People are driven largely by the fear of death, say the advocates of “Terror Management Theory,” Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, Tom Pyszczynski. in their book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life.
From their blurb:
The Worm at the Core is the product of twenty-five years of in-depth research. Drawing from innovative experiments conducted around the globe, Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski show conclusively that the fear of death and the desire to transcend it inspire us to buy expensive cars, crave fame, put our health at risk, and disguise our animal nature. The fear of death can also prompt judges to dole out harsher punishments, make children react negatively to people different from themselves, and inflame intolerance and violence.
As creatures with a rich symbolic language to capture and store experiences, thoughts and emotions, humans don’t need to actually be at risk to be driven by the fear of death. We integrate it into who we are.
What happens, though, to someone who is asked to die and then try to be reborn time after time? How do people who live with the expectation that they have to kill part of themselves to be acceptable to society change their relation to death? How old were you when you found out that you had to die? (2000)
Once you get comfortable with loss, developing the “no habit,” death becomes a old friend, a place of solace, rather than something you fear.
For humans who are driven by the fear of death, this idea is unimaginable and revolting. They spend their lives running from death, so they run from people who remind them that death is not only inevitable, it is continuous. A whiff of despair is enough for them, a bit of sweetened suicide to add a touch of poignancy.
Everybody wants to go to heaven but nobody wants to die. For rebirth, though, you need to go there and I did. If our deepest desire is to avoid death, then diminishing the ego by reducing desire must also include reducing our desire to cling to an old life or a fantasy life too, right?
The song I heard after I saw a recent Vanity Fair cover that knocked me was powerful, David Clayton Thomas singing about “When I Die.” One child born to carry on.
The authors report that we hold onto cultural values and self-esteem to fight the fear of death. For example, when we are reminded of the reality of death, we get tighter about enforcing the values we have learned, or when we feel our self esteem challenged, we are more likely to respond in ways that reflect death.
They use generalized studies to support their experience, reporting on the statistical probabilities. They mostly don’t look at atypical individual experiences, trying to understand what happens to people who didn’t grab on to those socially typical defences for whatever reason.
I suppose that my cultural values, my assessment of self-esteem has been in service to others, but is now contained in what I say, what I try and share with the world.
Having my sense of self based in what I offer is thin gruel.
If I share and people don’t respond, don’t find value in my words, then I need to accept that. If I believe in the truth of my sharing, maybe the best way to be of value is to leave a legacy of discipline and practice to those that I love. It will be easier for them to engage what I offer once it is severed from my intensity, once the it becomes legend and not the rantings of someone who speaks for destruction and reconstruction. In the end, people have to do their own work, have to heal in their own time and their own manner.
Many people are finding the experience of spirituality to be powerful, coming together in rituals, with healers, in a wide range of spiritual practices and so on. They find community and affirmation to move beyond their old conventions to the new routines of the group, delighting in freedom from old social habits.
When people find this release, one of the first things they do is try and find new habits, new styles and new stories that bind them to the group. They become new by becoming like the new posse.
The experience of church is, for most people, the experience of community. While church leaders may care about beliefs, asserting that their congregants have signed up to follow the faith, most people don’t care about dogma or doctrine. They have no interest in doing the work to think about how the messages hold together, where the twists and crocks are in the thinking.
For those who use spiritual gatherings to create a power base, it is the joy of their followers which lets them make small shifts in theology to serve the organization and its leaders. Questioning is challenging, but faith is affirming, so social pressure is used to create joyous compliance and silence irritating heretics.
The energy and commitment of most spiritual seekers is heartwarming and loving, I often see people coming together with a sense of envy, their primal, emotional connection appearing seductive.
As a theologian, though, like Miranda, I lead with my head, the bones of thought underneath visible to me even when the message is cloaked in the brightest colours and most sumptuous emotions.
Many would argue that my my head blocks my connection to spirit, that I should surrender to the will of the group to find my connection to the universe.
My head, though, has always been where my heart, my experience and my sense of my mother-in-the-sky connect. She didn’t make me a sharp mind because she didn’t want me to use it.
While spiritual style identity creation is a very understandable response to the worm at the core of the world, too often it is just another excuse to avoid engaging the finite quality of human life.
In the last ACIM session I went to, three women really wanted to talk about not dying and how those who are physically sick brought it on themselves because they didn’t have perfect minds. They wanted a fundamentalist view, a set of rules that could eliminate having to face the worm rather than having to face the challenges of the body as lessons for the spirit.
It’s not good to have an unconscious and knee-jerk reaction to the thought of dying. We close ourselves down, come from our fear when we do that.
It’s not good to just embrace death, either. Do not go gentle into that good night. Rage, rage against the dying of the light.
God, give me the strength to change what I can change, the serenity to accept what I cannot change, and the wisdom to know the difference.
The candle always will gutter and be extinguished. To try and talk about that in a world where people have deep, unconscious reactions to that truth, though, will always be a challenge.