I often wonder how people are capable of simply going about their business, chatting about last night’s sporting event, working on crossword puzzles or thinking about buying a new car, despite the fact that they will be dead someday, maybe even someday soon. And for those with children, their children will also be dead a few decades later. How can we possibly live with those dreaded thoughts hanging over us? In fact, every person now living will likely be dead in 150 years. How can we engage in mundane things like gossiping, consuming, traveling and amusing ourselves when every person on the planet is facing annihilation? How do we put death out of our minds so easily?
Ernest Becker would suggest that I have it all backwards. According to Becker, people intensely amuse and distract themselves, and immerse themselves in culture, because they are anxious about death. They are not necessarily consciously aware of their impending deaths, but they feel it deeply, and their minds grind and sputter on this topic, under the surface, unconsciously.
We do the best we can to deal with this terrifying thought that we will all be dead, and the best we can think of
doing is to distract ourselves with the many bright and shiny bigger-than-us, bigger-than-life things offered by culture. We put these things on a pedestal and then we cling to them as if they were life preservers. We embellish our cultural treasures with accolades recognizing their “eternal” significance. “Strawberry Fields Forever,” Babe Ruth, stamp collections, being a trivia pursuit star, triathlons, Michelangelo’s David. And for some of us, Jesus Christ loves us and He will let us live with him forever in heaven. According to Becker, these cultural mainstays are important for keeping us steady, even while death (and the threat of death) lurks around every corner.
I recently had the opportunity to watch the highly acclaimed low-budget 90-minute 2005 documentary titled “Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality,” produced by Patrick Shen and Greg Bennick. The film is based on the works of Ernest Becker’s “terror management theory,” (TMT) on which I’ve written several times (see here and here). Even though I was well acquainted with the works of Becker prior to viewing this video, I found the film to be transformative, in that it offers a schematic of underlying “hydraulics” that help us to understand many things that otherwise seem so puzzling about culture. I’d highly recommend “Flight from Death” whether or not you sometimes find it stunning that you live on a planet where mobile intestinal tracks scurry about, drive buses and even serve you meals at your local restaurant. Here’s the trailer.
Even though I was already familiar with Becker’s theory and many of the experiments substantiating Becker’s theory, I found the film illuminating. “Flight From Death” includes well-chosen imagery and music to accompany the interviews with thoughtful and eccentric people from a wide variety of backgrounds (including psychologist Sheldon Soloman and writer Sam Keen, among others). Because there was a long waiting list at Netflix, I bought it from Amazon, but I now see that I could have viewed it instantly on Amazon for three dollars.
The film has much to offer for anyone who seeks an elegant explanation for the many puzzling things that human animals do. It’s not that the video provides specific answers, though. Rather, the film offers a powerful lens through which one can tether the bizarre fact that we’re all going to die with many of the things that we find so compelling (or compellingly interesting) about our culture. As indicated above, Becker argues that these two things are intimately connected—it’s not that we simply happen to be pouring immense energy into the frameworks offered by our cultures. Rather, we embrace culture as a (temporary) antidote to the toxic
(though sublimated) thought that we are thinking meat, that our lives are constantly precarious and that someday we will all be dead. Culture is our umbrella for existential rainy days until someday, when it won’t be.
What follows here is merely a synopsis of some of the ideas presented in the “Flight from Death.” Most of these are close paraphrases:
- What is left to conquer? Death.
- The fear of death is hardwired into us, and we spend lots of time and energy trying to avoid death, but we will ultimately fail. We reject the idea of our own death, even though it is inevitable. We are intelligent beings, so we know that we will die. In this way, we are unlike most other animals, who simply live in the present. Other animals can feel fear, but they can only feel fear based on the present moment. Because we human animals have active imaginations and an ability to contemplate our future, we cannot escape the anxiety of dying. Even when we are not consciously thinking of death, it is huge on the radar of the unconscious.
- The fear of our own death brings great anxiety to us. 54 million people who are currently alive will be dead in the next 12 months. Sheldon Soloman describes us as “breathing pieces of defecating meat,” and this is quite true. No other species carries this heavy burden. And no other species goes to such effort to deny such an obvious fact.
- Because we cannot otherwise deal with this immense problem, we try to redefine it. We try to cover up our fear of death with culture.
- Ernest Becker asked broad questions. He wanted to find out what underlies our behavior in a very general sense. He concluded that we solve the problem of death anxiety with the same intelligence and creativity that allowed us to realize that we will die. Becker saw culture as “a collective fabrication.” Our culture has always been obsessed with the dead and with our avoidance of death. Whenever death is possibly near, we become gawkers. In the early days of cameras, people used to take photos of their dead relatives before burying them. They used to photograph their dead relatives in lifelike poses [the film includes several examples of this eerie genre of photography].
- Culture provides meaning for our actions. For instance, most cultures have creation stories that give us a sense of who we are. These stories also invite us to convince ourselves that we are significant. Without these stories, we would lack a standard of personal value.
- The great theologians understood that culture provided symbolic immortality, but the masses attending churches are usually handed different kinds of stories. The masses are told that the creation stories and other religious stories are literally true.
- Along came Darwin who shattered many of these important cultural stories with his own suggestion that “this is all there is.” Charles Darwin unwittingly damaged the carefully spun culture web, making a strong case that we are physical beings who will die and decay in that we are animals on the tree of life, one species among many others. This message is immensely threatening to the masses, who very much seek to find comfort in something bigger than themselves, something that is immortal.
- Culture gives us a number of ways to become immortal. One way is the way cultures define “the good life.” We pursue that conception of the good life in order to attempt to transcend mortality. “Culture is an inexhaustible survey of immortality symbols.” We build enduring structures (e.g., churches, monuments and personality cults) to perpetuate the illusion that at least some things are permanent so that we can participate in
something that is permanent.
- American consumerism is another attempt to become immortal. It is associated with money and the ability to command the wills of other people by paying them money. This has the effect of magnifying the power of the self. If you get a big checkbook, you have everyone in the world in your power. Wealth thus is a symbolic barrier against death–an attempt to buy one’s way out of death. The “tragic flipside” is that if you are poor, you are radically vulnerable. You are essentially a slave, and it’s your own damned fault.
[woman and baby]
- One way to fend off the fear of death is to celebrate life. Raising children is an extremely powerful way to feel alive. Raising flesh and blood children is also a powerful symbolic enterprise. It is one of the most popular ways to engage in “immortality striving.”
In an attempt to engage in “immortality striving” there are often excesses. The attempt to assimilate power often leads people to pull themselves up by pushing other people down. Other types of people threaten us and they threaten our version of immortality. This can lead to a wide variety of “unsavory behaviors” to bolster our faith in our own version of immortality. We cannot afford to have competing cultures around, so we diminish them, or we carefully assimilate their safe parts. Where assimilation does not work, the situation can escalate, whereby we attempt to annihilate those others. People will have physical battles involving actual death in order to see who is ideologically right.
- The most protracted armed conflicts are ideological, not simply political (though they are dressed up as political). 175 million lives were lost in the 20th century due to armed conflicts, and most of that was ideological. Each of us has limitless potential for this kind of violence. Most people who were killed by others are killed for God and country, out of loyalty and patriotism. Those who are killed by crazy mass murderers are a drop in the bucket by comparison.
The “mortality salience hypothesis”: if you remind people that they’re going to die, this increases their need to cling to their death-denying aspects of the culture.
The above trio found that when subjects were reminded of death, they tend to get hostile or even violent, against those who are different. When reminded of death, people tend to act more positively toward those who they perceive to be “the same.”
- People feel the strong need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview. They want to feel that they are valued and protected members of society, objects of significance. Being able to participate in this sort of worldview equates to “self-esteem.” If one’s worldview is threatened, one’s cultural worldview can shatter, and death anxiety results.
- In one study, judges were reminded of their own deaths, then asked to set bonds for hypothetical prostitutes in criminal courts. The normal amount of bond was $50. When primed with thoughts of death first, however, that bond shot up to $455.
- In another experiment, Christians reminded of their own deaths felt especially close to other Christians and hostile to Jews. Where they were not primed with thoughts of death first, they expressed no preferences.
- If reminded of death first, people are especially reluctant to use cultural artifacts in potentially disrespectful ways (in these experiments, the subjects were tempted to use an American flag to sift muddy sand or to use a crucifix to hammer and a nail for hanging the crucifix).
- When reminded of death first, subjects put extra doses of hot sauce into food samples of subjects they perceive to be “different.”
- Most people claim that they don’t think of death at all, but we actually do think about death constantly. It is done subconsciously, and the above experiments show that it is testable. Scientists have also determined this through testing involving subliminal priming.
- Perhaps the most dramatic experiment of all was set up by the 9/11 attacks on symbols of American affluence. This caused Americans to think about death in an intense and raw way, causing immense anxiety. The attacks were seen as attacks on our own culture, but for most of us, our culture was the thing that protected us from death anxiety. The natural result was that we sought to reinforce our shared cultural view “in a major way.” Following the 9/11 attacks, there was ubiquitous flag-waving and prominent displays of religion. We saw aggression against people who were threatening us simply by being “others.” We saw unbridled desire to annihilate those who seemed different than us. The warring sides both showed a willingness to give up their own lives in order to enforce their respective symbolic systems. We found ourselves labeling things as “evil” so we could justify fighting them and destroying them.
- It is for these reasons the Becker’s work is called “the science of evil.” Our species has made a habit of warfare.
- Our cultural illusions give us meaning. They are not errors. They are life-sustaining. But we need to keep them under control.
- Our culture fails to treasure people of integrity; those who don’t harm others. Instead, we put other kinds of people on the pedestal: the rich, the famous, those who are thin, and those who are permanently young.
- The film ends with a recommendation that we should stay conscious of our impending deaths, because it is when our death anxiety becomes unconscious that it can express itself in ways that get us in trouble. At the end of the film, the narrator urges us to figure out how to live, how to embrace life.
I picked up these two quotes in the film-maker’s commentary film (also on the DVD).
Sam Keen: Hope is the deep belief that there is something under-girding this process that is benevolent. Keen then quoted Gabriel Marcel, who said that the “meaning of life” is not the right question. It’s whether we are living lives of fullness or emptiness.
I will end this long post by suggesting that TMT intrigues me, but I still have many unanswered questions. Here’s one of those questions: Many of these same cultural phenomena discussed in this film are also the subjects of interest of evolutionary psychologist Geoffrey Miller, who characterizes them as displays for purposes of status (and thus resources) and sexual selection. It seems that much of our culture can be seen both as a flight from death, and as an attempt to display resources. How do these approaches dovetail?
For a related post, consider the work of Mark Johnson, who has written in detail on the importance of coming to grips with the fact that we are human animals. Another related post considers denial of death as an evolutionary adaptation.
About the Author (Author Profile)Erich Vieth is an attorney focusing on consumer law litigation and appellate practice. He is also a working musician and a writer, having founded Dangerous Intersection in 2006. Erich and his wife, Anne Jay, live in the Shaw Neighborhood of St. Louis, Missouri, where they are raising their two extraordinary daughters.
Sites That Link to this Post
- Natalie grows up | Dangerous Intersection | December 3, 2010
- And now there’s Error Management Theory : Dangerous Intersection | May 20, 2011