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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #16


We continue the presentation, here offering: 

Thesis #16 – Hence, culturally/religiously Dissimilar Others may be a creative source for helping us widen and enhance our own vision; or, they may be encountered, in the most literal sense, as mortal enemies.

Already back in the Depression years, America’s great rabble-rousing novelist Upton Sinclair is quoted as saying, “It is difficult to get a man to understand something, when his salary depends upon his not understanding it!” That bit of wisdom is easily confirmed by only a moment’s reflection on our own experience.

How often have you been in discussion with someone, whether it be a friend, spouse, colleague, fellow citizen, or whomever, who has a vested interest in the topic? It can be downright frustrating, as you point to objective facts supporting your side of the issue, only to have the other person brush off the significance of these facts or ignore them entirely. It is how we are built, psychologically, emotionally, cognitively. At the most general level we might think of this simply as the power of selective attention at work. In response to all kinds of factors, we regularly notice and give priority to some things and discount and disregard others. If we weren’t able to do this, our attention field would be completely overwhelmed. Generally speaking, we tend to discount and disregard as much as possible those aspects of reality that cause us deep discomfort, or that we find threatening to our equanimity in one way or another. We might say that we all have strategic blind spots. It is one of the foibles of being human.

At the same time, when we find ourselves in such situations, we also notice that we are able to see the blind spots of others whose interests differ from our own much more quickly and easily than they can see their own blind spots. Likewise, other people are able to see our own blind spots much more quickly and easily than we can see them. If we are emotionally mature human beings, we might even say that one of the great values of the close communion of spouses, friends and others, is that they can tell us when there is spinach stuck on our teeth – that is, they can spot our flaws and foibles when we do not see them ourselves, and let us know about them in ways that, while not necessarily pleasant to hear, at least facilitates minimizing of the damage to ourselves and that we might cause others.

Our friends and others can spot the spinach in our teeth exactly because they do not share our line of vision. That is to say, it is exactly because, to that extent, they are looking at the world from a perspective different from the one we are employing that they can see what we do not see. It is unpleasant, embarrassing, perhaps even a bit shaming, when those close to us point out the spinach in our teeth, but ultimately we are grateful for the ‘outsider perspective’ on ourselves and know that we would do the same for them. When the blind spots are more serious than spinach stuck in our teeth, we may even pay good money for an ‘outsider perspective’ to help us see things that we just don’t see ourselves, but from which we have suffered consequences enough to know that we need help. For example, if we repeatedly suffer the consequences of bad credit or the piling up of unpaid bills despite a steady income, we may employ the services of a professional money manager or accountant to go through our finances to help us see what we are unable to see about where the holes in our budget lie. Likewise, a couple experiencing marital trouble may employ the services of a counselor to help them see what they cannot see, namely, how their interactions create the barriers from which their marriage suffers. A person experiencing emotional stress and behavioral difficulties may employ the services of a social worker or psychotherapist to help them see what they have not been able to see on their own. The point to be made here is not only that we value and need the services of those whose perspective is very different from our own, but more importantly it is exactly because they have a perspective different from our own that they are able to lend us the help we require.

This does not mean that we naturally just love interaction with those who perspective differs from our own. In fact, the more radically it differs from our own, and the higher the stakes involved in continuing with our long-held assumptions, the more resistant we may be to hearing what they have to say, even if we know deep down inside that we need to hear it and that we can benefit greatly from it.

As we have seen so far, the stakes are very high, probably the highest of all, for us to hold onto the particular cultural worldview into which we have been socialized. Our cultural worldview quite literally sets the parameters for living that allow us, for the most part if not always entirely, to keep the bugaboo of mortality awareness and death anxiety at bay – that keep us from constant confrontation with the existential abyss, the void, the groundlessness, the limitedness, the temporality and meaningless of our being. We cling to the notion that our cultural worldview mediates for us Absolute Truth with as much desperate passion as we cling to life itself. Thus, when we encounter those, let’s call the culturally Dissimilar Others, who implicitly or explicitly undermine our confidence in the absolute character of our cultural worldview, which can happen simply because they exist and live what appear to be lives of equally valid, meaningful and fulfilling character to our own, it is not only understandable but fully predictable that we will react to them as a threat, we might say even a mortal threat.

If we can take a deep breath and step back, however, we can see also that while our given cultural worldviews foster equanimity and confidence in our lives, upholding our given cultural worldview does not come for free. To the very extent that our given cultural worldview is itself a product of human invention, a sort of social fiction we collectively impose on reality (and this is the suspicion inevitably aroused by the existence culturally Dissimilar Other, those living equally valid, meaningful and fulfilling lives by very different rules of the game than our own) our cultural worldview must be understood as skewing reality as well as sharpening it. That is to say that every cultural worldview is a partial ‘take’ on reality, and does not describe reality itself. Every cultural worldview, therefore, both fosters human life and experience, but also imposes its own relative costs in terms of skewing our perspective, hemming us in by the parameters it sets for us, extracting from us costs in terms of freedom of action for ourselves and violence toward those who threaten us in order to uphold the fiction that this particular cultural worldview is an exact description of reality itself.

We cannot see the costs imposed upon us by our given cultural worldview, exactly because for the most part we interact only with those who share the same point of view. We all stand together in our everyday lives shouting “O Truth or Real” to each other, thus maintaining the collective illusion. We easily see the foibles, the fictions and the costs extracted to maintain those fictions, as we look at other cultures – we love to do that, by the way, because the exercise reinforces the sense that we are right and they are wrong. But we should remember that just as we so easily see the foibles and fictions in others that they do not see, they can see the foibles and fictions in us that we do not see. This suggests that if we are ever to move beyond the limitations of the parameters set by our given cultural worldview, it is exactly deep encounter with the culturally Dissimilar Other than can point our way forward.

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