More than one hundred years ago, the American philosopher William James dubbed the knowledge that we must die “the worm at the core” of the human condition. In 1974, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book The Denial of Death, arguing that the terror of death has a pervasive effect on human affairs.
In The Worm at the Core, Sheldon Solomon – together with Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski show that this knowledge of our own death guides our thoughts and actions from the creation of our greatest works of art, to the devastating wars we wage. They 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. Through this research, they also developed terror management theory– which proposes that human culture infuses our lives with order, stability, significance, and purpose, and these anchors enable us to function moment to moment without becoming overwhelmed by the knowledge of our ultimate fate.
In this exclusive interview, I speak to Professor Sheldon Solomon about the role of death in life and how we must reconsider and rethink our lives in the face of the inevitable.
Q: How does death relate to being human?
[Sheldon Solomon]: About 40 years, I read an essay by Alexander Smith. In the 1860s he wrote that, ‘it is our knowledge that we have to die that makes us human’ I remember reading that and thinking, ‘…man, he’s onto something!’ 20 years later, I stumbled onto a book by Ernest Becker – a cultural anthropologist – called ‘The Denial of Death.’ It was in that book that Becker argued that the distinguishing characteristic of humanity is our awareness that death is inevitable and the disinclination to accept that fact. Very simply, Becker says that we’re just like all other creatures- we want to survive- but the difference is that we’re able to do it using our vast intelligence. We can imagine things that don’t exist and make them real. We know we exist, and on the best days that sensation of being alive is one of the most beautiful things about being human. We are- however- smart enough to know that we’re not going to be here forever.
We can die at any time for any reason. We can’t anticipate or control that. We don’t like the fact that we’re animals. We’re breathing, defecating pieces of meat that are no more significant or enduring than lizards or potatoes.
Without what Becker called ‘cultural world views’ we would be overwhelmed by existential terror. Beliefs about reality that we share foster psychological equanimity by giving us a sense of meaning and value. We spend our waking moments trying to maintain confidence in our culture and equal confidence in our value in the context of the culture.
Q: What is the link between spirituality, morality and death?
[Sheldon Solomon]: For most of human history our world view was based on religious belief systems. All belief systems have some supernatural dimensions and have some opportunities for immortality (whether literal or symbolic). All belief systems render the hopes of this immortality contingent on acting in accord of moral dictates.
From a religious perspective, morality is the way that human beings are able to foster some sense of social co-ordination or cohesion. From an evolutionary perspective, morality – regardless of whether you believe in God or not – seems the only clear way to get large groups of genetically unrelated people to behave in a coordinated fashion, avoiding the wholesale chaos that could otherwise ensue. It is this morality which- at least broadly- helps us constitute a good life.
This may be the core question that humanity has to confront today. We have essentially been religious creatures (in terms of our world view) for most of history. Modernity has brought a waning of religious worldview.
Nietzsche proclaimed, ‘God is dead!’ but went on to say that Christianity had become unbelievable. His point was not cynical. The theory of evolution, the industrial revolution and technological advance were pushing human beings on the road to progress and Nietzsche’s point was that against this backdrop, the power of religious belief to unite us under one common set of beliefs was not going to persist. He thought the next two centuries would be rather unsettled as a result, and history has shown he was right.
A lot of folks don’t believe in God anymore. Ernest Becker proposed that we still worship, it’s just that we worship money and political leaders or become members of cults, conspiracy groups or yoga! These are just different ways of dealing with death and anxiety.
Q: How can we die without a God?
[Sheldon Solomon]: For most of history, the average person’s perspective was that everything they do in life would be observed and ultimately rewarded or punished by the ‘almighty.’ A lot of religious folks have argued that in the absence of a godlike figure who knows and sees all, we would all be narcissistic sociopaths. At the risk of being glib, in the United States, most of the narcissistic sociopaths are also devoutly religious…
Philosophers have also been wrestling with this problem. Compare the existential philosopher Søren Kierkegaard with Martin Heidegger. You have Kierkegaard, a devoutly Christian philosopher who said that we cannot come to terms with our mortality without going to the school of anxiety, where we momentarily shed our culturally constructed identity to metaphorically rebuild ourselves as we are, rather than socially and culturally constructed meat puppets. For Kierkegaard, the only way to do this was through a leap of faith. The logic being that none of us are capable of literally or metaphorically standing alone by virtue of our own physical or psychological attributes. That’s a true statement. Nobody is born more profoundly dependent and helplessly immature than a human infant. Nobody is more prone to anxiety than a human infant. From the moment we are born, we attach ourselves to important people and objects in our surroundings to reduce anxiety and to survive. The Kierkegaard view is just a metaphorical extension of the need we have to behold to powers above and beyond ourselves. For some people therefore, if there’s no God? There’s no death. Of course, we will still expire like any other living creature – but that’s different than being able to accept the reality of our finitude without being constantly in a state of existential disarray.
Heidegger comes in and gives this anxiety a name, angst. The feeling that things aren’t right. I like the world angst because evidently, in German it has connotations of a sense of being unsettled and not at ‘home.’ For Kierkegaard, just like Heidegger, you’re unsettled because you’ve not come to terms with the reality of your condition. Heidegger has a secular way of resolving those concerns – he agrees that we are historical accidents. We are born at places and times not of our choosing. We are here for inconsequentially small amounts of time relative to the universe, and we engage in what Heidegger calls ‘the flight of death.’ We cling tenaciously to our cultural world views and tranquilise ourselves with the trivial aspects of life.
I’m a Professor. I was born in Brooklyn in the last century, and I’m male. I could have been born in the third century as a goat herder in Mongolia, or even as a goat. This is the realization that should open up a mental horizon where we can say, ‘I know I’m going to die – maybe in the future, maybe in the next few minutes – and therefore every minute I’m here is precious.’ We all make choices, some of them are based on conditions over which we have no control. And we have to accept that. Existentialists call this acceptance of the guilt of the unlived life.
If we could achieve this state of mind, Heidegger said that we could go through life with far greater concern for those around us. We would be anticipatory, looking forward, resolute and devoted to whatever matters. Life could be profuse with unshakeable joy.
None of this is new thinking. Socrates said that to philosophise is to learn how to die. The Tibetans have a book of the dead with monks working with skulls on their desks.
Whether we have Kierkegaard’s faith in God, or Heidegger’s faith in life, I still think it’s possible to conceive of a good life. Heidegger stipulates that a person in that condition will care as much about others as they will of themselves. So, I see no reason in principle why it’s not possible to die right as it were, from either a religious or secular perspective.
Q: Do we need to think more about death?
[Sheldon Solomon]: Studies have shown that people who have had near death experiences go through transformations that are immediate and enduring. What underlies that is a radical reconceptualization of what it means to die. Folks that have had a near death experience see death as more of a transition than an obliteration.
Lots of cultures and traditions have tried to bottle that state, or find ways of attaining it, but they’re not very conducive to a western way of life. We want things fast, and preferably through some kind of pharmacological intervention that divests any responsibility or effort. There is, however, no free lunch in this domain. Encountering and making sense of mortality takes time, effort, motivation and is an ongoing and explicit confrontation with the contemplation of death. For the most part, we operate on autopilot. We’re bombarded with intimations of mortality, but the research shows that when you actually, consciously think about the fact that you will die someday- the brain starts an active suppression process to get those thoughts out of your head.
This process has been found to underly the commitment we have to culture, to devotion, to self-esteem, critical parts of our psychosocial development.
Q: How do we cope with mass deaths in society?
[Sheldon Solomon]: This is a historically unprecedented moment, in part because of a change in technology. Mass death has always been with us – we’ve gone through wars, depressions and pandemics – the difference now is a 24/7 multimedia environment that’s driven by a commercial imperative which says if it bleeds, it leads: poignant and profoundly true. If a mass fatality event anywhere in the world, everyone in the world will know about it now, whereas in the past that was not true. We also- because of the way media works- have a disproportionate amount of attention devoted to mass deaths.
This persistent intonation of mortality renders us emotionally detached to the point where a large chunk of humanity is on the cusp of PTSD by virtue of being inundated with death reminders. If it’s not the pandemic, it’s the climate apocalypse. If it’s not the climate apocalypse, it’s war, it’s economic instability. We may be at a threshold where we’re being bombarded with so many barrages of death related imagery, that we just become numb.
Q: Why have we changed the aesthetic of death and dying in western culture?
[Sheldon Solomon]: This isn’t a cynical denunciation of Western or American culture, nor is it an effort to disregard some of the very positive aspects of these culture configurations, but to be sure we are one of the most death denying cultures in the history of earth. We have gotten to the point where death is seen as a disgrace. We have scientists and ‘immortalists’ saying that death is a disease, and vast expenditure devoted to useless procedures in the last 6 months of life. Many Americans have never seen a dead person. We spend more money on cosmetics than we do on education to keep ourselves looking young.
Other cultures aren’t saying oh death is great, let me jump into a fire pit! But they do have a keener appreciation of life that cannot be acquired without the explicit recognition that life will end someday. Philosophers remind us that the Greek Gods were bored because they were immortal. In cultures where death is admitted to phenomenologically, they are in better psychodynamic shape, and we can all learn something from how they express those concerns.
Q: Does our self-esteem impact our relationship with death?
[Sheldon Solomon]: William James, one of the earliest psychology educators, said that self-esteem is for humans like food or basic emotions – we cannot get by without it. It took some time though, to define what self-esteem is or even to understand it. Ernest Becker said that self-esteem is the belief that you are a person of value in a world of meaning. We mustn’t confuse that with narcissism. Especially here in America, we confuse and conflate self-esteem and narcissism. A lot of people say self-esteem is bad, but it is narcissism that’s bad – it’s the antithesis of self-esteem.
If you ask people how you feel about yourself. Some people may say great because they do – and others may say it because they’re narcissists and in reality, hate-themselves. Real self-esteem is high, explicitly and unconsciously. Narcissism is if you say you feel great about yourself but it’s really a massive manifestation of an underlying insecurity. Real self-esteem buffers anxiety. We all need it, but we cannot get it from ourselves – self-esteem comes through culture – from being that person of value in a world of meaning.
It is this need to derive value from a culturally constructed standard which perhaps explains why Western civilisation is a petri-dish of psychological pathology. Rates of depression are 10x higher in the US now than after World War 2 because the standards of value by which we get self-esteem today are impossible to obtain for most of the population. There are a lot of good things about meritocracy, but it can be psychologically debilitating because all that matters is being the best. When we teach ourselves and our children to embrace standards that are literally unattainable, it’s a recipe for psychological despair.
We need to step-back and re-evaluate what we value. We can admire and extol the virtues of excellence while- at the same time- extolling the virtues of being kind, decent and able in society. That is a more accurate way of depicting how our world works. I can imagine a world in which we try to broaden the scope of what it is that we value, in the service of allowing as many people as possible to perceive themselves as valuable participants in a meaningful world.
Q: What have you learned about life, from studying death?
[Sheldon Solomon]: I’ve been disinclined to die since I was 8, when I realised it was going to happen. For the past 40 years, I’ve been thinking about it, doing experiments and writing about it – this has perhaps, been a gigantic psychological defence to anaesthetise me by intellectualising the enterprise. It’s been my alternative to shopping and drinking. I would like to think however, that I’ve made some inroads to understanding life, and understanding what’s important. When I want to write a book – I try to think about why I’m really doing it – am I wanting fame and wealth? Do I have something important to say to contribute to the wellbeing of those around me? Sometimes I realise that it’s just an egotistical exercise in narcissistic self-inflation – and so I try to nudge myself in the other direction.
As I’ve gotten older, I’ve become less driven by conventional standards of success. Having kids was huge, having pets was huge. Value, humility and gratitude are existential anxiety buffers. High self-esteem is great, but so is being humble and grateful.
It was great this morning walking out of my house and catching a face full of fresh air and taking a walk with the dog. So, I hope I can get to that sublime point where again, every moment has the capacity to enrich our lives in a variety of ways.
Mary Shelley wrote Frankenstein, which is a book all about death. She used the world awful in two ways. She used it to mean terrible, but also awe-full – where we are instilled by awe. We can be just as discombobulated and overwhelmed by awe as we can with dread. It’s great to have mystical experiences, but not while standing in the middle of the street with a car coming toward us.