Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #5

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

Thesis #5 – Death fear refers to a response to concrete, actual and relatively immediate threats to life. Death anxiety refers to a more prolonged, smoldering response to the cognitive awareness of our vulnerable mortal condition. The heightened physical state of freeze/fight/flight condition in response to actual threat corresponds to death fear, whereas that same state brought on by imagination corresponds to death anxiety. Death fear calls forth active response and the heightened physical state is quelled by action. Death anxiety is potentially ubiquitous and the heightened physical state is quelled only by the regular employment of psychological defense mechanisms.

Knowledge of mortality entails the inescapable condition of living and reliving one’s future death in innumerable scenarios, sometimes voluntarily for entertainment (such as enjoying horror literature and movies) but mostly such imaginative scenarios intrude on our consciousness involuntarily, in response to any number of actual and symbolic stimuli, at the most unwanted times. Death awareness, as has been seen, runs smack up against perhaps the most fundamental force we share with all living species, the urge to continue living. The clash of these aspects of being human creates an enormous reservoir of potentially immobilizing fear and anxiety. Like many species, recognition of mortal danger places them in the extremely high stress level condition we call fight/flight, or perhaps better, fight/freeze/flight. This is no less the case for human beings. The difference is that for other species, this state is a temporary reaction to real threats, such as a predator, fire, flood or other real threat. It gives them the adrenalin shot they need to fight, flee or freeze. When the threat subsides, the highly stressful reaction subsides. In human beings, however, in a very real sense we are under constant threat, since we know we will die, that potentially mortal danger lurks at every turn. We know death is going to happen, we just don’t know when and how, but we replay the possibilities over and over in our minds. Our bodies, however, do not know the difference between real threats and imagined threats, and hence we are subject to this highly adrenalin-soaked physical state literally anytime and anyplace. We sometimes choose to stimulate ourselves, both directly and vicariously, with imaginative confrontations with threat, danger and death – for example, in horror literature, amusement rides, video games or watching extreme sports performances – exactly because we enjoy in small spurts that high adrenalin state of excitement this bring us. Now consider what life would be if that condition were constant and unending. Had we not developed at least semi-adequate psychological mechanisms for coping with the potentially immobilizing anxiety that comes with the territory of the Reflective Symbolic Self, we would have fried our nervous systems long ago and our species would not be here to tell the tale.

The ’fire in the mind’ created by this clash of raw forces, and how we have come to cope with it, is the root of the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety. This clash of raw, basic forces in the mind is an inevitable consequent of the normally developed human mind. It is neither deniable nor escapable. It is an inevitable aspect of the human condition. For this very reason, it follows that a species whose mental condition is characterized by the Reflective Symbolic Self, in order to survive at all, along with the positive imaginative powers to stand mentally outside of oneself and to make oneself an object of self-contemplation, had to simultaneously develop mental mechanism more or less to successfully prevent potentially overwhelming negative and disruptive thoughts, information and imaginative images from constantly intruding into the stream of consciousness.

Much as we have drawn connections between the psychological and emotional make up of humans and other species, we now come to see that the human mental structure must also include significant coping features necessary only in species who share the style of consciousness characterized by a Reflective Symbolic Self. We might assume that sensual and mental powers yielding increasingly accurate apprehension of the natural world, of terrain, predators, food sources, mates and such, would by and large increase the survival probabilities of any species, and thus would be selected for positively in the process of biological evolution. In the human species, we see that this process of selection has created a strong survival mechanism, high levels of imaginative intelligence and knowledge, from which we also need to defend ourselves. In short, human survival and flourishing is facilitated only by the ability to at least selectively obscure reality and pretend we don’t know what we actually know to be true.

This important area of the human psychological and emotional structures is something we have recognized explicitly in scientific studies for the past century, and have been foreshadowed and hinted at in myth, poetry, literature and religion millennia. These are the so-called psychological defense mechanisms, to which will turn in the coming theses.

Review & Commentary