Managing Death: The Unquenchable Hunger for Meaning

The cradle rocks an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. – Vladimair Nabokov “Speak, Memory: A Memoir

Introduction to Essay

One of the most disturbing realities that lies subterranean in our minds is our inevitable death. And whether we admit it or not, our lives are constructed in such a way that we incessantly guard ourselves against the notion that someday we will die. These illusions we concoct serve to dampen the sense of dread and give us a feeling of either symbolic or literal immortality. So we manufacture a worldview that gives an account for the reality we find ourselves in. Our worldview gives meaning to the origin of the universe, expounds on worthwhile values and virtues, and is always burgeoning with significance and purpose. Furthermore, our worldview ties to the culture we find ourselves, thus creating standards for how we are to act and live.

What gives our worldview and culture essence is the myths and illusions we live by and continue to construct. The myths and illusions we create are necessary because if all we focused on was the inevitability of our death, we would be paralyzed and unable to leave our bedroom. Every human being, whose cognitive capacities are intact, lives with the paradox that, on one hand, we will eventually be food for worms, and on the other, the experience awe, wonder and love.

This essay serves to expound upon the ideas of death management theory, and highlights how we construct meaning in order to dampen the idea of death.

Survival and Self-Awareness  

We will do just about anything to survive. Survival is a basic predisposition universal to all. I remember reading Viktor Frankl’s Man’s Search for Meaning in which he writes about his attempts at surviving the Nazi concentration camp. Frankl highlights the qualities he experienced and witnessed in others as they tried to cope and endure while in the midst of pervasive death and agony. We’ve all heard of people who defy death against all odds: the survivors of the Holocaust or other genocidal campaigns. Such stories reflect the fact that all living things are born with biological systems oriented toward self-preservation. Since the beginning of time, staying alive is the main agenda.

Over billions of years, a vast array of complex life-forms have evolved, each distinctively adapted to survive long enough to reproduce and pass their genes on to future generations. Fish have gills; rosebushes have thorns; squirrels bury acorns and retrieve them months later; termites eat wood. There seems to be no limit to the marvelous variety of ways creatures of all species adhere to the fundamental biological imperative: staying alive.

Our instinct for survival is only one side of the paradox we live in; the other side is that we live with the knowledge that the desire to survive will inevitably be thwarted. What separates us from, say, a cow or a beaver, is that we have the capacity to contemplate our own mortality – through self-awareness. The self-awareness of our eventual mortality is possible thanks to our incredibly sophisticated and complex apparatus: our brain. What makes us unique is that you can think about where you are at right now. Moreover, you can think about yourself thinking about where you are right now. Your knowledge that you exist is a powerful feature with humans because it enables us to contemplate our mortality. Look at what happens in a herd of cows when one or two keels over and dies; nothing changes, cows still graze without the thought, “Am I next?” We, on the other hand, are very different. As the Danish philosopher Soren Kierkegaard pointed out, since you are aware that you exist, you will experience two unique human emotions: awe and dread. When Viktor Frankl was in the Nazi camp, at times he stepped into awe while contemplating his deep love for his wife, and in the next moment would realize the immediate dread that he was engulfed in.

How We Manage Terror

As human beings, we are unique by virtue of our vast intelligence that in turn makes us aware that in due time we will die. This brings me to my next point: the unsettling realization of our mortality gives rise to potentially debilitating existential terror that’s mitigated by embracing culturally constructed worldviews that give us a sense that life has meaning and we have value. Before I expound on this point, let’s go way back into history.

Between about a 100,00 and 250,000 years ago, our hominid ancestors made the miraculous leap to modern Homo Sapiens: a new species with enhanced linguistic capabilities able to construct and communicate more elaborate chains of sophisticated ideas and to tell intricate stories (The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon). They could imagine things that did not exist, and they had the audacity to transform their dreams into reality. As Otto Rank puts it, “make the unreal real.” Drought, famine, pestilence, or disembowment by hungry lions was not to like. Drowning and decapitation were not to like. And if you were lucky enough to elude all of those catastrophes, witnessing the ravages of time transform an active, vivacious family member into a frail, mentally feeble shadow of his former self, and considering one’s inevitable future in light of this transformation, was not to like. In short, death was not to like. So our ancestors made a supremely adaptive, ingenious, and imaginative leap: they created a supernatural world, one in which death was not inevitable or irrevocable. The groups of early humans who fabricated the most compelling stories could best manage mortal terror.

The evidence for this is quite extensive. Take for instance the well-preserved Sungir archeological site outside Vladimir, Russia, inhabited twenty-eight thousand years ago. There you will find multiple elaborate burials including two young people and a sixty-year-old man. Each body adorned with pendants, bracelets, and shell necklaces, and dressed in clothing embellished with more than forty thousand ivory beads. As Sheldon Solomon notes, it would have taken an artisan an hour to make a single bead. The inhabitants of Sungir seemed to show that the symbolic supernatural world they created took priority over the mundane, here-and-now particularities. Moreover, the grave sites indicate a belief in the afterlife; after all, why bother getting dressed up for a journey to nothingness?

Another example are the caves of the Ardeche Gorge in southern France. Inside the caves you will find art as old as thirty-two thousand years old. All across the walls are beautiful images of animals as well as hallucinatory figures, while in one corner what looks like a woman with a dark vulva straddling an erect phallus. The artist, or artists, had deftly incorporated the curvature of the wall into death-transcending dimensions and representing different states of human consciousness. In the absence of scientific explanations, how were our ancestors to make sense of all these remarkable, mysterious, wonderful, and frightening experiences and sensations?

In ancient times, terror was managed by “investing the supernatural with materiality and precisely situated cosmologically; it was not something that existed merely in people’s thoughts and minds (Bernard Lewis-Williams).” This is why myths and culture provide the meaning and substance to ancient worldviews. These supernatural escapades serve to manage existential terror. Every culture has an account of the origin of the universe, and every culture has prescriptions for appropriate conduct, all of which give us some form of eligibility of immortality; either in the literal form of the heavens or symbolically as the ancient Greeks pointed out that we may know that we are not going to be here forever but we’re comforted nevertheless by the realization that some vestige of ourselves will persist over time.

Even in modernity, we have not been inoculated from the quest to construct worldviews filled with illusory forms of meaning. Indeed, we have traded the gods found in the ancient Sumerian myths of Gilgamesh and Enuma Elish for the god of money, climbing career ladders, and name brand clothes. Furthermore, the god of materialism and the shiny new BMW dampens the dread of our mortality, giving a sense of death transcendence and eternality.

In short, worldviews help give order and meaning in a chaotic world. Myths provide a narrative justification for rituals, art, and religion, which serve to regulate aspects of social behavior. And culture gives us a community and shared reality so that we can cooperate in activities and customs that give meaning, purpose, and significance to our existence. All of this combines to quell existential terror and helps us to wake up each morning with a sense of purpose in life.

Psychological Equanimity

The pursuit for psychological equanimity is at the heart of every individual. Our construction of illusions through belief systems is what helps foster the type of calm composure we strive for, all the while knowing that one day we will be reduced to ashes inside a urn that sits on top of our children’s fireplace. To silence the realization of our inevitable death, we call upon two basic psychological resources in order to find psychological equanimity.

First, we cling to a faith in a cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence. As I have already stated in this essay, a cultural worldview is paramount in managing the terror of death because it addresses the key existential questions of life: Who am I? What is the meaning of life? What happens after I die? These questions give us not only temporary comfort, but also a sense of permanent immortality. Our cultural worldviews give us either a symbolic mortality by way of the legacy we leave behind, or literal immortality found in a “heaven” that we have constructed. This is precisely what culture bestows upon us: traditions, rituals, and customs to help us establish values so that we can navigate through society with our well-being intact. Whether you’re in the caves of Ardeche Gorge in southern France over thirty thousand years ago, or signing up your mom for hospice tomorrow, you will construct answers to these existential questions in order to gain some type of semblance to the world.

Second, we cling to a feeling of personal significance, also known as self-esteem. Self-esteem enables us to believe that we are enduring, significant beings rather than material creatures destined to be obliterated. Self-esteem is the Band-Aid over reality that reveals the fragility of life. Biologically and honestly, we are simply defecating pieces of meat who are no more enduring than a hippo or a cactus. The major difference, however, is that we can be moved, inspired, and captivated by such meaningful experiences as awe, wonder and love. These transcendent experiences give us the value and worth that we need in order to move forward in life. Without the feeling of significance, life becomes grey and bleak. The universal elixir we seek is acceptance and love. Without it, we become like some of the Nazi prisoners whom Frankl writes about, who gave up and stopped cooperating with the orders of the guards, capitulating their lives by falling to their knees in submission and accepting their fate.

Illusions We Live By

Grasping on to our cultural world views and self-esteem form the foundation of the illusions we live by, but we can parse this out even more. Cultural worldviews and self-esteem allow us to feel something that we all yearn for: security and control. We feel secure when we have the material possessions that make us stand out a little more. We feel secure when we have ‘our ducks in a row’ with marriage, kids, and a stable job. Security helps us to look at ourselves in the mirror in the morning and say, “Yeah, I’m on the right path.” Control is the feeling that we’re steering the ship of our lives. Control is felt when we plan our future with detailed goals and expectations. We feel in control when we receive a consistent bi-weekly paycheck and while living “the American dream.”

These are simply illusions that make us feel significant in a chaotic world that will eventually send us into the dirt to be food for worms. So we try to meet the standard of society ‘doing things right’ by managing our finances with prudence, eating healthy and exercising, and perhaps even worshipping a deity that gives us solace we long for; not realizing that these are illusions built on marshy footing. We only realize that we’re helpless victims of nature when we get the cancer diagnosis, the notice that we’ve been laid off from our job, the foreclosure letter, or divorce papers – all the while we’re left shaking our fist’s at the heavens saying, “But I did everything I was supposed to!” Security and control is something we think we have, but we don’t.

This is the paradox: we are out in nature and hopelessly in it. In other words, we’re out in nature possessing the universal human desire to make a contribution to life, to feel valued, and to make others feel significant. Yet at the same time, we’re imprisoned in nature, ensconced in a carcass that feels terror, defecates, and withers away. Man is literally split in two: he has awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out in nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever.

Perhaps this is why the formation of our human character is our necessary lie that we live by in order to protect our self-worth given our eventual mortality. Thus, even are character becomes a vital lie as we engage in social games, psychological tricks, and personal preoccupations in order to cling on to some form of meaningfulness in our lives. So we engage in altruism, but really a reciprocal altruism, so that our ego remains intact and we reap some benefit. We use passive aggressiveness, flattery and manipulation to get the things we want. We learn when to use fake smiles, lies on resumes and exaggerated stories about ourselves in order to stand out in the world. Our social lives become a game of chess with strategic power-plays that utilize catty behavior, gossip and reverse psychology so that we can feel that brief boost to the ego. And of course, we know when to sit back quietly and keep our mouths shut or play dumb. We cultivate our character with these vital lies in order to convey integrity and honesty to the outside world, all the while knowing in the deepest recesses of our minds that we will do and say anything to ‘play the game’ and protect our ego and self-worth.

All of these illusions are what we employ in order to manage the starting point of our terror: our impending death. This is precisely why cultural worldviews and self-esteem form the psychological scaffolding by which we can manage terror. The culture we find ourselves in gives us the standards and expectations to live by so that we can have some order in the universe. Our self-esteem is what we construct and protect in order to feel value, meaning and purpose in life. A person’s character is a defense against despair, an attempt to avoid insanity because of the real nature of the world. We tend to be afraid of any knowledge that could cause us to despise ourselves or to make us feel inferior, weak, worthless, evil, shameful. And god forbid we show vulnerability or reveal any skeleton’s in our closet thus tearing away the façade that we have created. We protect ourselves and our ideal image of ourselves by repression and similar defenses, which are essentially techniques by which we avoid becoming conscious of unpleasant or dangerous truths. The truth is that misery and death incessantly lies crouched at our door waiting to devour us, and we will do whatever we can to avoid it, albeit constructing whatever myths, lies, or illusions we can in order to retain harmony within our worldview. The word neurosis comes to mind, by which we develop patterns of behavior to suppress the dark abyss that awaits us. Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but …

reality is the misery.

-Wes Fornes

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