Theses Toward a Theory of Generative Death Anxiety: Thesis #9

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

Thesis #9 – Perhaps the most significant and ubiquitous anxiety-compensatory move is to transfer the urge for continued living from the physical realm to the symbolic realm; the organismic urge for continued living becomes channeled into the urge for immortality in the symbolic realm.

We have a baseline need to shield ourselves from the reality of what we know to be true, that we are mortal beings who live and die, like any and every other mortal being. We construct all manner of individual and collective defense mechanisms to assist in shielding our everyday consciousness from such painful and threatening information about ourselves, thus allowing us to cope with it in limited and more manageable doses. But the fact remains, we are not stupid. We see all manner of death around us, from the flowers adorning our tables to the enemies we vanquish in battle. We experience the aging bodies of those close to us, and we experience our own aging bodies directly. See seek to conquer death in the physical world and all but fetishize life-extension medicine – we willingly believe lavish claims for progress in that field (that we don’t really understand) of the same type we would laughingly scoff as so much snake-oil sales malarkey if made on behalf of, for example, a dish-washing liquid (which we do understand).

Nonetheless, we come eventually to accept that living beyond death in the physical world is unlikely.

Having recognized that our quest for living beyond death (for immortality) in the physical world is unlikely to be successful (though residual hope keeps our health and exercise industry quite profitable and subject to a never ending stream of fads and fakeries) we very quickly move our quest from the physical realm to the symbolic realm. In the physical realm, I am no more than any other mortal being. But in the symbolic realm, I have all manner of attaining ‘symbolic immortality’ by projectively attaching my essence, my Reflective Symbolic Self, to that which is more than mortal, to that which is super-human, to that which is eternal. In so doing, I (largely) relieve myself of the burden of trying to live on in the material realm. In fact, we human beings gladly, even crying tears of grateful joy, sacrifice our physical self in the cause of furthering our ‘symbolic immortality,’ that is, in favor of assuring that those ideas and symbols with which we have projectively identified are strengthened, defended and secured.

Certainly sacrificial behavior occurs across species – mess with a hornet nest sometime if you doubt this. And I am not saying there is no connection between the sacrificial behavior of humans and that of other species, particularly parental sacrificial behavior in direct defense of an attack on offspring, for example. However, no other species that we know of spends enormous amounts of energy building up great armies to field against other great armies of its species in the name of defense against purely symbolic elements (flag, ideology, a ‘way of life,’ etc.) If we are seeing this stuff, we are in the realm of human beings for sure.

I will end this entry with an observation that has interested me for some time. All professionals (myself included!) have a marked tendency to elevate their areas of specialty and learning to the realm of symbolic immortality. When we feel the legitimacy of our discipline is attacked, we feel that attack very personally and often react to it in exactly that way. I know that is the case in my profession, the university professorate. The old joke in the academy is that the heat generated by the friction of an academic debate is inversely proportional to what is objectively at stake in the disagreement itself. I doubt there is an academic alive who would not at least understand the humor in that old joke. But if we analyze the logic of the humor, it is in the recognition that it is our symbolic attachments we will defend most rigorously. Once we let our truth become Truth (as we intellectuals are wont to do) there is no real limit to how vigorously we stand in its defense.

I have recognized this tendency in myself in relation to the Theory of Generative Death Anxiety. I obviously think there is a lot of truth in this theory. On an ongoing basis, I have to guard against my admitted tendency to elevate this theory to the status of Truth. A trick I employ when I see myself getting my dander up against something undermining my Truth is to mentally picture myself as a ‘highly intelligent’ monkey desperately trying to defend a pile of bananas as his own which he neither gathered himself nor could possible consume on his own. That usually does the trick, at least until the next time!

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