Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #12

We continue the presentation, here offering:
Thesis #12: In its most elemental form, all cultural narratives (mythologies) serve in some way to assure us that, individually and collectively, we are valuable actors in a worthy pageant of transcending and cosmic significance. This answers our strong desire for life to have eternal meaning and purpose (and so to symbolically assert that “death is conquered, death is not the final word.”)
As far as we know, human beings are the only species that knows from a very early age that each individual will die, and each individual much live for the duration of life with that knowledge. We have been suggesting that this is the source of an enormous load of existential anxiety we must shoulder. In fact, the very characteristics of the human mind that set our mental structures apart from other species (especially the development of the dynamic subconscious mind) have directly developed in light of the ongoing need we have as a species to cope with unavoidable knowledge of mortality. These internal mental coping mechanisms are enhanced by defensive coping mechanisms on the collective level, which eventually develop into what we know as culture. If we are on track with this Theory of Generative Death Anxiety, then we should expect that a major element of all cultures will be to support, enhance and expand our ability to cope with our knowledge of mortality. And in fact, that is exactly what we find in even a cursory examination of culture.

Those who study culture usually divide the subject of their investigation into material culture and non-material culture. Material culture looks at the physical objects by which people define their behavior and perceptions. This includes everything from small tools and utensils to the largest buildings. Non-material culture consists of beliefs, values, rules, norms, morals, and social organizations and institutions. In both areas we find an amazingly broad diversity among the human species, we can make sense of that chaotic mass by taking a step back and viewing each aspect of the cacophony from a problem-solving perspective. In this way, the pieces start to fall into place and make more sense.

A simple example would be that while current American culture overwhelmingly leans toward the knife, fork and spoon as our preferred and expected eating utensils (though students are often surprised to learn that even this has only been so for a short couple of hundred years) there is a dazzling variety of eating utensils and methods across time and cultures. This morass of utensils might be hard to understand if they were all just laid out in front of us. But it all starts to come together once we take the problem-solving approach and are given the information that these are eating utensils. All human beings eat. This, we might say, is the ontological fact of our species. Therefore, the problem we must solve is how to bring food to our mouths for the purpose of eating it. The many ways in which humans have come up with to solve that problem is what has created the multiplicity of utensils in front of us. This, we might say, is the existential solution of a given culture. When we approach material culture from this perspective, we can openly embrace cultural diversity on the existential level – and vive la difference! – while simultaneously recognizing the underlying unity of the human experience on the ontological level.

Carrying this same method over into the investigation of non-material culture, we acknowledge and embrace the wide varieties of differences on the existential level between religious and political beliefs, political systems, social values, rules and norms for behavior, social identities and institutions. Yet at a step beyond simply enumerating these wide differences and giving each its due, we then pose to ourselves the question of what problem, on the ontological level, are these beliefs, practices and institutions attempting to solve? On the ontological level, there are only a few unequivocal human universals – birth, pain, eating, bleeding, defecation and urination, childrearing, mating, securing a living, sleep, aging and death come to immediate mind. There may be more. These are the issues that all human being face, and these are the problems, when you really think about it, that by far the largest portion of non-material culture attempts to ‘solve,’ mainly by providing us with stories of origins and ongoing fulfillment that give meaning to these ontological universals. I could provide examples here but it would be better for you to think of your own. Just as a quick exercise, think of what your own religion or the religion in which you were raised has to say about each one of these ontological spheres of human life, and see for yourself if it is not true that you can see in that religious teaching a fairly palpable intention to provide that experience of life with meaning.

Now we see something very interesting. Each of these ontological human universals also is in a very direct way the ontological experience of all other species as well – and very recognizably so in the case of the lives of more complex mammalian species. While we might enjoy a nature documentary once in a while, for the most part we are affronted by the fact that our ontological life is very much the same as that of other species. We are offended by the base notion that we are “mere animals.” They ‘breed like rabbits,’ ‘eat like pigs,’ ‘stink like a skunk,’ ‘let their children run wild,’ and so on, are hardly compliments. In fact, when you think about it, much of what is common to many if not most of the general rules, manners, mores, stories, ethics and norms for behavior in our culture and in any culture you can think directly reflect the protesting cry, “We are NOT animals!” This is certainly true of non-material culture, but even of much of material culture as well (especially that which covers and tends to our bodily orifices.)

We humans “do” the same things as other animal species. But unlike other species, we surround ourselves in rules, manners and mores that regulate our behaviors, sanctify it, hide it away, keep it private, help us pretend as if we don’t do it, sanction it, surround it with a ‘higher’ significance. All of this shields us from the raw physicality of our being, the very raw physicality that is our constant reminder that we are, like all other species, mortal organisms, here today and gone tomorrow. No! we say – we medicalize our giving birth; we prescribe ‘manners’ to our eating; we provide special times and private places for our urination and defecation; we surround our mating and family life in rituals and ideologies of romance and love; we pursue ‘vocations’ (literally, a ‘calling’ – from who or where we might ask?); we hide away our dying behind doors of privacy in homes and institutions, and then have elaborate funeral rules and rituals for dealing with death.

No other species (as far as we know) exhibits any existential need to solemnize, sanctify or ritualize the ontological events of their lives. Our theory explains this exactly by the fact that humans are the species that must cope with the knowledge of death and mortality. Therefore, in addition to having developed mental facilities and mechanisms to keep threatening knowledge and information from immediate consciousness, we are also the species that develops culture. Certainly a major function of culture is to pass along survival information and technical knowledge to future generations. This theory, however, highlights an equally important function of culture, to support our affirmation that we are not (merely) animals, that human life is not ephemeral and fleeting, that we are more than this and that our lives have true meaning and purpose.

Now we can see clearly that what we intend by the affirmation of human meaning and purpose is exactly a transcendence of physicality, mortality and death. Without constant maintenance of this basic affirmation, universal to all human cultures we know, human life would not be recognizable as such and would not be viable existence for human beings.
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