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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #15


We continue the presentation, here offering:

Thesis #15 – People who do not share in the basic assumptions of our cultural/religious narrative are a big problem, since by their very existence they cast doubt on the transcending and absolute certainty of our truth (revealing to us its essentially fictional nature) and thus expose us again to the repressed anxiety our fictions function to allay in the first place. (cf. defense mechanisms above, which outline how we reflexively react to Dissimilar Others.)

We know that closely and constantly rubbing shoulders with people who share our basic cultural worldview reinforces the plausibility of that worldview. This, in turn, strengthens the major psychological function of our worldview, namely, to place ourselves within a narrative that broadly informs us that we are significant actors in a meaningful pageant of transcending significance – that what we do each day matters, up to and including matters to God. As this worldview is strengthened, so is strengthened the buffer between ourselves and the abyss of meaninglessness, pointlessness, that confrontation with our mortality easily puts before us.

If you think that this is overblown, try this thought experiment. Take any one of your current longer-term goals in life, and then keep adding “… so that…” to it. See where that takes you. For example, many of my (social work) students are engaged in a longer term goal of getting their degrees. So that? I can enter the professional work force. So that? I can earn a living. So that? I can serve other people. So that? We can build a better society? So that? America can better live up to its ideals. So that? We will not be wasting the opportunities we have been given. So that? … And here we are very quickly into the ‘transcendent’ realm of pleasing God, being judged by our progeny, being the ‘best’ among nations, or what have you. This what helps us maintain our sense of forward movement, that life is worth living!

You might think that this is easy to maintain, but it is really more difficult than most people think at first glance. As even the Bible makes clear, if we really stare long and hard into the sun of our mortality (absent our cultural stories about afterlife, etc.) we are not far from the judgment about human life (Ecclesiastes 1), that it is nothing more than a bonfires of the vanities, that is, fleeting, empty, worthless and useless. Most of the time we skate on a thin ice of meaning and purpose over a deep lake of emptiness, using the stories embedded in our cultural worldview to help us pretend that ice is thick and solid.

If we seriously contemplate this situation, especially in light of the undeniable fact that there are many competing cultural worldviews, narratives of meaning and purpose that equally serve the function of keeping our confrontation with mortality at bay, it is not difficult to recognize that to one extent or another, all of our cultural worldviews are human constructions, pieces of elaborate fiction, that we maintain by all agreeing with and living by the same stories. But if that is true, then anyone who does not share our cultural worldview is potentially a great problem, because whether they intend to or not, by their very existence they call us out on the arbitrary and fictional nature of our cultural worldview and all of its stories of meaning, purpose and heroic victories. By their very existence, by the fact that they do no share in our worldview, they play the role of the child in the famous Hans Christian Andersen story, The King’s New Clothes, proclaiming “…but the King is naked!”  And no matter how much, like the townspeople of the story, we try to pretend we didn’t hear that, and try to shut the child up, we are exposed to the naked truth, that our Truth is arbitrary, fictional, a ‘socially-constructed reality,’ as social science jargon puts it.

Now, if we recall again what our socially-constructed, shared cultural worldview is largely meant to accomplish in the first place, namely, to protect us against the onslaught of potentially crippling death anxiety in face of the conscious awareness we have of our mortal condition, we can see that those who do not share our basic worldview (the Dissimilar Other) is quite literally a ‘mortal threat’ to our placid psychological equilibrium. It is little wonder that human history if rife with episodes of violent clashes when people of significantly different cultural worldviews meet, and we stereotypically resort of the kinds of increasingly aggressive behaviors (derision, conversion, assimilation, segregation, annihilation) to defend ourselves and “our way of life” against such a threat.

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