If you’re like me, you don’t want to die. And if you’re also like me, you’ve got things you tell yourself and things you do to divert your attention away from the fact that you will die.
But even Ray Kurzweil will die. That’s how bad our collective situation is. We’re all far out at sea, all seven billion of us. Demographers estimate that, over the past 60,000 years or so, about 100 billion people have lived before us (and died). Half of those who died were under the age of five. The other 50 billion lived a bit longer, then died. We’ll be among their number soon.
The cosmos is vast and old, and, by comparison, we are infinitesimal, belated, and short-lived. We’re like Dorothy, the small and weak, before The Great Oz.
Actually, it’s worse than this because The Great Cosmos doesn’t speak. At least The Great Oz spoke to Dorothy. What we think or do about this intolerable silence adds up, ultimately, to nothing.
We’re also contingent. Each of us was born into history at a particular place and time not of our choosing, and with different strengths, capacities, and weaknesses.
Sartre called one’s contingent moment in space and time an existential situation. Everybody gets one. And then you get another. Then another. In the chess game of life, the pieces are where they are, and it’s your move. That move will have consequences. Then it will be on you to move again.
Not moving is also a move.
The only thing certain is that, whatever move you make in response to this moment, or whatever moves you make in the future, the Black Queen is going to bring you down sooner or later. It’s just a matter of time.
As the elderly wife says to her cheating husband in the 1980s film, Moonstruck, “No matter what it is you’re up to, Cosmo, you’re still going to die.”
I’m telling you the truth. Refreshing, right?
There’s so much lying in the world. And there are so many ridiculous confidence men pretending to be quite certain of things that are actually uncertain. 2300 years ago, Socrates had the number of the confidence men of his time. They killed him for it.
We’ve forgotten Socrates. We’ve forgotten humility before the infinite. We’ve forgotten how much we don’t know.
Isn’t the new pope, for example, a total joke? And isn’t a supremely confident atheist like Jerry Coyne also a joke?
Here’s another joke. The person who knows what’s best for you. There are people who are quite certain that they see your existential chessboard far more clearly than you do. They may or may not be right about this, but they were also born with different strengths and weaknesses than you, and their existential situation is different. Still, they want you to make their moves, not your own. If they swim competitively, they want you to swim competitively (or at least have an interest in watching them swim competitively). They esteem swimming and take esteem from swimming. They think you should do the same.
If you don’t, there’s an earthquake inside of them. They can’t stand it. How can any sane or moral person not see the value in what they value? If you don’t value what they value, they might even tell you you’re stupid or evil (or imply it). They do this not just because they might love you, but because their own confidence and esteem is weakened if nobody comes along with them. Getting you to play their game (having kids, joining their cult, writing books like they do, whatever) is a way for them to deny the ultimate futility of their own moves against the Maw of Death.
Cultures and religions are built around this impulse to get others to go along–to share one’s illusions, life-framings, and diversions. And you can attribute this impulse to death anxiety–the desire to resist the shadow of futility. Death anxiety is the cradle of proselytizing, civilization, bowling leagues, gun shows, and temperance societies.
So thank you, death anxiety. We might not bother to make many friends (or enemies) without you. You get us out more often.
That, at any rate, is Ernest Becker’s thesis in his book, The Denial of Death (1973). In recent years, a whole movement in psychology has been built up around this book. It goes by the name of “terror management theory” (TMT). In a nutshell, TMT makes the following plausible claims (backed up with some intriguing research):
- Born of the terror of death, to go on “individuals need to sustain faith in a meaningful worldview.”
- Individuals also need to see themselves as “valued and protected members within” the group(s) they share a worldview with.
- Death anxiety arouses individuals to engage in fight or flight responses against those people or things that might threaten their worldview (and the groups upholding their worldview). These responses may take sophisticated forms (engaging in subtle argumentation; setting up institutional structures to engage with the world) or be quite crass (bludgeoning an enemy to death in war; hiding away from outsiders in a wilderness commune).
Sophisticated or crass, our worldviews give us what TMT calls “immortality projects.” Fundamentalist Muslims and Christians, for example, imagine their immortality projects literally. You or I might achieve our immortality projects through acts of heroism or excellence, winning esteem from those in the groups we affiliate with, or we may achieve them symbolically, making art or literature that survives us.
If, after all, I cannot bring myself to believe that I will really live forever, I can at least believe that my group might do so, and thus I give my self-identity over to that group. I lay down my life for the group in war, for example, and I take comfort from being a part of this greater collective project, as when communists imagine they are giving their lives to the building of a utopia, a heaven on Earth.
And if worse comes to worse, we still have diversions to comfort us on our way to Final Checkmate (our dogs, cell phones, gardening, masturbation, Fox News). As Woody Allen has Larry David say in one his films, “Whatever works.”
And this ought to give us some empathy for others, regardless of the chess game they’re playing (or how well or badly they’re playing it). We are, after all, on the same Titanic. We want the same things in different forms, but our individual chess pieces are in dire straights. And in our stalling–Silent, hidden, and inscrutable Lord, give me a bit more time to think and act!–we hope for some remaining comfort, meaning, happiness, and pleasure in the time remaining to us; a bit of love and esteem from others; a bit of kindness; a bit of understanding.
“Non ridere, non lugere, neque detestari, sed intelligere: Not to laugh, not to lament, not to curse, but to understand.” That’s Spinoza.
Understanding can be given and received. It’s a grace. It’s pro-social and moves along the squares of truth. It’s the Queen in your corner. At least for now. And you’ve got now. That’s the lowdown.
Here’s a documentary on TMT produced by some of its founders:
Here’s the same film in ten minute segments (in the event the full length version gets taken down):