The Worm At Our Core: Digesting Death Anxiety - Blog#8 - 1 March 2019
Death sucks, but death is. Death is the mother of all fears, and the natural consequence of birth, of existing, of having a mother in the first place. The prominent early American psychologist, William James (1902) described death as “the worm at the core” of the human dilemma. The issue is how to deal with this primal fear. We can acknowledge and accept what is, or choose to be frustrated, bitter, depressed, or delusional. We can accept the parameters of the game, and work within them, with gratitude, to find meaning and joy. Or we can be greedy, and sacrifice reality contact for the illusion of everlasting selfhood and connectedness, with bliss to boot. We can accept the gift of life, and deal with the frustration of mortality by adjusting expectations. We can work through the stages of grief over our inevitable, eventual loss of life, and end up with acceptance and gratitude, or we can deal with our initial shock by entrenching ourselves in denial and bargaining. And has God got a bargain for you! The immortal bargain is seductive, but we’ve all been taught how to protect ourselves from con artists offering deals that are too good to be true. Santa is good, but God lasts far longer than one day a year, and carries more enticing presents and blacker coal in His sleigh. God is a souped-up Santa, but He requires magical thinking, well beyond the age of reason when children discard Santa. There are alternative, secular paths through death anxiety, some darker, some brighter.
Life is not absurd, as some of the darker existentialists would have us believe. What is absurd, is our expectations, our refusal to accept our limitations, our opposition to the rules of the game, our stubborn insistence on bargaining, and our creation of gods and immortality to transcend those limitations via fantasy and delusion, “alternative facts” in modern political parlance. Human on human violence, natural catastrophes, birth defects and the death of children, and myriad other perceived planetary injustices only become absurd if you create an all-loving, omnipotent God who is capable of intervening in the carnage, but hangs out on the sidelines. If He is, He could intervene, but He doesn’t, so He isn’t.
So let’s face reality head on, with courage. For starters, we can distinguish between predatory and existential death anxiety. Survival is our most basic motive, our fundamental biological imperative, and it powers desperate and creative attempts to immediately preserve life and prevent death. Predatory death anxiety is the oldest and most basic form of death anxiety. It occurs in the face of clear external danger involving risks to survival, and precipitates mobilizing defenses designed to neutralize the risk. Biologically, the primitive limbic system of our brains, and particularly the amygdala, creates predatory death anxiety, a terror response that activates fight, flight, or freeze survival responses. Our civilized societies protect us from most predators (except our fellow man), but we cannot eliminate the certainty of death itself. Our hominid evolution has provided us with increasingly larger and more complex brains, including a neocortex, which allows us to envision a future - including a future without us in it! Presto: existential death anxiety, our fear of eventual death. We can eliminate predators, but we cannot eliminate the certainty of death itself. The defensive maneuvers to manage predatory versus existential death anxiety are exactly opposite. Predatory death anxiety alerts us to the need to cope directly with an immediate threat. But our helplessness and hopelessness in the face of existential death anxiety motivates us to run in the other direction defensively, toward denial, repression, and suppression, perhaps followed by delusions of immortality. We can block death from our minds, at least temporarily, or pretend it’s really not final. Or we can courageously confront our existential dilemma, the brevity of our life and selfhood, and attempt to tame its impact.
Phil Zuckerman (Living the Secular Life, 2014) emphasized that when we accept mortality, our awareness of death invigorates life, and gives it more meaning, and urgency. Value is increased by scarcity, not surplus. Embracing mortality invites us to seize and savor the moment, to live in the present, which is a primary component of both mindfulness in particular and spirituality in general. Instead of an afterlife, secular people believe in life before death. Martin Heiddeger noted that the finitude of life provides its “ultimacy,” while John Paul Sartre opined that only by accepting the finality of death can we live life fully and authentically. Irving Yalom is a particularly dedicated student of history, as well as a highly respected psychotherapist. He wrote the book on group therapy in my youth, and four decades later, he has given us what I view as the best work on death anxiety since Becker’s seminal Denial of Death (1973). In Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death (2008), Yalom paid homage to his predecessors in the philosophical struggle with death anxiety, particularly Epicurus, who viewed the proper goal of philosophy to be the alleviation of human suffering, the root cause of which is our ubiquitous fear of death. Heidegger’s distinction between the everyday and the ontological modes of existence is also relevant here. In the everyday mode, we are absorbed by our surroundings, and may appreciate how things are. But in the ontological mode, we lose ourselves in awe that things are, in being itself, the miracle and mystery of existence. We need not wait for sledgehammer near-death experiences or grief reactions to awaken us. We can attend to the more subtle pricks of death anxiety, and we can pursue the ontological mode of being in order to appreciate the present, and the gift of life, accessing existential joy and gratitude, while pursuing a more meaningful, value and purpose-driven approach to life.
Erik Erikson’s eighth and final psychosocial stage of life was termed Ego Integrity versus Despair. The major question as we face mortality during the endgame is whether we have lived a meaningful life. Reflecting back on life, the elderly either derive a sense of fulfillment for a life well-lived, leading to acceptance of death, or experience regret, despair, and perhaps bitterness after a wasted life, resulting in fear of death. Upstream from death, in our younger years, we can approach rather than avoid our death anxiety, and use existential dread – the fear of an unfulfilled life – to drive our search for meaning and purpose. Without literal immortality, we can pursue some degree of “symbolic immortality” (see Solomon et al., 2015, and Terror Management Theory). That is, we can make our contributions to our offspring, friends, community, etc., and make the world a better place before we leave it. We pay it forward, for the benefit of others, downstream, well after our demise. If we substantially succeed, our existential joy and spiritual connectedness is multiplied during our final stage of life.
Ultimately, we circle back to the virtues of acceptance, humility, and gratitude, and the spiritual experience of awe and connectedness. Can we allow ourselves to accept our impermanence, with gratitude for our brief gift of life, and humility regarding our limited significance? Can we allow ourselves to experience existential joy, awe regarding what is, and connectedness with the “All” of being? If not, we face despair, or take refuge in delusion, denial, and greed for immortality in the face of death. But with acceptance, we embrace death as the last stage of the gift of life, to be experienced authentically, for ourselves, and for the tutelage of those who witness our passage back into the void.
Until then, we can celebrate life and love. We can pursue connectedness by focusing on our similarities to others, despite the invitations of blockheads to emphasize the differences, be they religious, political, or personal. We can practice gratitude and awe for “the All,” and accept its true nature as a mystery. And we can relentlessly remind ourselves to focus on practices rather than beliefs. We can lose ourselves in love and the wonder of life, even when we reach … The End.
Taken from Chapter 3, “Death Anxiety and the Birth of Immortality,” and Chapter 31, “Finito,” in Beyond Atheism – A Secular Approach to Spiritual, Moral, and Psychological Practices, available on Amazon. I invite you to share your own relationship with death, and ways of coping with death anxiety, in your comments below.
Becker, Ernest. (1973). The denial of death. New York, NY: Free Press.
James, William. (1902). The varieties of religious experience: A study in human nature. New York, NY: Longmans Green.
Solomon, Sheldon, Greenberg, J., & Pyszczynski, T. (2015). The worm at the core: On the role of death in life. New York, NY: Random House.
Yalom, Irvin. (2008). Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the terror of death. San Francisco, CA: Jossey-Bass.
Zuckerman, Phil. (2014). Living the secular life: New answers to old questions. New York, NY: Penguin.