The universe is visibly menacing. Our lives were made possible only because of freakish cosmic catastrophes. Our lives are short and fraught with danger, which makes reality scary. This is why we require a significant measure of illusion in order to cope with the ruthless nature of existence.
We seldom acknowledge that escape is a crucial reason for culture, but it’s easy to demonstrate. Many small children, for example, buffer reality by adopting security blankets because life is frightening to them. In the same way, culture helps to shelter us from the stark aspects of reality because we abhor chaos. Park this idea for the moment.
Now try this: Find a comfortable place to relax, and think about how, at this very moment, the earth is spinning on its axis at the rate of 1,040 miles per hour, while simultaneously speeding around the sun at 67,000 miles per hour. The sun is traveling at 483,000 miles per hour around the galaxy, and the galaxy itself is moving at 1.3 million miles per hour.
So, if you drive two miles to the grocery store, determining how far you have actually traveled in the cosmos is complicated. When you consider the facts of our travels in space, it’s not unusual to feel the need to grab hold of something. In addition, wondering where all of this wayfaring is taking us could drive you insane, if figuring it out were to become too important to your sense of curiosity.
We are blazing through the heavens at warp speed, going nowhere fast, in a universe demonstrably hostile to life, favoring chaos and chance over order. The membrane of observable conditions for organic life in the cosmos is paper thin and rarer than a precious jewel. Our lives represent flickering sparks in eternal darkness, and yet, so much of the precious time we are alive, our cultures are at war over arbitrary folk narratives that are, as often as not, patently absurd.
Now let’s un-park the notion of culture as a shelter from reality. In 1974, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published The Denial of Death, for which he won a Pulitzer Prize. Multiple readings of his book offer a never-ending supply of insights into how our lives are profoundly affected by the fact that we are mortal.
Becker observed that embedded beneath our consciousness is a smoldering neurosis, a deep-seated fear of death, and that much of our conscious and unconscious lives are spent in avoidance of, or in reaction to, this condition. Such behavior suggests that unfiltered reality is a burden too harsh to bear without meaningful diversion. We drive ourselves intentionally blind, Becker said, “With social games, psychological tricks and personal preoccupations so far removed from reality that they are forms of madness.”
Further, we tranquilize ourselves with trivia, become creative as a social license for an escape through the formation of respectable obsessions, and search desperately for existential preferences. This explains, in part, why the metaphorical cousins of death, change, uncertainty, and otherness upset us so easily. Mortality, Becker maintained, is humanity’s Achilles Heel because our uneasiness renders us tragically susceptible to folly and manipulation.
Simply put, the human condition is all about management of our mortality because chronic anxiety is inevitable for creatures smart enough to know that death is a relentless stalker, a situation that gets to the heart of the notion of authenticity. To quote Becker, “It is fateful and ironic how the lie we need in order to live dooms us to a life that is never really ours.”
This brings me to The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. These psychologists have continued Becker’s work, having spent decades researching how our lives are influenced by our mortality and how our not being aware of this reality causes anxiety.
Known as terror management theory, their work shows definitively how we depend on self-esteem, group identity, and the shelter of consensus to keep thoughts of our inevitable impermanence at bay. It illustrates how worldviews are fragile, psychosomatic constructions that render us feeling unprotected simply by the very existence of opposing views.
Through membership, our respective cultures offer us a pathway to symbolic immortality by nature of their long-term existence. When our worldviews are threatened, we feel vulnerable, and thus we come together as a self-protective force against existential threats. We are emotionally rewarded by illusions of security, even when our actions lead to conflict.
The authors of The Worm at the Core write, “When confronted with reminders of death, we react by criticizing and punishing those who oppose or violate our beliefs, and praising and rewarding those who support or uphold our beliefs.”
The more you study terror management theory, the more apparent it becomes just how seriously flawed our species is when it comes to dealing with uncensored reality and otherness, especially otherness. It’s almost as if we have been neurologically wired to pay an awful emotional price for being intelligent, for always being aware on some level that we are going to die.
How unfortunate it is for our species that hatred proves to be an acceptable distraction—a readily available substitute for the kind of reality that genuine thoughtfulness could provide. What else could we assume of a creature that derives comfort and solace from a purposeful pursuit of ignorance, since the truth about vitally important matters means much less than the emotional shelter of collective illusion?
When people perceive that their worldview represents truth incarnate, then evidence that they are wrong about anything deemed important carries a mortal threat because it suggests that they could be wrong about everything. What if their most cherished political views or the fundamental claims of their religion are untrue? After all, there are literally thousands of divergent belief systems. They can’t all be true, and because they can’t, the emotional stakes among true believers are apt to skyrocket during periods of rapid change, insecurity, and unrest.
This is why social issues like same-sex marriage are considered earthshaking events, and it’s why so many people act as if the legalization of gay marriage is a metaphor for the end of the world. Indeed, anything contrary to their deep sense of reality feels like a mortal blow to their sense of existential security.
The right of same-sex couples to marry is a human rights issue and a recognition that homosexuality has always been a part of the human condition. In time, most people will come to realize that homophobia amounts to a moral outrage, that for centuries millions of our fellow citizens have been forced to live in the shadows, afraid to be who they are, unable to honestly express their feelings or make their true affinities known.
It’s time for our culture to awaken from its fear-based prejudice, which up to the present has denied that homosexuals exist or, in some cases, have a right to exist. Belonging to a culture that disapproves of human biology is like a people vowing to disbelieve the wind because they don’t like the way it feels on their face. A preferred reality is no longer an option. Same-sex attraction is not unique to our species. What’s new is that the curtains on this human biological trait are finally thrown open and continued bigotry and denial are not going to close them.
I’ve been studying the psychology of mortality for decades, and I’m convinced that mankind will never achieve adulthood until it is commonly understood how fragile our human psyche is with regard to our mortality and how we are predisposed to act aggressively toward out-groups when our beliefs are challenged. The political implications for fully understanding this psychological behavior is existentially explosive and could lead to incredible improvements in human relations.
Ernest Becker nailed it when he observed that leaving the knowledge of human behavior to experts leads to “a general imbecility.” This doesn’t mean that we should ignore the science of human behavior. It means that we need to study it as if the business of being a human being matters to us as individuals as much as it does to scientists.
A preferred reality may indeed offer us psychological shelter—and we might be wise to admit that we require some buffering—but if we remain forever unaware of how our need for agreed-upon illusions affects our relationships with others, we can never truly experience freedom and we will never achieve what we like to think of as civilization.
Charles D. Hayes