Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #11

We continue the presentation, here offering:

Thesis #11: Generally speaking, cultural narratives (narrative mythologies) are on one level fictional, since they promise something (immortality) which they cannot demonstrably deliver; however, when taken on faith, they are also potentially true in that each provides some functional easing of anxiety in the face of actual and symbolic threats. Human individual and social life without such cultural narratives would be unbearable and impossible.

Cultural narratives are the stories by which we orient our lives within the social context. Other species, even those with identifiable social hierarchies and proto-cultural forms, rely primarily on instinct and observation of others to know what to do in life. Human beings have, at best, very weakened instinctual behavioral guides, and so rely heavily on observation of others, and especially verbal communication with others, to orient ourselves and to regulate our behavior. We are, as far as we know, the only species that must rely on stories to maintain basic viability for our social life. These overarching stories have very stereotypical patterns from culture to culture. They tell us where we have come from and where we are going. Those who have made cross-cultural studies of our overarching narratives have demonstrated these patterns. As one example, Clyde Kluckhohn outlines a few basic questions for which a cultural narrative must provide plausible answers if the culture itself is to maintain its viability. What is basic in human nature? What type(s) of people are valued? What is the relationship between human beings and the natural order? How should people relate to one another? What is the nature of time and space? How do I in my roles as a member of the collective establish and maintain a place of value within the social hierarchy of power?

We have already noticed that living within a viable culture is a strong buffer against the kind of anxiety a self-aware yet mortal being must shoulder. Our cultural narratives assure us that even in the face of inevitable death, our lives have transcendent meaning and purpose, and that in one way or another, as we fulfill our duties as members of the social collective, we conquer, if not death itself, then at least meaningless death. For a species that thrives on symbols and symbolic meaning, this is a very significant accomplishment. Believing in the truth of our cultural stories, our overarching narratives, our collective mythologies, we have a working outline for knowing who we are and what we should do in life. We thereby gain a strong cultural identity, supporting our sense that our lives matter even in the face of death, and this reciprocally undergirds our belief in and commitment to our “way of life.” T

This is essentially what we mean by cultural strength and viability, when the vast majority of those who live within a given culture are able to simply take for granted the truth of their overarching cultural narratives. When by circumstances (such as military futility – as we Americans have experienced since Vietnam) or by deep questioning of the narratives (such as may occur in academic inquiry) we see large numbers of people beginning to doubt the overarching narratives, it can genuinely feel like a situation of cultural decline, of disorder, and that things are “coming apart at the seams.” Most significantly, this exposes us again to the very death anxiety against which solid, overarching cultural narratives serve to buffer us. Small wonder that we are prone to react to passionately, even violently, far out of proportion to the actual deeds, against those “spoilers” – academic pointy-heads, war resisters, flag burners, communists, godless atheists – whose actions, or even whose simple existence, places the absolute truth of our overarching cultural narratives in doubt.

This begs that question, are all cultural narratives equally false? Certainly, all such overarching cultural narratives and mythologies are in some sense equally “fictional,” stories human beings have devised in response to the human need for transcending truth and values in the face of our mortal condition. It is true that some narratives (or even all of them in one way or another) claim not to be of human origin, but rather in some way “told to us,” revealed to us, by the Gods. Of course, given the absolute ubiquity of this claim itself casts doubt on the validity of any such claim in the particular. It is one predictable aspect of the stereotypical narrative form. So indeed, we are justified in the suspicion that all of our overarching cultural narratives are fictional, or at least that the limitations of our reasoning faculties yield no clearly objective and widely convincing method for determining which among them is the one and only truth (and so historically, we settle it by whose armies are the largest…)

Nonetheless, it is also just as reasonable to suggest that all such overarching cultural narratives, on the face of it, are also equally true. In the broadest sense, all of our cultural narratives make claims for the value of human life and existence in the face of mortality. It is quite easy to see that we cannot live fulfilling human lives in the absence of such overarching cultural narratives (even a narrative that calls one to a life of interminable suffering provides a basis for experiencing that suffering as cosmically purposeful and meaningful) and it is simply a mistake to demand that we should do away with all such narratives (those who make such demands do so only by failing to notice how they have fit that demand itself into some other overarching cultural narrative, such as the desirable role of reason and technology in curing the human species of its follies, etc.) Human individual and social life without such cultural narratives would be unbearable and impossible. It is simply an aspect of our mortal condition that we continue to construct overarching cultural narratives, narratives that assume a position outside of culture from which to make objective-sounding pronouncements about culture (the proverbial “God’s Eye View”) from an objective position within culture itself.

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