Flight from Death: the Quest for Immortality – Transcription

I recently enjoyed watching the 2003 Documentary Flight From Death: the Quest for Immortality. However, I couldn’t find a transcript anywhere, so I wrote my own. Hopefully putting it here will save others some time if they need it too, but this one is not quite complete, because I didn’t find the last five minutes useful, but if you need that section, it won’t take long to write it down yourself.


To have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this, yet to die. (Ernest Becker)

Humankind has always been restless. Never satisfied with their physical limitations, we have always strived for more. With machines we conquer gravity and travel faster and farther than any other animal. We explore the heavens – the last great frontier – and we manipulate our own biology through medical science. In defiance of nature, we have manufactured the means to become rulers of the natural world. What is left to conquer? And are we satisfied? Since time immemorial we have battled our greatest limitation – one which seems to render our efforts to overcome and conquer… insignificant.

Every day we participate in a multitude of activities to distance ourselves from harm and death, but beneath the surface we are aware that these day-to-day strategies are doomed to fail. We will die eventually, and all of this will come to an end. Human beings find themselves in quite the predicament. We have the mental capacity to ponder the infinite; seemingly capable of anything, yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping, decaying body. We are godly, yet creaturely.

Death is the end of the self. It is perhaps the ultimate mystery. We may never know what death really is and whether it marks the end of everything or, as many believe, the beginning of something else. Yet what we do know is that death is something to be avoided. What are we to do with death? And why do we fear it?

Merlyn Mowrey: If we don’t even know what death is, then why should we fear it?

Irvin D. Yalom: The fear of death is absolutely ubiquitous; it’s hardwired into us.

Merlyn Mowrey: For all the things we don’t know about what follows death, there are plenty of things we know about what precedes death to make it unwelcome and even seem like an evil interruption. And that is life itself.

Sam Keen: At the gut level, my feeling is “death is unacceptable.” I did not sign that “contract.” I looked at the small print, and everything else – it’s unacceptable. And that’s just a sort of a gut feeling, in the sense that we love life. Death is a… death is an insult to our spirit. Added to that, of course, is the fear of the process of dying – which is different – of the indignity of it, of the loss of control, of the pain associated with it.

Irvin D. Yalom: Others will say what they fear is leaving everyone behind. Or they fear the sadness they will cause others.

Toni Riss: In August of 1999, my life was forever changed, because I was given a diagnosis of breast cancer. I have gone into an advanced state of breast cancer with metastatic disease to the bone, and I’m basically in the battle for my life right now. I don’t know what tomorrow may bring. The average prognosis for a person with metastatic bone disease is two to five years. I’m now in year three, so according to medical statistics I probably only have two years to live.

Tom Pyszczynski: We have capacities to think symbolically; to make one thing stand for another; which of course is the basis of language. We have the capacity to project ourselves in time and imagine things that have not yet happened. We have the capacity to think in terms of cause and effect. We have the capacity to reflect back on ourselves, and look at ourselves from a perspective outside of ourselves. All of these capacities play a central role in the systems through which humans regulate their behaviour.

Sheldon Solomon: On the one hand we have these minds that are capable of just really embracing the entire universe on all fronts, you know. We can think of the old days, we can think of five million years from now, we can think about what it would be like to be tap-dancing on the Great Wall of China while we stand here by the Golden Gate Bridge. So we can ponder our present circumstances in light of future possibilities and modify our behaviour accordingly. All of that is tremendous and all of it is highly problematic because it renders us, as human beings, uniquely aware of the inevitability of our demise.

Dan Liechty: We then, recognise that death happens to us. I have to live with the knowledge that I will die. All organisms have a life instinct; an instinct to live. Our species has as much of that as any other species, but we also have the intelligence to know that we’re doomed.

Merlyn Mowry: Our survival presents a problem for us, because we have the kind of consciousness that makes us aware from a pretty early point in life that that desire to live; to feed and live and survive, is ultimately going to fail.

Dan Liechty: That creates a cognitive problem for us; it creates a potentially enormous amount of anxiety that we have to do something with.

Sheldon Solomon: The explicit awareness that you’re a breathing piece of defecating meat, destined to die, and ultimately no more significant than, let’s say, a lizard or a potato, is not especially uplifting.

Ron Leifer: Fear is a response to danger. Animals experience fear. But animals live in the present moment; when animals experience fear, they’re experiencing a present danger, which is either a predator, or a fire, or some threat to their life, and their response to that is the flight-fight reaction; they either fight the predator, or flee from the predator. We also experience fear when we’re confronted by a present danger. And we can anticipate future dangers, and we can imagine future dangers. But the physiology is the same; a fight-flight reaction. Because the body can’t tell the difference between the past and the future. Anxiety is the anticipation or imagination of a future danger. So we’re all anxious about the future, because we know we’re going to die, we just don’t know when.

Dan Liechty: We carry a burden of anxiety that no other species carries.

Since the beginning of recorded history, and likely long before that, the awareness of our own mortality has haunted us. We’ve gone to great lengths to forget, deny and overcome death. From the ancient myth of Osiris, to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, history is rich with tales of the afterlife, and of men and women, kings and Pharaohs, rising from their graves and returning from the dead. In 1839, archaeologists discovered, in a region that includes modern-day Iraq, Syria and Turkey, one of the oldest-known and most profound literary works. Inscribed on a series of tablets which date back as early as 2000 BCE, we find the Epic of Gilgamesh; the story of an ancient Sumerian king, who, inspired by the death of a close friend, embarks on a journey to find the secret to immortality.

A Chinese proverb instructs: treat death as life. In Ancient China, emperor Qin Shi Huang spent his life hoping to avoid death. He commissioned doctors to concoct potions, and sent ships out to sea in search of islands where immortals supposedly lived. Fearful that his efforts might ultimately fail, he enlisted more than half a million conscripts to build a magnificent underground tomb, surrounded by over seven thousand life-sized terracotta soldiers in military formation. Upon the emperor’s death, living servants were also buried with him.

In every corner of the world, myths of immortality and the means to achieve it have been at the heart of peoples’ most cherished beliefs. From magical elixirs to elaborate tombs furnished with spectacular treasures, there was no limit to humankind’s imagination, and no possibility left unexplored. So how are things different today? While many of these antiquated myths still exist in some form or another, our technologies are advancing exponentially by the year. Yet our death anxiety is still as present as ever. In our efforts to combat death and the ageing process, scientists have now developed the means to reverse certain aspects of ageing, while others claim to be on the verge of solving the “problem” of death altogether.

Despite our technology and desire for miracle cures, the reality of death has not changed. Infectious and parasitic disease will claim the lives of approximately eighteen million people this year. Heart disease and other circulatory diseases will kill sixteen million. Another five million will die in traffic accidents. In total, fifty-four million people alive this very moment will be dead in the next twelve months.

Merlyn Mowry: Death anxiety pervades every bit of our human experience. In part we respond to that anxiety by trying to feed ourselves in literal ways, and secure our safety and survival in literal ways. But knowing that’s ultimately doomed, we use our consciousness, our cleverness, our intellectual abilities, to… redefine the problem.

Cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker spent his career investigating the human problem of death awareness. Awarded the Pulitzer Prize in 1974, The Denial of Death is the culmination of his life’s work, formulating what is considered to be a “science of humankind”; a broad theory that attempts to explain why we do the things we do.

Neil Elgee: Ernest Becker appeared out of… nowhere.

Jeff Greenberg: Ernest Becker, fairly early in his career, developed a sense that what he wanted to do was bring together a lot of the knowledge that was being accumulated in the social sciences, and even the humanities as well.

Neil Elgee: That led him into an exploration of the writings of the ages.

Sheldon Solomon: He said, “I want to understand very broad questions about what it is that underlies human behaviour.” And Becker’s position was that if you take that quest seriously, then you can’t confine your inquiry to any particular discipline. He said, the big questions require wide-ranging scrutiny and that no discipline should be disqualified from active consideration. What he insists is that the human species “solve” the existential “problem” of death by using the same set of intellectual skills that, in an odd way, created the problem in the first place – and that’s our vast intelligence and ability to think in abstract and symbolic ways – in the service of creating and maintaining what he calls “culture”.

For Becker, culture is a collective fabrication – a shared set of beliefs about the nature of reality – developed to help us deal with our death anxiety. Culture provides meaning, and helps us to maintain a sense of security in an unsure world.

Robert Jay Lifton: Death has always been an enormous fear, in every culture and every time, and much of cultural arrangements have to do with ways of coping with this fear.

Jeff Greenberg: Our cultural conceptions of reality have evolved in order to help us deal with our knowledge of our own mortality.

All around the world we take part in activities designed to help us remember the dead: remembrance is one way we deal with the brevity of life – here one moment; gone the next, but never forgotten. With the advent of photography in the 19th century, families would often pose for photographs with the corpses of their loved ones, as if the dead were still living. Physical mementos with images of people were rare: a post-mortem photograph provided families a means to remember their loved ones as they were in life.

Sheldon Solomon: When we look at history at least, it seems very clear that for as long as can be recorded, and across cultures, and across vast amounts of time and space, that death denial seems to be rather central to all cultural constructions.

Robert Jay Lifton: We cannot be human without living in culture. We are meaning-hungry creatures, as human beings. We require meaning, and whether we talk about it or not, we’re always living within meaning, whether it has to do with family, or some kind of work, or country, or goal. It may be, and usually is, rather unspoken.

Sheldon Solomon: Culture provides meaning first of all by giving us a sense of where we’ve come from. Every culture that we’re aware of does have some account of the origin of the universe.

Some people believe that in the beginning of all life, a god created heavens and the earth itself. This god then populated the earth with various creatures, but gave dominion to humankind.

Sheldon Solomon: The Fulani tribe in Mali believes that the Earth was created out of a giant drop of milk, and I think that’s quite nice. The thought is that when god was getting things going, there had to be some sustenance for the original creatures, and so the earth started that way. And then the Yoruba in Nigeria believes that originally the Earth was just water, and then at the moment of creation, god came and put a silver – or some kind of metal – plate on the water, and then on the plate he took a snail shell, turned it upside down and filled it with dirt. He put that on the plate, and then he put a rooster on the plate next to the shell, and as the rooster pecked the dirt out of the shell and it hit the water, that formed the continents as we know them. And I think that’s quite beautiful.

David Loy: Buddhism does have a creation story, like the other great religions. It’s found in the āgama sutra. They don’t talk about a particular point of time when the universe began; rather, you get – both in Hinduism and Buddhism – the idea that the universe has been going on for an immeasurably long period of time, where world systems are created and destroyed, and you really can’t trace it back to the very beginning.

While creation stories provide the members of a collective with a sense of meaning, it is roles within those cultures that give individuals a specific and personal sense of importance.

Sheldon Solomon: Culture helps us out by essentially giving each of us a roadmap that gives us proscriptions of acceptable action. All cultures have social roles with associated standards of valued conduct, the satisfaction of which allows you to perceive yourself as a significant individual. But it’s only through a culturally-constructed sense of reality that we know what it means to be a valuable or an important figure. So, in American culture, if you can stuff a rubber ball through a metal hoop, you’re a genius and we can pay you many millions of dollars. But there are other cultures in which that would be considered quite worthless; it’d be better if you could throw a sharp stick through a fish’s head. And so culture really gives us opportunities to feel valuable.

Many people feel connected to the eternal through their religion. From the ancient Egyptians to the modern day, the idea of an eternal soul has inspired us, provided a sense of security, and soothed our anxiety. After all, if the soul will live forever, then what need is there to fear death?

Jeff Greenberg: The concept of “soul” is an immortality ideology.

Robert Jay Lifton: I had an interesting conversation, some years ago, with Paul Tillich, the great Protestant theologian, and Tillich told me that, almost from the beginning, the more brilliant theologians always had a sense of the symbolic, of the idea of the eternal, rather than the literal sense of “eternal life”. That literal sense was in a way given to the masses by the church as part of its way of controlling them, whereas the brilliant thinkers and outstanding theologians had a different sense, closer to what I call the “symbolic”.

Our experience of the world is embedded within symbols. We have excelled in this world because we have been able to make one thing stand for another. Language, for example, enables us to communicate, work together to achieve goals, and plan for the future. Symbols also serve as concrete manifestations of our most cherished beliefs and values. They are tangible representations of abstract ideas and meanings. Without symbols, it would be difficult to sustain our faith in ideas. When the literal world fails us, we turn to the symbolic. In the case of death, if the battle cannot be won in the physical world, they perhaps we can gain a sense of victory in the symbolic.

Jeff Greenberg: Along comes Darwin, and the enlightenment, and science, and then you have people starting to think more seriously about the idea that this… maybe this is all there is. That it’s just… that we’re just these physical materials that will decay and die; and that’s it. What happens then, right? If you don’t have that literal immortality, how do you cope?

Merlyn Mowrey: Instead of simply trying to live on in the physical world, we take that whole dilemma and we move it to the symbolic level. We invest ourselves in symbols – that we get from our culture, and from our religion – that come to represent us: we identify with them, we see ourselves in them. And instead of trying to live on literally, physically, we try instead to make sure that our symbols of immortality – our culture; our religion – are seen as powerful and durable. And that, through their endurance, we feel that something of ourselves lives on with them.

Jeff Greenberg: One aspect of it is a collective sense of immortality: if you can get a sense of being part of something bigger than yourself – that you feel is immortal, that you feel will transcend your individual death – then that’s a symbolic kind of immortality. But also there are individual ways, and we all know this – Americans certainly know this – we’re going to write the great book, or we’re going to do the great documentary (gestures to crew filming him).

Merlyn Mowrey: We try to figure out in what ways our culture defines the good life. And we try to excel at it – I distinguish myself, and I stand out as special. And when I do that, I’ve got a comparative gap between myself and other people. And in my mind I sort of see those other people as merely mortal. And I see myself as somehow transcending the limits of mere mortality. I look around me and everybody represents just the way human beings naturally are; but I become supernatural. So I try for heroism as as a way of making myself believe I can transcend the limits of my mortality.

Our symbolic efforts to conquer death permeate every aspect of our lives. We live in a world shaped by our imagination, where brick and stone is not just brick and stone, but a symbol of achievement, of triumph, and of permanence.

Robert Jay Lifton: The urge for immortality manifests itself as creativity – and so, there comes our urge to build, our urge to make a mark in the world, our urge to show that we’ve been here, you know, carve our name even, on a tree, just to let it be known that we’re here, and that we matter.

Kirby Farrell: Culture, as a whole, is basically an inexhaustible survey of immortality symbols. The law makes you feel that culture is stable and will last forever. Architecture – we build monuments. We build religious buildings out of what – historically – have been the most enduring materials known to human beings. American utopianism at the moment tends to be consumer utopian. It’s associated with money and the ability to command the wills of other people by paying them something, which in effect is a magnifying of your own self; it’s magnifying your own strength. If you can potentially make anyone in the world do your bidding, because you’re a chequebook, then you have everyone in the world extending your power; you have millions of hands and arms.

Sam Keen: Wealth is a kind of symbolic barrier against death, and I think unconsciously we think, you know, if we have enough of it, it isn’t going to get me: I can buy my way clear of this.

Kirby Farrell: The tragic flipside of this experience is that if you don’t have money, you’re in effect surrendering your ability to choose or to control other people. Or, to put it another way, you’re radically vulnerable. The ultimate state of being without money is to be a slave.

Sheldon Solomon: When you don’t have a zillion dollars, whose fault is it in the US of A? It’s your fault, and you feel like a piece of crap. It’s not surprising that a third of the American population is depressed.

If our immortality depends on the durability of our symbols and symbolic systems, what happens when those symbols fall, or fail us? Once again, our symbols and our efforts to become something more than we are, are sure to be just as fleeting as life itself. We experience a sort of symbolic death.

On a social scale, the loss of jobs, relationships and our sense of self-worth in our day-to-day lives are all experienced as a sort of social death: an overwhelming sense that we have not achieved the standards set by our culture.

Kirby Farrell: In effect, to be in a state of social death is to be without money and without the ability to have an influence on other peoples’ behaviour, and in turn to be totally vulnerable to the wills of the people around you. And therefore, from my point of view, social death is analogous to, and in many ways just as disturbing and terrifying, as real death. And it’s not surprising to me at all that if you look around the world, again and again, you see people threatened by social death responding with the kinds of vehement emotional reactions that you would associate with a more explicit threat to life and limb; which is to say, either deep depression, or volatile aggression – a kind of berserk violence.

Robert Jay Lifton: Death imagery tends to haunt us, and we try to constantly transcend it with affirmations of life, or experiences of life imagery.

Merlyn Mowrey: When we have meaningful kinds of connection with other people; movement, growth, development in our lives, challenges, and integrity – a feeling of belonging to some larger, more meaningful whole – that’s what it takes to make us feel fully alive, and vibrant, and like our lives count for something.

Robert Jay Lifton: And it can, for instance, include the producing, and raising, and nurturing of children, which are both a source of love and affection for us, but also a symbol of the human future and the process of larger human connectedness. And that’s why after large-scale destruction – after the Holocaust or after Hiroshima – many people sought to marry and have children, because they wanted to reassert life – feelings of life, images of life – and these were absolutely crucial.

Toni Riss: In August of this year I’m going to be having a double mastectomy done with full reconstruction the same day, which is going to amount to several hours of surgery. I’m just trying to keep myself busy doing other things, rather than just focusing on the fact that, my god, in a few weeks I’m going to have my breasts cut off. I just can’t let it take over my life. And that’s why I’m having the surgery: I’m saying back to the cancer, “No, you can’t have me yet. I’m not ready to go.” I see it as a challenge. Cancer may kill me, but it’s never going to kill my spirit.

Striving for immortality nurtures and maintains us. The by-products of immortality-striving can uplift us through our darkest days.

Jeff Greenberg: And there’s nothing… you know, there’s nothing wrong with that. You know, we’re in a tough situation, and that helps us through. And that’s fine. And a lot of great things have been done for immortality purposes. Van Gough painted those paintings. And if we enjoy his paintings, then we profit from that. So a lot of our immortality striving has led to a lot of great things in terms of advancing human happiness and enjoyment of life, and that sort of thing.

Kirby Farrell: You would think that striving for immortality would be an endlessly good thing; the more of it, the better.

Jeff Greenberg: But, at the same time, our immortality ideologies often get us into trouble, and create problems.

Robert Jay Lifton: As the tragic history around us keeps dramatising, the drive for immortality is very likely to turn into a rage for survival. What I would call survival greed; survival rage.

Dan Liechty: One of the easiest ways to make yourself feel more than mortal is to stand as the conqueror of someone else. So there’s this – there is a tendency to want to lift yourself up by elbowing other people down. And that can be done in socially acceptable ways – sports teams, whatever, getting the promotion at work over your colleague – but it also can manifest itself in violence.

If culture helps us deny, or stave off, death, then the existence of other cultures – or even differing others within our own culture – can pose a threat to our psychological and emotional stability. Tolerance is an ambitious goal, given the differences we encounter everyday. If ultimately there can only be one truth, then the other supposed truth must be wrong. The existence of other conceptions of reality forces us to question our own belief system and therefore our claims to immortality.

Sheldon Solomon: If I believe that God created the earth in six days before taking a well-deserved break, and then I run into somebody like the Fulani folks in Mali – who think that the earth was created out of a giant drop of milk – well, if he’s right, I’ve got a problem. What we generally do when this happens is to engage in a host of what turn out to be rather unsavoury behaviours that serve a defensive compensatory function that allows us to restore our own psychological equanimity by bolstering our faith in our particular perspective. And so the first thing that we do when we run into somebody different is to just dismiss them as an inferior form of life: sure, the African dude believes that God created the earth out of a giant drop of milk, but these are ignorant savages worshipping piles of sticks and mud, and they don’t have email and cable television.

Jeff Greenberg: And by derogating them we sort of defuse the threat. But they’re doing okay; you know, they’re no less happy than we are, how could that be? So usually derogation’s not enough. So we try to assimilate others into our worldview. Because if we can sell our worldview to them and they buy it, that’s a very strong validation that we are right. And so the most example of this of course is missionary activity.

Sheldon Solomon: There were these African civilisations; they were doing quite fine, thank you, and we march in, we give it one of these (does Sign of The Cross) – “You’re Catholic now, let’s play bingo” – and in a couple of minutes, destroyed thousands of years of perfectly viable indigenous cultures.

Jeff Greenberg: You convert them. And if you successfully do that – and that’s been successfully done many, many times – then you get an even increased faith that your way is the right way, and your god is the right god.

Sheldon Solomon: The whole Cold War was really a massive effort between two death-denying ideologies – Capitalism and Communism – to extend their sphere of influence throughout as much of the world as possible.

Jeff Greenberg: Sometimes what you can do is, if there is an alternative worldview that is implicitly suggesting that yours may not be the best, or that yours may not be absolutely true, you can sort of incorporate certain aspects of that alternative worldview into your own and thereby defuse the threat. And we like to use the example of the hippy subculture that developed in America in the mid-60s. What mainstream America did was they incorporated some of the appealing aspects of the hippy subculture into the mainstream culture, and cut off some of the really threatening aspects. Now one of the things the hippies did was they started wearing blue jeans. Blue jeans, before the hippies came along, were something that was worn by a certain population of workers in this country. But they said, “you know what, appearance is bullshit, let’s… we’re gonna wear blue jeans.” And that had some appeal. So what mainstream America did is said, “okay, blue jeans are gonna get popular? Then fine, now we’re gonna have designer blue jeans.” And it can become a status symbol. Which is completely contrary to the original message of why the hippies started wearing blue jeans. Another example is Granola bars; I think it’s a good example. Granola bars: getting back to nature; simple foods, non-processed foods. Now when you go to the stores you can buy chocolate-covered granola bars with like 500 ingredients.

These are methods of coping that originate in our subconscious. They linger beneath the surface of our actions. However, what happens when these methods fail, and the threat to one’s immortality is not sufficiently diminished? For one’s culture to continue serving its death-denying function, the threat must be dealt with at any cost. It’s a fight-or-flight reaction. The derogation, assimilation and accommodation of others, though potentially intense, direct and brutal, are no match for the horror which results from the fourth means of dealing with differing others: annihilation.

Jeff Greenberg: Who’s right? Let’s see who’s right.

Sheldon Solomon: You know, my god’s better than your god, and we will kick your ass to prove it.

Father Brad Karelius: As we look at human history, especially the last several hundred years, a major cause for world conflict has been religious differences.

Sheldon Solomon: Ultimately, most armed conflicts are ideological in nature. Sure, there are political and economic issues, we don’t want to be simple-minded about that, and yet when you look at most of the protracted conflicts that often go over the course of centuries, or thousands of years, what you find is that they invariably come down to people who deny the right of other folks to even exist. And our argument would be that that’s because people are psychologically intolerant of other individuals who don’t share their death-denying illusions.

A 1993 study estimated that as many as 175 million lives were deliberately extinguished during the 20th century due to politically-motivated carnage. As we are beginning to see, political and social conflicts have deep psychological motivations. However, these motivations are not exclusive to world leaders, dictators and military strategists. They reside in each of us, along with the potential for limitless violence.

Sheldon Solomon: I think what we see in the Middle East is an obvious example, where you have the Palestinians saying “we want to push the Israelis into the ocean,” you have the Israelis responding with the quaint phrase “the only good Arab is a dead Arab,” and that’s not the basis for any rational political discourse; that’s the histrionic ranting of the kind of fundamentalism that I think betrays the utterly psychological nature of these kinds of concerns.

Enter the team of Sheldon Solomon, Tom Pyszczynski and Jeff Greenberg. For the last twenty years, this trio have been conducting empirical laboratory experiments to substantiate the claims of Ernest Becker about the effects of death denial. They have conducted over 150 studies in support of what they call “terror management theory”. These groundbreaking studies display that when reminded of death, test subjects do indeed react aggressively towards those who are different, and positively towards those who are similar.

Sheldon Solomon: In the early 1980s, when we started speaking in public about Becker’s ideas, some folks were intrigued, some folks were horrified. “You’re an assemblage of blood and organs that, should a knife impact upon your belly at an unfortunate angle, would spill out on the pavement, just like you see those squashed animals on the side of the road.” But what most people said is, look, we don’t know what to do with these ideas. It’s like poetry; it may be interesting, but there’s no way that you can actually test them. And this is where our training as experimental social psychologists was actually put to good use.

Jeff Greenberg: Terror management theory came out of the writings of Ernest Becker. His writings answered some questions that we had been asking in our own work, and we were social psychologists, and were very focussed on empirical research.

Sheldon Solomon: What we said is, well okay, let’s try and think about ways of taking all of these ideas, and let’s really boil them down to some basic statements about the nature of reality that we could then use to generate hypotheses and go out and actually test them.

The first component of terror management theory states that individuals need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview. The second component states that individuals need to feel as though they are valued, protected members – objects of significance – within this worldview. Psychologists would generally call this “self-esteem”.

Jeff Greenberg: And if we can sustain these two psychological constructs, then we can function relatively securely in the world. And if these constructs are threatened, then we’re going to feel anxiety and have a need to defend those constructs.

Sheldon Solomon: So we developed what we call the “mortality salience hypothesis”, and all that says is look, if culture serves a death-denying function, then if you remind people that they’re going to die, that should momentarily increase the need for the death-denying aspects of their particular beliefs about reality, and that should be reflected by their reactions to other individuals, who either bolster and support those beliefs, or who undermine those beliefs, by either being hostile to them, or merely different from them. The very first study that we did was with municipal court judges in Tucson, Arizona.

Jeff Greenberg: Judges have a kind of clear set of values that are part of their worldview, and that is to uphold the law. So what we thought is that if we make some judges think about their own death, they should become more punitive toward a law-breaker. So half the judges – on a random basis – were given questionnaires that asked them about their own death. Half were not given such a questionnaire.

Sheldon Solomon: And then we had them actually look at an actual court case. The most common case in municipal court in Tuscon is solicitation of prostitution.

Jeff Greenberg: They were simply asked to recommend the bond for the prostitute. What we found is the judges who were reminded of their own death before setting a bond for the alleged prostitute recommended a bond of $455. The control judges, who were not reminded of their own death, set a bond – an average bond – of $50.

In another study, Christian test subjects were asked to complete a questionnaire intended to determine how people form impressions of others. What the subjects didn’t realise was that the researchers were actually making determinations about them: embedded within some questionnaires were questions specifically formulated to make the reader think about his or her own death. The students were then asked to give their impressions of two fictitious individuals, who on paper, shared similar personally traits, but differed in religious affiliation.

Jeff Greenberg: And the hypothesis was that after the Christian subjects thought about their own death, they should be especially positive in their reactions to a fellow Christian student, and especially negative toward a Jewish student. And that’s exactly what we found.

The students who did not receive death reminders showed no preference in their evaluations. These results were important indicators that attitudes towards others change when one is confronted with one’s own death. However, the results did not speak to behavioural changes.

Jeff Greenberg: And so one example of a study that we’ve done to test this idea was a study in which we wanted to see if reminding people of their own death would make them more reluctant to use cultural symbols or icons in inappropriate ways.

For this study, subjects were asked to participate in what they were told were research experiments designed to explore both personality and creative problem solving. Once again, subjects completed personality questionnaires, some of which contained death reminders.

Jeff Greenberg: When they’re done with that, they come out, then we describe the two tasks for them, and their job is to try to complete the tasks.

The first task required subjects to sift sand from a jar also containing water and black dye. Various items were available to help complete this task.

Jeff Greenberg: We set it up so that the only object they could use to successfully achieve the goal of sifting the sand out was a little American flag. And so what they would have to do is secure the American flag with a rubber band on an empty jar and then pour the black dye through the American flag, which of course ruins the American flag.

For the second task, subjects were asked to hang a crucifix on the study room wall. Again, various items were available to help them do so.

Jeff Greenberg: In order to do that, the only object they could use to successfully hammer the nail into the wall – so they could hang up the crucifix – was the crucifix itself.

Those students who had received death reminders tried more alternative ways to complete their tasks. They were more apprehensive to desecrate their most cherished cultural icons, and took twice as long as those who had not been reminded of their death prior to the experiment.

Now that the terror management team had established that changes in behaviour occurred when people thought about their own death, they were prepared to conduct what was to become their most striking and ominous study. If it could be determined that thinking of death caused behaviour patterns to change, could it not also be determined that these behaviours might, in fact, be aggressive toward other individuals?

Joel Lieberman: The problem with measuring any type of aggressive behaviour in a laboratory situation is the ethical concerns that it brings up. We can’t exactly have people punching one another, hitting, shooting, stabbing. That’s frowned on ethically. So, what we did was we devised a method where we could safely assess intent to harm another person. And we did that by using hot sauce.

Jeff Greenberg: You know, Becker argued – and we got into this partly because we thought – this could help explain real-world prejudice and aggression against different others. But it was inspired by real instances in which people have used hot sauce to physically attack other people. There was a case where a cook was angry at police, and spiked a couple of cops’ food with hot sauce. More significant, and less humourous; there are numerous cases in which parents have used hot sauce to punish their children – which is a form of child abuse. But in the lab, what we thought we might be able to do is at least get some indication of an intention to hurt someone else simply because you’ve been reminded of your own death and they’re threatening an aspect of your worldview.

In this paradigm, the subjects come in and they’re told that the study concerns personality and food preferences. Subjects are once again given a set of supposed personality questionnaires. Some included the death reminder and others did not. Then, in what subjects were told was an unrelated study, they were asked to allot a variable amount of extremely hot sauce for a participant of dissimilar political background to taste and rate. Those who had received death reminders prescribed more than twice the amount of hot sauce as those who did not receive the death reminders. This has profound implications: these studies show that reminders of death play an influential role in the human psyche and can inspire us to act aggressively. While hot sauce itself might seem benign, the implications of these studies are frightening. What happens when the means of aggression is not hot sauce, but rather a gun, or another weapon? And what might be result if the issue at hand was weather or not to provide food aid to a starving country? Would we act differently if their culture posed a threat to our psychological equanimity?

Many people function day-to-day, seemingly oblivious to the effect death has upon them. Most would claim that they don’t think about death at all. The industrial world has sterilised itself to the point where we hear about death, but rarely see it first-hand. But does this mean that we are immune to the effects of death?

Tom Pyszczynski: When a lot of people hear about this theory for the first time, the initial reaction is, you know, I don’t think about death all that much. And if I don’t think about death all that much, how could death be playing such an important role in our lives?

Jeff Greenberg: How could it be affecting me in these powerful ways, or how could it affect ongoing behaviour when I almost never think about death? People do think about death, and are reminded of death quite commonly. Any major city newspaper’s got a murder story pretty much every day if you watch the news. If you watch television, you see stories of murder and death pretty consistently, so the reminders of death are actually quite common. The other point is that, we do agree that we don’t think about death all that much consciously in our daily lives.

Sheldon Solomon: You know, the essence of Freud’s ideas about the nature of the psychological apparatus is that most psychological activity is quite unconscious.

Jeff Greenberg: We repress our concerns about death, and our thoughts of death, but it’s underneath: it’s outside of consciousness. Well, how do you get at that? That sounds like, you know, this is sort of untestable. It’s not untestable. Psychologists have recently developed technology to present material to people without their awareness that they’re being exposed to the material, and we call this subliminal priming.

Utilising this method, the terror management team, spearheaded by Jamie Arndt at the University of Columbia, developed what they call the subliminal death prime.

Sheldon Solomon: We had folks come and stare at a computer screen, and do what they call a lexical decision task, it’s just, words are flashed on a screen, and people are supposed to look at them and push a button if they’re similar, so if, you know, you see “shoes” and “pants”, those are similar items, and if you see “taco” and “sneaker”, you know, those are dissimilar items. But really that’s just an excuse to get them to look at the screen, because in between those words, very rapidly, at like 21 milliseconds, are either flashed the word “death” or the word “field”, because those words have the same number of letters and the same frequency of occurrence in the English language. And in fact, when you do that, nobody knows that it’s happened – that’s what makes these studies amazing. If we show people afterwards – if we say, “hey, we flashed some stuff that you couldn’t see; here are four words, can you tell us which one was flashed?” people cannot pick out the one that they’ve seen reliably. So we know that it’s quiet, quote, “unconscious”. And yet, they show the same hostility towards someone who is different than themselves, and the same affection towards someone who is similar, as when we ask them to explicitly ponder their own demise.

Many cultures have different methods for dealing with and examining death. Exploring death denial offers just one example, but it is applicable cross-culturally. These results have been replicated in tests throughout the world, implying that fear of death is most likely a universal influence, regardless of the specifics of various cultures or customs.

Robert Jay Lifton: I think these ideas about death and symbolic immortality, about denial of death, and Becker’s work, extend cross-culturally. They are all primal ideas, and all primal human experiences are universal.

World events can sometimes serve as a window through which we can confirm the veracity of these ideas.

George W. Bush: Today, our fellow citizens, our way of life, our very freedom came under attack in a series of deliberate and deadly terrorist acts.

Jeff Greenberg: I saw the first tower kind of smoking and I saw the second plane manoeuvre around behind and hit the second tower. My first reaction, like a lot of people, was, “what is this? This can’t be real.” Then when I got past that – this is actually happening – my first response was anger. I’m a New Yorker; I’m from New York.

Neil Elgee: I did think of Pearl Harbour, but I thought that we had denial of death in the sky over Manhattan.

Dan Liechty: There’s no question that what’s happening there is a clash of worldviews.

Jeff Greenberg: I think that what we’ve seen in response to those attacks is a lot of anxiety and a lot of anger. First of all, it reminds us of our mortality; we usually keep that buried day-to-day in a symbolic system, and this kind of brought it to the fore. The other threat is the threat to our culture; what allows us to walk around day-to-day feeling okay is that we’re Americans and we’re part of this strong, powerful and good nation, and that’s a big part of what protects us from our mortality concerns, and now that’s being threatened. By not only killing a lot of Americans, but by attacking major symbols of our culture – Pentagon, World Trade Centre – obviously on purpose.

The events of September 11th 2001 reminded millions of people of their mortality in very direct ways. In the span of only a few hours, the cultural worldview collectively maintained by the United States was agonisingly damaged. The ripple effect spread throughout the world. Just like a terror management theory experiment carried out on an enormous scale, all the conditions were in place for the subjects to first reinforce their shared cultural worldview. In the United States, examples of this became quickly apparent.

George W. Bush: Our country is strong. A great people has been moved to defend a great nation. Terrorist attacks can shake the foundations of our biggest buildings, but they cannot touch the foundation of America.

American flag bearer on street: I’m just out here to support my country, let everybody know this is one nation under God. Been out here since the planes crashed into the World Trade Centre, Tuesday.

Jeff Greenberg: We show our strength, right? We buy American flags; American flags are going off the racks. Also you see Christians and religious people are turning to their religion.

As terror management theory would have predicted in a laboratory setting, what was to follow would be an aggressive reaction against a threatening other.

American flag bearer on street: I think we should go over there and kick ass and take names later.

Jeff Greenberg: Near Tucson, we saw a man killed because he was wearing a turban, and in fact he was from India and he was a Sikh. He had absolutely nothing to do with this. Some angry American killed him. And it’s frustrating, right, because we can’t find Osama bin Laden, and he’s been vilified; he is the evil, he’s who we want to get retribution from, but he’s hard to get at. So you see the scape-goating and the over-generalisation.

Dan Liechty: That urge for revenge, that urge to be protected and call on our superior forces to go and annihilate and so forth, those are very strong emotions and I don’t think we should discount them, but it doesn’t mean that should be the basis on which we act.

Sam Keen: We are confronting something that we don’t know how to deal with. We are confronting people who use their death against us. Somebody who says, “there is something more important than my life” is unstoppable.

Merlyn Mowrey: Once we have moved that struggle for survival beyond the physical level to the symbolic level – I’m willing to give up my life; lots and lots of life; to make a heroic sacrifice; to see my immortality system prevail.

Robert Jay Lifton: Apocalyptic violence: that really means violence in the service of not just achieving a political goal – there may be political goals – but beyond any political goal is a more amorphous sense of bringing an end to the present world because it is too corrupt. And that can be justified because one is doing it in the service of a spiritually pure world.

From the terror management theory research, we see why Ernest Becker’s works have been called a “science of evil”. His ideas have given us a means by which we can scientifically examine the root causes of human aggression and violence. Becker writes that humans cause evil by wanting to triumph over evil in the question for immortality.

Merlyn Mowrey: Our most oppressive and violent and brutal behaviours, Becker says, are responses to our death anxiety.

Jeff Greenberg: The core problem from this perspective is that we’ve got to invest in these worldviews and then we’ve got to defend them. And in defending them we often end up hurting others.

Merlyn Mowrey: The groups of people that we have to make other, to make victims, to make not truly human; the ways we have to humiliate or brutalise them, torment them, destroy them.

Jeff Greenberg: Hitler was very big on that: that the Jews are animals, that the gypsies are animals. You know, he compared them to vermin. But we Aryans, we’re not; we’re the true humans and we’re going to live on in greatness. Then he unfortunately was able to sell that message.

Kirby Farrell: The most brutal and primitive style of coping with death is to dream that you can master it by killing or destroying other people.

Merlyn Mowrey: It is an opportunity to confront death and to escape it, while inflicting it on someone else.

Female prisoner: Soft people don’t make it in this world. And you can either be the victimiser or the victim. And I chose to be the victimiser.

Jeff Greenberg: We commit the greatest evil by trying to escape from evil. By trying to create a paradise on earth.

Merlyn Mowrey: We are literally looking for things to label evil, so that once we’ve done that, we can fight them.

Sheldon Solomon: You know, even in the Cold War, Ronald Reagen referred to Russia as the Evil Empire. And in Iran, they referred to us as the Great Satan.

George W. Bush: Today our nation saw evil.

Tony Blair: We will not rest until this evil is driven from our world.

Bill Clinton: And I will not allow the people of this country to be intimidated by evil cowards.

Sheldon Solomon: We demonise folks, and we see them as the all-encompassing repositories of evil, the removal of which would make life on Earth as it is in heaven.

Jeff Greenberg: So more people have been killed in the name of God and Country than by all the serial murderer types put together; that’s just a drop in the bucket compared to how much killing has gone on out of loyalty, patriotism; love for God and Country.

The toll of human lives is almost too staggering to consider. Violence seems to be an inherent part of who we are; a propensity to destroy others and the world around us that begs the question: are we a viable form of life?

Sam Keen: We are the inheritors now of a species that has made a habit of warfare.

Vietnam Veteran: They give me a gun and said “that’s the enemy over there. If you don’t shoot them, they’re gonna shoot you.” Our unit, basically, was a search and destroy unit. Not all units have that clear-cut order. Ours was very simple: search and destroy. I remember a sergeant telling me, “well, when you get over there, you’re going to be able to kill a lot of Viet Kong.” Now, you gotta wonder, because nobody had ever used that word – kill. No matter how gung-ho you are, it’s still hard to kill that first person. I was on the ground, hiding, when he came up on us, and I stood up and shot him. The look in his eye, I’ll never forget. And he went down. I got sick, that first time.

Across economic, political and geographic boundaries, death anxiety is a psychological common denominator. No one is immune. Cross-culturally and internationally, we see the effects of the reactions that this anxiety brings. Yet the prognosis for our future is not altogether bleak. If death is unavoidable, how are we to remedy the situation in which we find ourselves? The questions are more common than the answers. Is the medical field offering any hope? Is there any possibility that we will someday eliminate death? And what would this mean for our world? Will we rid ourselves of fear if we rid ourselves of death?

Sheldon Solomon: Just make death go away. You know, the kind of cryogenic thing: let’s make death just disappear. This idea that you can just freeze-dry yourself and be reconstituted like a frozen burito at some point – some vaguely unspecified future – I just find highly unfortunate. Not only would it not remove our anxiety about death, but it might make it even worse. If you are ten years old and you slip and fall down a mountain, that’s tragic because you’re losing like sixty years of your life. But what if you’re expected to live for five hundred thousand years and you fell down a mountain? That would be even more grotesque. So, you might be able to banish death, but you could never banish chance, and to the extent that stuff happens, that’s just not gonna work.

Are we doomed to repress our death anxiety and suffer the consequences of our death denial? Can we face death head-on and at the same time avoid creating what can often be destructive illusions of immortality?

Jeff Greenberg: We’re animals, and we’re on this hunk of earth, hurtling through space; there’s no meaning to life, there’s no purpose, it’s completely absurd, and pointless, and we’re just creatures, crawling around and trying to have sex and eat and have shelter. And the only thing for sure is that we’re going to decay and die, just as our ancestors did, and just as our progeny are going to, and that’s it. Does that sound… that sound good? Doesn’t sound too good? (laughs)

Sheldon Solomon: Let’s just banish illusion and let’s just see things as they are. That’s also quaint, but no can do, because the very act of perception is ultimately an interpretive affair. We used to think that people perceive like cameras or Xerox machines.

Merlyn Mowrey: Illusions are the explanations that we come up with to give meaning to our own experience. It doesn’t mean we’re lying. It doesn’t mean we’ve made a big mistake. We can’t just look at the world and know what’s going on, tell the difference between good and evil, see what is valuable and not valuable – we are creating illusions all the time. We don’t just use illusions to hide the facts from us – we sometimes use them to better explore the facts.

Yes we live in a world of illusion; of constructed reality, and one in which we continually search for meaning. But these constructs can be nurturing and life-sustaining. Yah de yah…..

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