The terror of death

Every All Souls Day, our culture directs us to remember those who have passed on—relatives, friends, and other people who have had a profound influence on our lives. We do this by bringing flowers to their graves, saying prayers and lighting candles to hasten their souls’ journey to heaven.

One might expect pensiveness on an occasion like this, in keeping with death’s existential meaning.  Yet, we mark this day with great festiveness, as if to mock the fate that awaits all of us. In recent years, local governments have had to prohibit bringing karaoke sets, liquor, gambling paraphernalia, and bladed instruments inside cemeteries in order to maintain a modicum of order, if not solemnity, during this day. This, of course, does not stop families from bringing baskets of food and turning this annual event into an all-day picnic.

As a child, I saw funeral processions on an almost weekly basis.  Our house lay along the road to the public cemetery, and quite often, out of curiosity, I would march with the crowd of mourners to the burial ground. I don’t recall that witnessing burials ever spelled out death to me as a frightening event, or made me aware of it in any philosophical way.

In our culture, it is possible for anyone to talk about who died and from what causes, and not be bothered by the thought that this will happen to us, too. We quickly bounce back from grief, and, indeed, it is taken as a sign of a mental health problem if one person’s death triggers in us an enduring personal distress. We can thank our culture for adequately equipping us with the means to deal with the fact of death in such a way that it does not intrude into our everyday lives.

But, at any point in our lives, the fear of death — what the American philosopher William James eloquently called “the worm at the core” of human existence — could strike us in such a deep and powerful way that it affects not only our disposition but also the way we think about a lot of things. Psychologists tell us that we are often unaware of these effects.

In their stunning book, “The Worm at the Core: On the role of death in life” (2015), three experimental social psychologists — Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski — draw from 30 years of scholarly collaboration in order to show how people are affected by and try to manage the terror of death.

Having reached the age when one is inescapably visited by thoughts of mortality — no doubt partly as a result of attending too many wakes and listening to eulogies to honor contemporaries who have gone ahead — I picked up this book with great anticipation. I was quite surprised and intrigued by some of the findings. They left me asking: Is there a lesson here I might heed and try to work out in my own life? Something more specific perhaps than Dylan Thomas’ defiant deathbed call (to his father) to “rage, rage against the dying of the light” for no other reason than because “old age should burn and rave at close of day”?

The book opens with stories of how people make decisions after being exposed to questions that compel them to ponder their own mortality, as compared to those who did not go through the same treatment. I have often wondered whether people at death’s door are, in general, more — or less — forgiving of those they perceive to violate social norms. My own hunch is that, having experienced life’s complexity, and having seen how easy it is to commit mistakes, they might probably be more compassionate and more tolerant. The authors found the opposite to be the case.

“We discovered that subtle, and even subliminal, reminders of death increase devotion to one’s cultural scheme of things, support for charismatic leaders, and confidence in the existence of God and belief in the efficacy of prayer. They amplify our disdain toward people who do not share our beliefs even to the point of taking solace in their demise… They magnify our phobias, obsessions, and social anxieties.”

The authors try to explain these findings by connecting them to the two basic human attempts to cope with the fear of death.  The first is by seeking refuge in the stability of meanings within the “scheme of things.”  Anything that disturbs this imagined stability is seen as a threat that ought to be combated. The second is by grounding one’s self-esteem in the contribution that one thinks she/he is making to the scheme of things. Self-esteem is a great buffer against death anxiety. In the face of mortality, people seek comfort in the thought that their lives have made the world a better place. So powerful is the impulse to cling to our worldviews and to defend our self-understanding of our role in the world that the reaction to anything that challenges these can take incredibly violent forms.

“We have now seen,” the authors say, “how ‘man’s inhumanity to man’ stems from humankind’s fundamental intolerance of, and propensity to humiliate, those who subscribe to different cultural worldviews… Ironically, then, a good deal of evil in the world results from efforts to rid the world of evil.  As Ernest Becker starkly put it, the ‘natural and inevitable urge to deny mortality and achieve a heroic self-image are the root causes of human evil.’”

Sociologists, who prefer to focus on social conditions rather than on human propensities, might find this thesis a bit of a stretch. Even so, seen through the lens of this book, one can’t help thinking if President Duterte’s murderous view of drug offenders and his narcissistic estimation of his role in the nation’s life are not a reflection of his own desperate attempt to manage death anxiety.