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Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #8

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

Thesis #8 – The entire array of individual and collective defense mechanisms are regularly employed to maintain individual and social/cultural equanimity in reaction to actual threats of injury, death, and annihilation, and also in reaction to imaginative or symbolic threats of injury, death, and annihilation. Such defense mechanisms probably originated in, but certainly were strategically contoured in their contemporary form by the need for anxiety control in the face of mortality awareness. In short, our highly developed intelligence caused the anxiety problem in the first place, and also comes forth with at least the provisional solution to the anxiety problem.

Individual equanimity is essentially what we mean when we talk about self-esteem, self-worth, a healthy narcissism, and so on. We all get the blues periodically, of course. But overall, it is necessary for the individual to have an adequate level of individual equanimity to be able to function. Bearing in mind that he was writing before the recent advances we have seen in understanding brain chemistry, Ernest Becker often used the concept of depression to describe an individual who was unable to maintain such adequate levels of equanimity.

Social or cultural equanimity, on the other hand, must be maintained collectively. It designates a collective sense that the cultural pageant in which we are engaged is itself meaningful, worthwhile, worth the effort to continue. If this collective sense of equanimity is lost, a people might well slide into a state very much analogous on the collective level to depression on the individual level. In that case we speak of a collective sense of malaise, of ennui, of a general sense that the cultural pageant in which we are engaged does not fulfill our human need for meaning and purpose in our lives – that it all just might not be worth the effort, that finally “all is vanity,” as the Preacher puts it in the opening lines of Ecclesiastes.

It is common to experience some sense of social discomposure after a great social project is completed, especially when it comes to completion “not with a bang but a whimper.” I can remember our enthusiasm for the Space Race ending that way. I was in grade school when Alan Shepard and then John Glenn blasted out into space, and in high school when Neil Armstrong and Buzz Aldrin landed on the moon. This was dramatic evidence for the narrative that we Americans truly are special among humanity, a cut above the rest. Now decades later it difficult to even remember how animated we felt, that mix of pride in accomplishment, sense of adventure and patriotism that the concept of “putting a man on the moon” inspired it us. The current cheerleading of a clearly gifted man like Neil DeGrasse Tyson almost seems almost pathetic now. Likewise, coming face to face with the limits of American power in Vietnam, in the Middle East, and the “with a whimper” ending of the Cold War, we certainly understand that eerie feeling of a temporary loss of social and cultural equanimity. If the problem becomes permanent and is not just temporary, the culture may actually collapse, as we have seen in case after case in human history. Some say we are approaching that point with Western Civilization even as we speak. As our faith in God erodes, we lose the sense that what we do from day to day has any meaning or purpose beyond an endless recurring cycle of the strong dominating the weak. “Is that all there is?” asks the singer of one of our jazz chestnuts.

We employ the array of individual and collective defense mechanisms against what, exactly? Against really having to confront the suspicion we have that life begins and ends in a Void, and that not only myself individually but the species as a whole is of no real significance to the universe; that in the face of whatever it is that put us here, we don’t matter, we don’t make a lick of difference one way or the other. We come, we go. All we are is dust in the wind (and not even that). This is the spandrel burden placed on us by the development of our intelligence, of our Reflective Symbolic Self. This is the ‘reality’ we have to shield ourselves against, just so that we can continue to live.

Since we are (as far as we know) that only species who must shield itself from reality in this way in order to merely continue living, it follows that the aspect of our psychological and emotional make up we experience, but which is not present at least to anything approaching the degree that it is in the human species, namely, the dynamic unconscious mind, has its origins fairly directly in this need to shield our conscious minds from hard-nosed reality. We can only confront this hard-nosed reality in small doses, mostly when circumstances force it upon us, and even then only through the shades of heavy linguistic symbolism (resting, sleeping, gone away, moved on, etc) and stories of assurance and hope. Psychotherapist Irvin Yalom aptly likened facing one’s own mortality to “staring into the sun.” At the very least, if we cannot say in a scientific sense that the individual and collective defense mechanisms we recognize and experience every day originated in the need for coping with mortality awareness, we certainly are justified in suggesting that these mechanisms contoured by this need.

While we may well resist this idea that our individual and collective defense mechanisms are primarily a guard against having the fact of our mortality continually intruding into consciousness, we have to admit that it is a rather ingenious twist to the evolutionary process. Whether the in the process of evolution, and the strong selection for increasing intelligence that characterizes the human species, we developed something qualitatively de novo in the dynamic unconscious mind, or somewhat haphazardly fabricated the dynamic unconscious out of existing elements of what was there previously, the ingenious evolutionary twist is undeniable. It was our increasing intelligence that created the problem of mortality awareness in the first place, and we moved to produce at least a partial and tentative operational solution to that problem by employing the very same elements of intelligence. That is no small achievement. Just ask the dinosaurs.

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