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Sheldon Solomon - psychologist

11 September 2015

‘I’m still not a big fan of dying’

We wrote The Worm at the Core to describe terror management theory, based on cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker’s ideas about how — and I’m quoting him — the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else. It’s a mainspring of human activity: activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death; to overcome it by denying, in some way, that it is our final destiny.

 

We also wanted to summarise more than 500 experiments, conducted over more than three decades, showing that subtle and even subliminal reminders of death have a potent effect on a wide range of human attitudes and behaviours.

 

We make people think about their own death in ways that they are not aware of — for instance, flashing up the word “death” for 28 milliseconds within a film. We saw that people respond to this in a profound way: they sit further away from people who are different, and, given the opportunity, they are more willing to harm them.

 

Most people generally claim that they do not think about death very often, and when they do, that they are not particularly troubled by it. The reason we don’t take this at face value is on empirical grounds. One of the most persuasive studies asks people how afraid they are of dying. Then it reminds them of their own mortality, and measures their reactions to people who are different. The ones who claim to be unafraid are often the most derogatory. “Methinks thou dost protest too much.” Consciously, they may feel that way, but that’s one way of repressing the unconscious. But it’s not always the case: life is complex.

 

This existential terror is the natural result, shared with all living organisms, of millions of years of evolution of efforts to resist premature termination at all costs. Understanding it, and recognising its ultimate futility, could help us savour life and humbly accept the inevitability of our demise.

 

Denial of death, or, in psychodynamic terms, repression of death-anxiety, generally results in banal and/or malignant outcomes — for example, preoccupation with shopping, or the need to eradicate people who do not share our beliefs in a self-righteous quest to rid the world of evil. Repressed death-anxiety is often projected on to other groups who are declared to be the all-encompassing repositories of evil, who must be destroyed, so that life on earth will become what it is purported to be in heaven.

 

People who claim to be unafraid of death often respond quite vigorously to death reminders by belittling people who are different from themselves. We make a distinction between conscious and unconscious death anxiety: most of us repress death-anxiety by embracing cultural world-views that give us a sense that we are valuable individuals in a meaningful universe and hence qualified for literal and/or symbolic immortality.

 

But, as George Bernard Shaw put it in the preface to Heartbreak House: “When the angel of death sounds his trumpet, the pretences of civilisation are blown from men’s heads into the mud, like hats in a gust of wind”. That is, when our cherished beliefs about reality and/or our self-esteem is challenged, death-anxiety increases, and we react defensively.

 

Western societies go to great lengths to deny death. We spend billions of dollars on cosmetics and efforts to stay young in perpetuity. We put the elderly in retirement homes so we don’t have to see or interact with them. We waste billions of dollars in medical care to extend life for a few days or weeks.

 

Do Eastern societies do it better? Perhaps they were more conscious of, and comfortable with, the prospect of mortality; but they appear to be emulating the West at present.

 

Humans may be the first form of life to be responsible for its own extinction if we do not curb some of the worst malignant manifestations of death denial.

 

Judaism, as I understand it, is not clear about what happens after death — although, from my own upbringing, and conversations with Jews, there is some comfort in a stoic acceptance of the reality of the human condition that we all die.

 

Christianity, to me, is one of the best belief systems ever revealed or constructed (I’m agnostic). In this egalitarian point of view, everyone is eligible for salvation. I think that’s wonderful.

 

I was eight years old when my mother told me to say goodbye to her mother, who was dying of cancer. The night my grandmother died, I remember lying on my bed looking at my stamp collection with pictures of dead American presidents on the stamps. I realised that, if my grandmother got old and died, then my mother would also age and die, and I wondered who would make me spaghetti and chocolate pudding. Then I realised that, if my mother would get old and die, I, too, would eventually become a dead figment of someone’s imagination — at best. I literally shuddered at this thought, and I’ve been preoccupied with death ever since.

 

I’d like to think I am making some progress in taking Albert Camus’ advice: “Come to terms with death; thereafter anything is possible.” I was a little Woody Allen of sorts, always musing on the prospect of dying — and I’m still not a big fan. My colleagues Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg talk about this all the time. It may, ironically, be our own way of managing the terror: not in a good sense, just intellectualising it. I’m not sure that that’s a mature confrontation with our mortality. Becker talks about the idea that there is a difference between the subtle, fleeting encounter with mortality and the work philosophers have urged us to do, spending a lot of time thinking and feeling. If we could actually ever do that, we’d be more humble, more tolerant.

 

I’d like to leave two kinds of legacies. George Eliot makes a distinction between different kinds of heroism. There’s the Shakespeares, Mother Teresas, Albert Einsteins . . . who do something profoundly beautiful and important, and will be remembered for a very long time. I’m proud that we opened our restaurant, and my “doughboys” got a mention in the New York Times. But, Eliot says, there’s another kind of heroism we don’t adequately recognise: people who do the best with the cards that life has dealt them. This is squarely in the Christian tradition.

 

I come from a working-class background, and started working res-taurants when I was 14, pretty sure I’d become a chef. I worked at a Sheraton Hotel when I finished college at 20. My parents told me that cooking was an honourable profession, but asked me to consider if working in front of a hot stove 60 hours a week was something I would like to be doing when I was 50. If I had a Ph.D. and didn’t want to be an academic, I could go back and cook.

 

And that’s what I did. I became a professor at Skidmore College, but 20 years ago, a former student and his wife asked me and my wife, Maureen (she’s a therapist and bereavement counsellor in our local hospice) to help them open a restaurant.

 

Our restaurant, Esperanto, is a small place in Saratoga Springs, New York, that serves gourmet fast-food based on some of the best street foods that we all had encountered in our travels, including pizza, burritos, falafel, and Thai curry. I cook three or four days each year, just to remember it, and maybe I’ll go back more some day.

 

The doughboys? These are a hand-held snack food I invented in college: sautéed chicken diced and mixed into a paste of four different cheeses, spices, lemon juice, and scallions, rolled into a pickle-shape and baked in pizza dough. The best-selling item at the restaurant: over a million sold!

 

My mom and dad were kind and generous people, who taught us to be the same, and who stressed the importance of humility and respect. I regret that I never adequately conveyed to them how much their unequivocal love and support has nurtured and sustained me to this day.

 

I’m happiest wherever I am, in rare moments when I’m able to accept whatever is happening around me. Being in the UK has been short, inspirational, and delightful. I’m looking forward to returning to Scotland this month, and Liverpool in November, where I’ve been invited to address conventions of palliative care and hospice workers.

 

I pray that humankind will, as Bob Marley put it, “Wake up and live.” Plato said that people are sleep-walking. Freud said that neurosis is “dreaming while awake.” James Joyce said: “History . . . is a nightmare from which I am trying to awake.” Otherwise, I think that we may not be a viable form of life.

 

If I was locked in a church or a synagogue, I’d like to have with me Epicurus or Lucretius, Shakespeare, Moses, or Jesus . . . and/or my mom and dad.

 

Professor Solomon was talking to Terence Handley MacMath.

 

The Worm at the Core: On the role of death in life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski, is published by Allen Lane (£20; CT Bookshop £18).

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