, we will still be around. Such tricks of psychology include a belief in heaven or reincarnation (either literally or symbolically) – or to establish a more enduring presence even after your death, such as legacy (statues, books, art, street names).
Stephen Cave, in his excellent book on immortality, makes an enlightened and provocative case for the soul helping to ‘sell’ immortality to humans. He argues that the soul was part of a much more radical change in human thought. We fight the ‘worm at the core’ by denying that death is final.
Our concern with death, consciously and subconsciously, determines how we conduct our life. Thinkers like Sigmund Freud and Martin Heidegger used our fear of death to build theoretical models explaining their concept of living. This brings us back to the beginning: that our fear of death defines our strategy for living.
If we go back to William James, he comments: “The return to life can’t come about by talking. It is an act; to make you return to life, I must set an example for your imitation, I must deafen you to talk.”
James urges that we listen instead to our own hearts’ yearnings, cultivate our personal enthusiasms and reap the harvest of our habitual “delights”.
There are a number of death revival activities – becoming aware of death as something natural – going on the US and Europe. This can be as simple as writing on a wall what you want to accomplish before you die, to film festivals that celebrate death as a natural passing of a great life. By acknowledging that we will die, that life is fragile, short and non-lasting, perhaps we can do something with our life that helps others.
In the process, James more than a century ago was ahead of us: he suggests that we may achieve not merely our own happiness but a greater regard for others and a deeper experience of life.
Mario Garrett was born in Malta and is currently a professor of gerontology at San Diego State University in California, US.