So, today I just entered the last year of my 5th decade, the last year of the first half of the first century of my life. Well, the last century too, I suppose. But that’s the problem, isn’t it? Next year, I turn 50 and still, unfortunately, and to my bafflement, am not immortal.
It is a question my husband and I like asking people, “Mortal or Immortal?” What camp do you fall into? Surprisingly, many people actually fall into the Mortality Camp. Not me, not in a million years. See, I’ve got this thing about dying. Well, it’s more of a thing about missing out on the potentiality of humans and the future, but “dying” works. That’s easy to name, but what really is this fear? Is it the fear of death itself, or are we looking at one of my Terror Management strategies?
“Terror What”, you say? I am referring to TMT, or Terror Management Theory, which, despite the name, still isn’t really about the fear of dying and death, but rather, the annihilation of meaning. Rising out of the work of Ernest Becker (whose primary book is The Denial of Death, https://ernestbecker.org), Terror Management Theory was named, described, and researched by the social psychologists Tom Pyszczynski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg. Essentially, everything we humans do is geared towards obscuring the knowledge of our own demise.
While living organisms are imbued biologically with a survival instinct, humans are (apparently) the only species who can actually understand what their own end means. Unlike various other species, we have the cognitive and reflective ability to understand that we will die, and how this death means the loss of one’s self, one’s relationships, and one’s embeddedness in the world. Totally nothing to be terrified of there, eh?!?!
As such, evolution has baked into our freaked out human systems what are called “anxiety buffers” to try and deal with this terror of annihilation. The biologically-wired drive to exist, and keep existing, runs up against the realization of mortality, creating a dissonance that, if it were not managed, would produce paralysis. Given that a paralyzed monkey soon becomes a meal for predators, this dissonance had to be managed for the species to survive. Thus, the anxiety buffers—the mechanisms that allows us to deny death and pretend towards immortality—had to be wired into the human nervous system and psyche. TMT names these as: self-esteem, close personal relationships, and cultural belonging.
- Self-Esteem – Here’s the “I”, the loss of oneself aspect. Of course, death means the end of oneself as an ego, an identity, a meaningful spot in the annals of history (or so the ego would like to think). Because that’s what we attempt to do with self-esteem: we hope to esteem ourselves into a sense of meaning that will last past death, and therefore, staving off the death anxiety. But, of course, you guessed it: one’s self-esteem, high or low, regulates the levels and intensity of this anxiety. Low levels, higher anxiety, including being anxious about things you don’t know you’re anxious about. High levels of esteem, a much better buffer against this existential anxiety, and therefore lower anxiety.
- Close Personal Relationships – Being, the “We”, the domain of our relationships and connections. This works in two ways. One, our close personal relationships help support us, care for us, hold back the looming darkness. We feel we will be held in mind and heart by these people once we’re gone, thus “living” on. Two, our social status, that is, how we are regarded by others outside of our circle, our public identity, which still falls under the belief that, “I’ll be remembered after I’m gone, and will thusly live on.” Whether it be our close relationships or our social place in the world, the “We” acts as another buffer.
- Culture Belonging – Being, the world at large and how we fit in. This kind of encompasses everything that a human does. There are no humans that don’t fit into a human social system, in which they have learn a way of perceiving, living, and believing, out of which a personal story and identity develops, of how and where they fit in the world. Everything we do has to do with culture, from religious and spiritual beliefs to how we move about in our daily lives. Having a strong sense of belonging engenders a sense of having meaning in and to the world, and a low sense of belonging puts us close to meaninglessness, just a step away from annihilation.
So, as you can see, TMT covers just about everything in terms of how humans behave, their motivations towards preservation of self and meaning, how they will view themselves, others, and their world at large. As articulate as TMT is about our relationship and defense (via the anxiety buffers) against death anxiety, the question still is there: why does it really matter if a human knows and understands that this process is even happening at all?
Given these three anxiety buffers, I think we can see just how pervasive and all-encompassing they are. Given the terror that they protect us from (death and the loss of meaning), is it any wonder that we will defend ourselves, our relationships (whatever form those might take), and our worldview (i.e., beliefs), to the woe of anyone challenging them? And oh, how we make others feel that woe: we protect these buffers often no matter what the cost.
This protection shows up in our behaviors towards ourselves and others. Have you ever wondered why certain beliefs are so strong that it seems like nothing at all will change the mind of someone steeped in them? Have you ever wondered why people react so viciously towards people not in their circle of beliefs, to the point of dehumanizing the “other”? Have you ever wondered why you respond so strongly to these other people as well? “Why do they possibly think that, and behave like that? Don’t they know they are wrong?” Have you ever also lashed out at others for what you perceive (i.e., believe) is “not right”?
The fact, despite our clung to beliefs about our rightness, is that all humans are, by birth, held in the loving embrace of TMT. No human stands outside those arms, no human is immune to its workings. Are we then all doomed to swirl in these eddies, to these cutting, judging, and even murderous reactions to each other? Not necessarily.
Awareness is, as always, the first step. Knowing and understanding that you have these beliefs and responses can lead to not only a better hold on your own behaviors and responses, but some compassionate understanding of why others do what they do. We are in the midst of an extremely divisive time (although if you look back at the history of humans, I think you’ll see that it isn’t really that much different from now, just that the Internet, in all its fabulous and not so fabulous glory, makes this much easier to see), and there’s not a lot of understanding or compassion from many a corner right now. Like it or not, deny it or not, we’re all subject to, if not ensconced in, the grip of TMT. So, being aware that this even exists as an underlying application of our human operating systems is going to be very helpful.
Yes? If you accept that then, also like it or not, you have to do some Work. Yes, capital “W”. I.e., go to therapy, do mindfulness training in the form of the very-not-relaxing-and-also-often-terrifying insight meditation, dig into valid forms of self-challenging and self-growth. Learn the principles of Emotional Intelligence (Daniel Goleman), open yourself to different forms of thinking, ask tons of questions. Do your homework and dig into the TMT and Becker’s works more deeply. Observe yourself as you respond to yourself, your loved ones, the larger world around, and especially to those who think, feel, and believe differently than yourself. In otherwise, “Know Thy TMT-Self.”
As one of my favorite lines from the movie Pitch Perfect goes, when Beca’s (Anna Kendrick) friend stumbles off to get another drink, Beca calls, “Make good choices!”
Given this new awareness and understanding, let’s make better choices.