Existential anxiety drives our lives but most of us are too frightened to think about it, says psychologist and author Sheldon Solomon. He chooses the best books on the fear of death.
Sheldon Solomon is a psychologist and professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is best known for his development of 'Terror Management Theory,' an investigation into how humans deal with their own awareness of mortality. His most recent book is The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.
Do you think fear of death drives most of human behaviour?
Yes. I don’t think it’s the only motivational impulse for what people do, but it pervades a substantial portion of human activity — whether we’re aware of it or not. Mostly, we’re not. In our book, The Worm at the Core, we’re borrowing ideas from the books we will talk about momentarily. What we add to the enterprise are empirical studies that, by traditional scientific standards, lend credibility to these claims. None of the authors are saying this is the only reason we do things. What they are saying – and what we try to say in our book — is that if we don’t consider the role that existential concerns play in human affairs, we’ll be able to understand or explain very little.
So before you did these experiments, many people had claimed fear of death was an important motivator, but nobody had really proven it?
Yes. The idea that concerns about death have a consequential influence on human affairs goes back to antiquity. For us, it culminated in Ernest Becker’s book, The Denial of Death. Although the book won a Pulitzer Prize in 1974, it was roundly dismissed by academics. Many English professors and people working in the humanities said, “Everyone knows this! This idea has been around since day one.” Meanwhile, colleagues in academic psychology said, ‘I don’t think about death that often and therefore these ideas must be wrong.’ They also said that because the ideas are derived from existential philosophy and psychoanalysis they’re fundamentally untestable — and therefore beyond the bounds of scientific scrutiny.
“If we don’t consider the role that existential concerns play in human affairs, we’ll be able to understand or explain very little.”
But you and your co-authors, Jeff Greenberg and Thomas Pyszczynski were able to test them. Do you want to give an example of how you did that?
The paradigm we developed is disarmingly simple. If concerns about death influence the way people behave, what would happen if we asked some people to think about themselves dying, and other people to think about something unpleasant but not fatal — like having a root canal? In our first study, we had municipal court judges either thinking about themselves dying or something unpleasant. Then they were asked to set bond for someone who had allegedly committed a crime. We wanted to figure out whether the penalty would vary if death was on their minds. It did. In the control, the judges set a bond of approximately $50. When they were reminded of their mortality, they set the penalty nine times higher, at $450.
And it’s not only negative reactions. We also found that when people are reminded of death, they respond more positively to people who are similar, or who do things that are considered appropriate within the confines of their culture. So, for example, people reminded of death give a higher reward to someone who behaves heroically.
There are now upwards of 1000 of these studies, done not just by us, but by other researchers around the world. What’s important to note is that you don’t need to know that death is on your mind. The most compelling experiments are the ones where the death reminders are subliminal. We flash the word ‘death’ so fast on a computer, for 28 milliseconds, that you don’t even see it. Then you dislike someone who is different and like someone who shares your beliefs more.
Like any scientific theory, not everyone agrees with us. But I think we’ve made considerable headway.
Does it have practical applications, like, for example, preventing war? Since it’s so much about conforming culturally, this theory does make more sense of ethnic cleansing and some other things which are otherwise very hard to understand…
We would like to think so — if for no other reason than that understanding why things happen has, historically, been useful. For hundreds of years people thought the plague was caused by evil spirits. When they discovered it was bacteria, they were eventually able to treat it with antibiotics. We’ve shown that when people are reminded of their mortality, they not only dislike folks who are different, but will physically harm them, given an opportunity. So by extending the same logic, one hopeful possibility is that if we understand that death anxiety that is repressed and malignantly expressed has a host of adverse consequences, maybe that could give us some purchase on how to proceed. We’re not so naive as to propose, ‘Read our book and these books and the world will magically metamorphosize into a better place.’ On the other hand, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to lobby humbly for incremental change as a function of more knowledge.
One interesting thing that comes up in your book is the impact on individuals. Fear of death could drive you to do lots of exercise and be healthy, or it could drive you to smoke and drink too much. How does that work?
It works in two ways. Firstly, it depends on cultural context. For example, if you live in a culture where smoking cigarettes is considered to be desirable or manly or suave…
Then, in those cultures, death reminders make people smoke more. Equally, if you live in a culture, as in the US, in Florida, where people who are tanned are considered beautiful, then death reminders will make people say they’re going to go to the tanning booth. That’s one dimension. Another, which is a little bit more complex, is that whether or not you’re consciously aware that death is on your mind alters your reactions. So, for example, when people know they’re thinking about death, and you tell them that being in the sun is bad, they say, ‘I need some sunscreen.’ A few minutes later, when they’re no longer thinking about their mortality, those whose self-esteem is based on their appearance, say, ‘I want less sunscreen.’ So there’s really a host of factors that modulate these outcomes.
Is you interest in all this partly motivated by personal experience?
Absolutely. It was my accidental encounter with Ernest Becker that led to Jeff and Tom and I doing the work we’ve done for the past 35 years. We were trained as experimental social psychologists and never thought about these ideas until I was working in the library at Skidmore and saw his book. I was like, ‘Wow, this is interesting.’ It made me realize I’ve always been a bit of a coward — and not all that enthusiastic about the prospect of dying. The experience I remember most vividly was being eight years old and my grandmother dying of cancer. My Mom said, ‘Say goodbye to your grandma, she’s not going to be around much longer.’ She died that evening. I had a collection of American stamps with dead presidents on them, and I thought, ‘Oh Grandma, I’m going to miss her.’ Then I thought, ‘Oh no, that means my Mom is going to get old, and I don’t like that. Who’s going to make me dinner?’ And then I was looking at the dead presidents and I thought, ‘Wait a minute, this has implications for me!’ That was the first time. I literally shuddered. Fast forward 20 or so years, when I ran into these ideas, I realized that they were not only of intellectual interest but that I had a very serious personal stake in them.
Do you feel understanding death anxiety helps you deal with it?
I want to say yes, but I’m not sure. Frankly — and Jeff and Tom and I joke about this — it may just be a way of dealing with our anxieties, not by confronting them directly, but by intellectualizing them in a way that divests them of their emotional connotations. In that sense, it’s no different from the other not-so-optimal behaviours and reactions, though possibly better on the lungs. I do admit to a touch of that. On the other hand, I would like to think that although I’m not there yet, being deeply immersed in these ideas has given me a bit more courage and humility, to the point where I hope I can be as graceful and dignified as my parents were at the end of their lives.
So you’ve already mentioned the importance of your first book choice, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death.
Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist who, ironically, died of cancer in 1974 at age 49. He did not know at the time that he was about to receive the Pulitzer Prize for this book. For me, The Denial of Death is one of the most profound and provocative books of the 20th century. Everyone these days knows Freud, but a lot people haven’t even heard of Becker. I find it shocking that these ideas are not in wider circulation, although one possibility is that, if he’s right that death is such an emotionally charged and unique threat to human beings, then it makes sense that people would be disinclined to ponder them directly…
Tell me a bit about the content of the book. Is it a must-read for anyone who wants to embrace reality?
Yes, I would say so. It is a poignantly provocative, non-obfuscation of the way things are. In the first few pages, Becker says two things that grabbed my attention. One is that he’s not in any way trying to be original, that he’s just trying to synthesize all these ancient ideas. There’s so many good ideas in the intellectual mist from a variety of disciplines — theology, philosophy, psychology — and, in an era of increasing academic specialization, where you’re insulated and isolated from people who don’t work in your area, we’re missing the point by not stepping back and trying to tie these ideas together. He also pulls no punches. In the first paragraph of the book, he makes a bold statement: “The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else: it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.”
He then unpackages that statement. Putting it simply, he argues that, following Darwin, humans are like all other creatures: we’re hardwired to persist at all costs in the service of surviving and reproducing. But, besides being very social creatures, we have the benefit of an enlarged forebrain that enables us to think symbolically as well as to reflect on the past and anticipate the future. Becker then goes back to Kierkegaard, who pointed out that one of the consequences of our vast intelligence is that we come to recognize that we exist. We’re here and we know that we’re here. A rosebush doesn’t know it’s here, and neither does an armadillo. Kierkegaard says, if you’re smart enough to know that you’re here, that’s both awesome and dreadful. Becker dwells on the dreadful, but he doesn’t lose track of the fact that it’s great being alive and knowing it. That’s important — I say that also to remind myself. Unless you’re a baby or mentally challenged, if you know you’re alive you are also shackled with the collateral realization that like all living things you will someday die. That discomfort is magnified by the concurrent recognition that you could die at any time, for reasons that you can’t anticipate or control. Then, just to give us a little kick in the psychological groin, Becker tosses in the Freudian idea that we don’t like to admit that we’re corporal creatures, that we’re basically animals. We’re breathing pieces of defecating meat that are no more significantly enduring than lizards or potatoes.
Becker, following a variety of thinkers, says that those thoughts, which are hard to argue against, would literally paralyze us with abject terror if they were constantly on our minds. What we do to mitigate that anxiety is to embrace what anthropologists call culture: Humanly constructed beliefs about reality that we share with our fellow humans. These give us a sense that life has meaning and that we have value. He points out that all cultures offer an explanation of how the world started, they all tell us what we’re supposed to do while we’re here. They all, some more obviously than others, give us some hope of immortality — either literally, through the afterlife or reincarnations of the world’s religions, or symbolically: I may not be here forever but, I’ll do something great and have a building named after me or amass a great fortune.
When we stand up in the morning, we have to believe that life is meaningful, and that we, as individuals, are valuable contributors to that meaningful universe. He asks us to reflect on when we were kids. Did you ever think of doing something great — like curing cancer of becoming an Olympic athlete? He says that that is not pathological narcissism, but the normal yearning of a self-conscious creature to be of consequence. When you consider yourself a valuable person in a meaningful universe, he calls that self-esteem. Borrowing from William James, he says we want to feel heroic. That’s the way we manage the existential terror that the awareness of death would otherwise provoke.
So self-esteem is absolutely key.
That’s correct. And because our culturally constructed beliefs and self-esteem that we derive from them is so important to us, we will go to extraordinary lengths — whether we’re aware of it or not — to maintain confidence in our world view, and in the proposition that we’re valuable members of that world. What the rest of the book does is to explore the personal and inter-personal consequences of the fact that this is what we do.
What does he conclude?
He says there are often unfortunate consequences. Some people react by trying to deny the fact they’re embodied creatures — and he looks at schizophrenia. He says that if you look at the grandiose delusions of schizophrenics, they’re literally trying to escape from their bodies. This in no way undermines the prevailing view that psychological disorders are biochemical. He also talks about depression as a situation where people are unable to confidently subscribe to a sense that life has meaning. They literally get bogged down in their bodies and can’t get up in the morning. When we think about mental illness, we usually think about poor people that are deluded. He says that that’s backwards. People who struggle psychologically are literally choking on the truth. It’s their incapacity to adhere to a constructive illusion that’s rendering these psychological difficulties.
Then he talks about regular people in a not particularly flattering fashion. He says, following Kierkegaard, that most of us are philistines. We just unreflexively accept the view of reality that our culture provides for us and proceed to tranquillize ourselves with the trivial. What do most of us do most days? We watch television, we go shopping and we drink ourselves into a perpetual stupor. Then he goes on to argue that what some of us do when existential concerns are aroused is to attach ourselves psychologically to dynamic and charismatic leaders. He uses Hitler as an example. I would use George W. Bush. Maybe you’d use Blair, in the aftermath of 9/11. He also talks about how some people use their significant others. We rely on our spouses and our partners to serve not only as companions, but as ambulatory gods. When that happens, things do not generally end well, because it’s asking too much of another human being.
Then, there’s a spectacular section about how the awareness of death makes us uncomfortable with our bodies, and with our sexuality. There’s a phrase in there which I love, that sex and death are twins.
Then, at the end of the book, he says, ‘Alright, what do we do about all this?’ And the book takes a surprising turn when Becker advocates embracing religion, broadly defined. The last sentence of the book is: “The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” And of course a lot of people were like, “I don’t know what you’re talking about!! Is that not just another death denying illusion?” And people of good will could argue about that, and they still do.
Let’s talk about your second book, which is also by Becker. This is Escape from Evil, which was published posthumously.
This was controversial, because he wasn’t finished with the book. His wife Marie, who I’ve met, made a difficult decision. She thought it was too important not to put out there. This is actually a darker book. It starts with a quote by Thomas Hardy, the British novelist: “If a way to the better there be, it lies in taking a full look at the worst.” You’re reading that and thinking, ‘What do you mean worst? I’m already demoralized!’ After I read this book I quit my job as a professor for a year. I worked in construction, I worked in a kitchen. I felt I really had to think about it. Which was good. Then I realized that eating was good as well, so I went back to being a professor…
In Escape from Evil, he focuses on two areas. One has to do with modernity, and humankind’s insatiable preoccupation with wealth and conspicuous consumption. The penultimate chapter is ‘Money: The New Universal Immortality Ideology.’ Economists say that money is just a symbolic medium of exchange that rational people use to exchange goods and services, because it’s easier to carry a dollar than a cow in my pocket to exchange with you for coffee. But Becker points out that money has always had psychological connotations above and beyond the rational exchange part. Historically, money was first minted in temples, and the first treasurers were priests. On the back of the US $1 bill it says “In God we trust” and there’s a pyramid with an eyeball on top of it. According to Joseph Campbell, that’s an ancient Egyptian symbol of immortality. Throughout history, people have wanted money not just to buy stuff, but because it has been associated psychologically with power — and all power is, ultimately, the power over life and death. In Tennessee Williams’s Cat on a Hot Tin Roof, the Big Daddy character says, “The human animal is a beast that dies and if he’s got money he buys and buys and buys and I think the reason he buys everything he can buy is that in the back of his mind he has the crazy hope that one of his purchases will be life everlasting!”
Becker points out that in the Middle Ages, there were religious mandates against excessive greed. Avarice was considered a mortal sin. In the 20th century, we raised it to a moral virtue. That’s turned the earth into a smouldering heap of disposable plastic bottles, and it’s rendered us incapable of being happy unless we have more than the person next to us. I find this an arresting point. The way Becker puts it, we should always be curious and skeptical of insatiable desires. With any natural desire – and John Locke pointed this out back in the day — if you’re hungry and you like apples, there will come a point when you don’t want any more apples. Same thing for everything: I like football but I’ve had enough, I love sex, but I’ve had enough. The only two things there’s never enough of are money and life.
The other point he makes in the book, more ominously and apropos of the title, Escape from Evil, is that because our beliefs about reality serve to deny death, there’s going to be two consequences. One is that whenever we run into somebody who is different it’s going to be a problem, because if we accept their view of the world, we’re undermining our own. The other thing he says is that, because they’re symbolic, no belief system is ever going to completely eradicate our anxiety. There’s always going to be a panicked rumbling beneath the surface of consciousness. We call it residual death anxiety, but it doesn’t matter what you call it. We repress that anxiety and then we project it onto other groups of people that we designate as the all-encompassing repositories of evil. Then, of course, we have to proceed to kill them, in order to rid the world of evil.
My favourite scary phrase in this book is when he says that the main cause of evil in the world are the righteous-indignation-fuelled efforts to rid the world of evil. I think there’s ample evidence, both historically and in the lab, that that’s the case. By the end of the book, he is wondering whether we are a viable form of life. But to put a not-bad spin on what is a dark book, he says, ‘I’m pessimistic, but I’m not cynical.’ So he ends the book by saying, ‘What do we do with this? I wish we could go to the United Nations and maybe tell world leaders to think about it…’
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But Becker himself kept getting into disputes and leaving universities. To you, he’s an incredible inspiration, but was he also pretty controversial?
He was considered an entertaining clown. People said, ‘You’re an amusing lecturer of undergraduates, but this is not serious.’ I would say today he is taken more seriously. He was trained by, and got caught in the crossfire of the controversy surrounding, Thomas Szasz, who wrote The Myth of Mental Illness. He claimed there was no such thing and that it’s just a cultural label. That’s clearly an overstatement. That didn’t help Becker’s reputation. Then he got to Berkeley and refused to teach anthropology courses. He said he wanted to be interdisciplinary. This was long before interdisciplinary studies were well regarded. Then he was at San Francisco State but resigned and ended up at Simon Fraser University where he wrote these books.
Everyone said that what he wrote was bullshit, that these ideas are highly speculative. I would say that almost point for point, for every statement that he made and that I have just talked about, we’ve done studies that provide empirical support for them. When people are reminded of their mortality, they hate people who are different, they love money more and they become more uncomfortable with their bodies and their sexuality.
Surely, though, it’s only atheists who should really suffer fear of death? Surely Christians and others who believe in the afterlife think it’s going to be paradise afterwards?
Good point in principle, but empirically, both believers and non-believers, when reminded of their mortality, respond in defensive and often unsavoury ways. Atheism itself, it turns out, is a death-denying belief system. So, for example, there are studies that show that when devout Christians are shown logical inconsistencies in the Bible, unconscious death thoughts come more readily to mind. That suggests that when you undermine their belief system, that anxiety comes to the psychological foreground. Equally, if you show atheists a bogus but convincing argument for spirituality, that raises their level of non-conscious death thoughts. None of them would be pleased to hear this, but religious fundamentalists and the Richard Dawkinses and Sam Harrises of the world are different sides of the same psychological coin: They dogmatically proclaim that which none of us can know for sure.
So book no. 3 is Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. How does this fit in?
I love this book. Mary Shelley wrote it when she was 21. I hope I was stipulating the first edition.
Why, is it different?
She changed it several times and it’s watered down [in later editions]. One thing I like about the book is the preface by Percy Shelley. He says fiction is about things that are impossible, but “affords a point of view to the imagination for the delineating of human passions, more comprehensive and commanding than any which the ordinary relations of existing events can yield.” I love that statement. As a psychologist, when I want to learn about people, I study “reality.” What Shelley is reminding us is that what’s great about literature is that you see things larger than life.
A lot of people forget the subtitle to the book, which is ‘The Modern Prometheus.’ Prometheus is, of course, the god who created man. Also, in the US, it’s common to think that Frankenstein is the monster. In fact, Victor Frankenstein is the scientist who creates the so-called monster. The event that instigates his quest to do that is the unexpected death of his mother, which he declares an unconscionable evil. His mother dies from a fever the she catches taking care of his future wife, Elizabeth. She dies completely at peace: The book states that. She calls them together, says everything is fine and that she hopes they’ll marry. The book goes on to say that, even when she’s dead, she has the same complaisant look on her face. It’s Frankenstein who calls her death an unacceptable evil and turns what is a natural event into something that becomes psychologically unbearable. He proceeds to go to extraordinary lengths to create life. He’s so preoccupied with that, that he makes the ‘monster’ hideous. He makes him large, because it’s easier to work with large body parts. The monster wakes up and the first thing he does is to smile and extend his hand and to murmur. Is that not what a human child would do at birth? That’s not hideous and monstrous! That’s a prototype of what any social creature would be expected to do. Frankenstein responds as if it’s an incredible affront and completely repudiates the creature. What a lot of commentators have said, and I believe it’s on the right track, is that Frankenstein’s own fear of death is fueling his revulsion to the creature. The creature is an ambulatory representation of death that we are denying by casting it out.
It’s also made of dead body parts.
Exactly. In his pursuit of death denial, what Frankenstein ends up doing is not taking care of himself: He’s so preoccupied with death that he becomes fatigued and chronically stressed. He ignores all of the people around him that matter, to the point where they’re all killed. His brother, his friend, his wife all end up getting killed and nature itself becomes despicable to him. And he ends up, at the end of the book, chasing the monster to the proverbial end of the world. I chose this book because it stands on its own merit, but also as a literary depiction of what Becker, in The Denial of Death, calls defiant Prometheanism. One of the many ways we deny death is by literally trying to obliterate it. Here’s Mary Shelley, in the 1800s, seeing what we now have in the 21st century, in the form of frenetic efforts to extend life in perpetuity. You have the Ray Kurzweils of the world, gobbling 250 different vitamins a day, we’ve got cryogenics, we’ve got Ted Williams’s head frozen someplace in Arizona. There’s the href=”http://www.longecity.org/forum/page/index.html”>Immortality Institute, where people are saying it won’t be long before you won’t need your body anymore, we’ll just upload your essence onto a computer cloud…even Google now have a project to enable us to live forever. Where I take issue is in this view of death as an unnatural and evil outcome, just like Victor Frankenstein did. With no disrespect to the fine scientists involved, I am sympathetic to their efforts, but…
You think they’re creating a monster.
I do, but only glibly. I’m grateful for vaccines and for the fact I am likely to live twice as long as anyone born a few hundred years ago. I have no objection to forestalling illness and extending life. But this idea that the end state would be immortality, I find a blatant effort to deny death in an unfortunate way. I think that’s one thing Shelley is trying to make us aware of. It’s a Romantic reaction to the Enlightenment…
“Love does conquer death. Not literally, but at least psychologically.”
Have you looked at death in a historical context? If you look at Mary Shelley herself — she had four children, three died, her husband drowned. In the past, death was much more present…
Psychologists of our ilk tend to be frighteningly acultural and ahistorical. An Oxford student made the same point to me just an hour ago, saying surely things now are different? My immediate reaction is that they sure are, and probably not for the better. We spend billions of dollars on cosmetics to keep us looking young — more than we spend on social services in the US. We segregate people: You don’t really ever see old people because they’re all in Florida. Many of us have never seen a dead person. In some ways, we have gone to greater lengths to obscure reality.
It’s easier to deny death these days, and not to have to face it.
Yes, and the claim would be, based on all of these ideas, that the more that we’re denying it, the more that those anxieties which still persist will be manifested in a variety of indirect ways — many of them not necessarily good.
Shall we go on to the 4th book, Existential Psychotherapy, which is by a psychiatry professor at Stanford University?
Yes, Irvin Yalom,1980. He is aware of Becker’s ideas, he’s very fond of them, and he is richly steeped in existentialism from a philosophical point of view. He is known, along with Rollo May, as one of the foremost practitioners of existential psychotherapy. What he purports to do in the book is see what we can do with these ideas to enhance psychological wellbeing. If you look at the structure of the book there’s four big existential ideas — death, freedom and choice, isolation and meaninglessness. For each of these notions, he muses about their implications in a therapeutic context. He says that death is the motherlode. What he adds to the corpus of knowledge is a wonderful chapter on childhood and death, where he presents, in my opinion, very compelling evidence that children are aware of, and concerned about, death much earlier than most of us remember or than parents report. Children as young as two, and certainly by 5 or 6, are often very much aware of death.
Yes, and very interested in it.
That is correct. It may seem like a simple point, but Yalom says that it is a testament to our own death denial as adults that we tend to think that our kids are not all that worried about it. Then he demonstrates how children deploy some of the same defenses in rudimentary form as we do as adults, to ward off death anxiety.
There’s another great chapter on death and psychopathology. He’s not arguing that death anxiety causes all forms of psychopathology, but that existential concerns pervade them and amplify them. We’ve done a considerable amount of research that we report in our book, which shows that, for example, when arachnophobes are reminded of death, they become more afraid of spiders. Obsessive compulsive people, when reminded of death, wash their hands longer — and so on and so forth. Some people do come in and say, “I’m concerned about my mortality.”
What do you do then?
Sometimes you address it directly. As Albert Camus said, ‘Come to terms with death, thereafter anything is possible.’ My wife is a bereavement counselor in our local hospice, and there are ways of working with people. You’re certainly not going to talk them out of being anxious about death, but hopefully you can enable them to recognize that it’s not an evil atrocity so much as the inevitable culmination of all finite forms of life. I like how some of the ancient Romans put it: if you’re reading a book, you’d be disappointed if it never ended and surely a great feast would be aggravating if you never finished and got to leave the table? I think it was Lucretius who asked, ‘Can’t we get to the point where we can depart from life as satiated and satisfied as a guest at the end of a glorious banquet?’ I love that. I’m not there yet.
Yalom also says that sometimes people may be concerned about death, and while you might know that as a therapist, addressing it directly may not be the way to go…
Is existential psychotherapy a big thing? I’ve never really heard about it.
If you asked a therapist, ‘Do you have an existential take?’ a lot would say, ‘No, I don’t do that.’ But if you actually look at what they’re doing, I see a lot of elements that overlap. I think a lot of good therapists just say, ‘I’m eclectic, I’ll use anything that works.’ Students that I teach who become therapists that don’t define themselves as working in an existential tradition, still find it helpful.
Yalom then goes on to another problem, which is that we often feel isolated. As Elizabeth Cady Stanton says in The Solitude of Self, we come into the world by ourselves, whenever there’s difficulties you’re in it by yourself, nobody jumps in your coffin with you when you die. One of the poignant ironies of being a person and a member of a highly social species is that we still have no direct connection with our fellow humans. We communicate with words, which work pretty well. But there’s still times, when you’re talking to people and they don’t understand a word you’re saying. What the existentialists say is that it is inevitable that we will sometimes feel isolated, and alone, even in the middle of London or Paris. This is where they then prescribe healthy relationships with our fellow human beings (making a distinction between genuine love and morbid dependency, as Karen Horney puts it). The idea here is that love really does conquer death. In fact, in our experiments, when we ask people to reflect on their significant others, for people that are in healthy relationships, it literally eradicates death anxiety.
Finally there’s the meaninglessness piece. The point is — how do you make sense of the world around you in which you will not reside in perpetuity? It sure seems like life is meaningless, given that I’m not going to be around forever. What the existentialists say is that just because life doesn’t have any intrinsic meaning it doesn’t follow that it’s meaningless.
No, because, they say — and this may seem like semantic gymnastics — that you have the sublime privilege of being able to fashion your own meanings. You get to choose, based on your culture and your historical traditions and complemented by your own personal experiences. While that’s a perpetual challenge, it’s also a potentially uplifting and liberating privilege. Again, on my better days I see that. Other times, I’m not so sure…
One of the things people talk about is why so many people are depressed these days. I guess it’s partly because we live longer and have more leisure to think about things. Also, we don’t live in extended families, which certainly makes me feel more on my own…
In a sense, depression is a luxury. For most of human history, you didn’t have time to be depressed. We lack the connection of extended families. And, in addition to that, we live in a world that values things that can’t be realistically attained. We value being rich and famous. Women are subjected to impossible standards of youth and beauty. It’s a toxic combination of unfortunate factors. But there’s no doubt that levels of depression are historically high.
Your fifth and final choice is a novel, Clock Without Hands.
This is by Carson McCullers, an American author. It’s a complex novel from 1953 and I chose it partly for the same reason as I chose Frankenstein, which is that in great literature we see, in graphic and amplified detail, things that go unnoticed otherwise. Every idea that we have spoken about is magnificently displayed in this book. The first line of the book captures it all: “Death is always the same, but each man dies in his own way.” In the next line, we are introduced to the main character, TJ Malone, who, at age 40, is about to be diagnosed with leukemia. This is long before Elizabeth Kübler-Ross wrote about the five stages of grief — denial, anger, bargaining, depression and acceptance. But that’s what happens in the book. Malone is told he has leukemia, his first reaction is that the doctors have got to be wrong. Then, just like in our studies, he starts hating people who are different and he becomes reflexively repulsed by his own body. As we go through the book, he is estranged from his wife, who he is still married to but claims to not have loved for decades. Just like Frankenstein, who is so preoccupied with denying death that he doesn’t notice the people around him and can’t appreciate nature, you see how this guy, who at the beginning of the book has planted a garden, doesn’t pay attention to it all summer. Then, at the end of the summer, he walks out and there are these beautiful vegetables. She talks about how ‘livingness’ is so miraculous and all around us — and because it’s all around us, we don’t notice it. Maybe this is not at all subtle, but the point is that life goes on.
Right in the middle of the novel, Malone checks into the hospital and they have an ambulatory library. He grabs a Kierkegaard book and he says he doesn’t understand a single sentence in it. Kierkegaard has a saying, that the greatest danger, that of losing oneself, may pass off quietly as if it were nothing. Every other loss — that of an arm, a leg, $5, a wife etc. is sure to be noticed. This is where Malone realizes that he’s about to die, but he has not yet lived. It’s the turning point of the book. He realizes that he loves his wife and that she loves him. At the beginning of the book, the idea of clock without hands is the ultimate depiction of the terror of death, because you realize that the meter is running, and you can expire at any time. By the end of the book — and the phrase only appears twice in the book — it’s a reflection of the fact he now accepts that, and the fact that he’s about to expire momentarily no longer matters.
In the classes I teach, I like this book as an uplifting and palliative culmination of the study of the other books — which to young people can often be brutally traumatic. When they evaluate the class at the end of term students often say things like ‘Thank you and f**k you! You made me read all these books and they’re great, but now what do I do?’ This book is a nice way to end on a high note, but a realistic one. He does die, as will we, but surrounded by loved ones. At the risk of sounding like Walt Disney, love does conquer death, not literally, but at least psychologically.
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Sheldon Solomon is a psychologist and professor at Skidmore College in Saratoga Springs, New York. He is best known for his development of 'Terror Management Theory,' an investigation into how humans deal with their own awareness of mortality. His most recent book is The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.
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