Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #10 (Part A)

 
We continue the presentation we began in the last column, here offering:

Thesis 10 – This urge for symbolic immortality is a key source of human creativity and life-affirming energies; it is the underlying function of human cultures, and especially religions, to serve as venues through which people achieve and maintain a sense of participation in symbolic immortality.

We soon learn that immortality in the physical world is unlikely at best. Thus, while we do spend enormous resources on medical and genetics research, surgical interventions, and pharmaceuticals, not even to mention health and diet fads, cosmetics and much more, all aimed, if we care to notice, at warding off physical ailment, aging and (let’s be honest) death, we move that urge to defeat death to the symbolic realm. That is to say, we become driven by the urge for symbolic immortality.

That move to the symbolic realm is very important for our concerns here, and again, it deserves noting that this is a peculiarly human move. As far as we can tell, no other species deals in symbols, employing one thing to stand for another. Certainly, trees may foster the living world of a squirrel. Were we to express that observation in symbolic form, saying, for example, “Trees mean Life to squirrels,” humans would understand what is being said. However, we would need to be clear that this statement expresses the human point of view on the observation of the relationship between trees and squirrels. It would be ridiculous were we to suggest that it expresses the point of view of squirrels (or the trees, for that matter.)
As we know, symbols are highly fungible; that is, symbols are highly interchangeable, situational, and replaceable from moment to moment. Think of trees representing Life in the example above, then just reflect for a moment on how many other symbolic expressions of Life you can think of sitting right where you are – the warm sunshine, a cool breeze, foods of all kinds, a giggling infant, newly sprouted seeds, a puppy or kitten, a fountain or waterfall, the love of another person, a beautiful landscape. The list could go on indefinitely, and it would make no sense whatsoever to question which of these things ‘really’ symbolizes Life. They all do in the right context, and don’t in other contexts.

Symbolic meaning is inherited, passed on through language and cultural process; but symbolic meaning is also newly produced in the present as well. You can’t just decide in our time and place, for example, that displaying a swastika does not associate you with a certain strain of racist ideology, though in another time and place it may have a completely different connotation. Likewise with a cross, or the colors read, white and blue. All of these carry strong symbolic meanings in the present, inherited from the past. At the same time, each of them is totally dependent on people in the present continuing to invest them with their strong symbolic meanings for them to contain strong and symbolic meaning in the future. Otherwise, their meanings simply fade with time and the advent of new generations. When I think of how those of us belonging to the “duck and cover” generation were drilled to live in constant fear of godless Communism, I am amazed myself at how little, if anything at all, the Hammer and Sickle means to the generation of my current students.

When we suggest, therefore, that human life is characterized by the urge for symbolic immortality (i.e., to ‘live on,’ represent ‘more life,’ and to defeat death in the symbolic realm) it is clear that in seeking examples to illustrate this, we find ourselves pointing excitedly, wildly, in almost any and every direction. The hard-nosed philosopher and scientist, who hold strongly to the value of falsifiability as a plank of human rationality, are understandably made quite uneasy here. You say it is this, and this, and this, AND THIS? Yes, and even much more. Semioticians, those who study symbols, are less surprised. Dream analysts are not surprised at all. And you might not be so surprised either if you give it a little reflective moment. What kind of common thread might we find, for example, between two so unrelated concepts as a moon landing and your favored baseball team winning the World Series Cup? Yet those of us who can recall 1969 (sorry young folks – I’m an aging fossil…) know that the inspiration, the feeling of deep pride, the sense of life meaning we experienced when the lowly New York Mets upset the Baltimore Orioles (in only fives games!) paralleled very closely that which we had felt and experienced only a month or so earlier, as we watched a man named Armstrong walk upon the moon. Both of these events were bathed in SYMBOLIC meaning, in which we participated vicariously – that we are WINNERS, that anything is possible, that if we put our minds and hearts to it, we can do almost anything! We are strong, able, confident, nothing can defeat us! (Not even the grim reaper…)

Let’s end this here for now and expand it further in the next contribution.

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