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

 
In the last column, we began our discussion of Thesis #10. Just as a reminder, Thesis #10 states:
 
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..
 
The urge for symbolic immortality is a main source of human generativity. It is a deep affirmation of life, even in the face of death, that calls forth our most imaginative, inspired and resourceful energies. This is true on the level of the individual, but it is also true, and perhaps even more so, on the collective level of culture. It would only be a very slight exaggeration to suggest that the very essence of what we generally mean by ‘culture,’ – the creation and appreciation of art, poetry, music, literature, architecture, philosophy and intellectual life, parades, public rituals, competitive games and much more – are symbolic encapsulations of the human spirit loudly claiming, “We are here! We are alive, and we matter!”

One of the most commonly seen avenues for creating a sense of symbolic immortality is to embed oneself in the many collective, larger-than-life projects of culture. Modern psychologists tell us what the poets, writers, priests  and politicians have always known – that we humans feel most alive, most in the ‘flow’ of life, when we are totally immersed in the ideas and activities of large groups of other people.

Religion is an essential element of every human culture of which we know, and the doctrines of religion always point us in the direction symbolic immortality. Often this is very direct, with beliefs and stories about life continuing on after death. In ethical religions this is usually pictured as some sort of non-physical or transphysical essence of the person, such as the soul, living on after death, gaining or suffering one’s ‘eternal reward’ based on one’s actions during the current life. Other types of religions picture a more transpersonal merger of the life essence with God or a reunion with the Life Force. What all have in common is the claim, in one way or another, that human life is potentially meaningful, that we imbue life with meaning by living up to the standards of our culture, and that in doing so we follow the will of and thus please the divine powers that transcend and uphold human life. I often point out to my students in class, who themselves come from a wide variety of religious backgrounds, that in this religious smorgasbord of America we may not be able to find even one point of religious belief and practice on which all agree (how many Gods there are if any, who speaks for God on earth, how we should pray and worship, and so on) we will find that in one way or another all converge on the admonition to respect authority, to be good citizens, and to obey the laws of the land.

Much of the cultural language in the realm of symbolic immortality revolves around concepts of heroic, vicarious sacrifice and salvation. It is easy to see this in the discourse of religion. The central religion of Western culture in integrally built upon the story of one who gave himself up to suffering and death for the salvation of the world, a salvation that guarantees eternal life to those who believe; but the same general theme shows up in one way of another in most every religion. This theme may be less obvious in the ‘secular’ realm, but it is found there no less often as well. Our propagandists of patriotism regularly bring crowds to their feet in tears of joyous gratitude toward those fallen in battle, those who have made the ‘ultimate sacrifice,’ if not for our salvation then certainly so that our ideology and the symbols of our way of life (flag, democracy, freedom, market economy, The American Way) will be defended, will endure and conquer. We quickly identify as ‘evil’ and against God anything and everything that would stand in opposition to the most cherished emblems of our culture. Our own faith in ourselves as something higher, better, more powerful, than mere mortals is bolstered by our continued vicarious identification with the superiority of our culture and our way of life. We imagine ourselves thus to be the envy of all the nations of the world!

We pursue and achieve symbolic immortality through countless endeavors, and I would encourage you to become more conscious of the ways you pursue it yourself. You might do this simply by reflecting on the question of what you do that makes you feel good about yourself. When do you feel most alive? What are the kinds of things you admire in the lives of others? Surely, there are as many answers to these questions as there are people, but Robert J. Lifton has helpfully pointed out that there are certain patterns to the ways in which we seek to achieve symbolic immortality, stereotypical groupings, we might call them, which provide some order to our investigations. Without claiming these to be exhaustive, Lifton outlines five such pathways, or modes as he called them, that characterize perhaps most of human immortality striving.

The first of these is the biological mode, which is the pathway of living on symbolically through family and offspring. The second is the religious mode, the pathway of living on symbolically through belief systems that connect one to God or specific ideas of the afterlife. The third is the creative mode, the pathway of living on symbolically through one’s work, and the knowledge that through one’s work one will continue to have influence on the lives of others. The fourth is the mode of nature, the pathway of strong symbolic identification of oneself with the natural environment and the solidity of time and space. One thinks of this mode in hearing, for example, a learned scientist speak about the wonder of the natural world, of the cosmos, but also I have been reminded of this mode in listening to the conversations of enthusiastic gardeners. This mode may be increasing in prominence in relation to modern ecological concerns as well. A final mode Lifton writes about is the mode of experiential transcendence. This is the pathway of mystical understanding, of experiencing the dissolution of the ego, a psychic state in which time dissipates and death disappears. While historically this type of experience has been associated with ecstatic religious practices, we also know that this type of experience can be induced through psychedelic substances often as an element of religious worship or meditation. That such experience can be induced by substances, however, make them no less genuine or authentic, especially to those who undergo such experience.

As said, there is no claim being made that this enumeration of pathways for expression of symbolic immortality is exhaustive. There certainly are many others. This does give us some direction, however, pointing toward what is meant by symbolic immortality as an antidote, and easement, to naked death anxiety, and that this movement toward symbolic immortality represents the generative and creative movement of the human spirit in coping with the awareness of death and our mortal state.

Click here to see all Parts of this Series.

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