The Lowdown

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):

About Santi Tafarella

I teach writing and literature at Antelope Valley College in California.
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6 Responses to The Lowdown

  1. nineteenthirteen says:

    I’ve read many of Beckers books this past year (2012) and I’m incredibly fortunate to have found his work when I needed it most (upon confronting my own mortality headfirst). It’s good to know you’re not the only one to have come across such an important thinker. This post was well written and I definitely enjoyed that you included the quote from Spinoza.

    I dare say this will be the start of an enduring and meaningful friendship.
    My kindest regards,

  2. proximity1 says:

    RE: “What we think or do about this intolerable silence adds up, ultimately, to nothing.”

    Maybe “ultimately” it adds up to nothing. But, in between birth and death, people aren’t condemned to silence or to complete stupidity or to utter futility. People can attempt to recognize their circumstances, understand them and then reflect on deliberate courses of action, individually and collectively.

    To the assumption that life is and should be and must be always and everywhere ruled by forces which favor and promote competition which is brutal, destructive and selfish, people can resist and imagine alternatives and propose how to develop and implement them.

    In other words, a reaction to the mute void into which we come, without plan or purpose, and as a play already in progress, we can reason that, as there is no one else but ourselves to make of our lives and our circumstances something worthy or something wretched, we have no good reason to submit meekly to the wretched and resign ourselves to a brutal competition which sees a relative minority capture for its own selfish use the bounty that is nature’s, and which no individual or group can morally and rightly claim as its own private goods.

    We can re-think and re-cast our economics along alternative lines, based on very different assumptions about life and what gives it meaning and worth. That is, we can seek to use our limited lives and limited time to refashion society in ways which favor a different arrangement of power and of opportunity and of sorting nature’s resources and examining the issues of daily life and how they ought to be best weighed and determined–by and for and in the interests of more, much, much more than a relative few the forebears of whom fortune has by happenstance and custom favored out of all proportion to or conception of an informed and humane idea of justice.

    We could, if only we decided to, take up all of this as work and as challenge, while we’re waiting for an inevitable end to come to us. And, in facing and meeting the work and challenge, we can invest ourselves and our limited time with what, otherwise, it can simply lack: meaning and purpose–which together, we define, devise and make real.

    • Santi Tafarella says:

      What I hear you saying is that we can choose to be Pollyanna rather than Cassandra. And political causes can keep us busy. And so these things too can become a part of reality. I agree with you. But ultimately our fate is tragic. That too remains a part of reality.

      Then again, Thoreau once wrote, “What danger is there if you don’t think of any?” Likewise, what tragedy is there if you stay Pollyannish to the end?


      • proximity1 says:

        “ What I hear you saying is that we can choose to be Pollyanna rather than Cassandra.”

        That is a reductive caricature of my actual view of things. I feel next to nothing in common with or in sympathy for a Pollyanna-ish view of the world. So, if such is your reading of what I wrote , it suggests that you haven’t understood my point. Instead, you’ve represented it as a false choice between two metaphorical characters, Cassandra, on one hand or Pollyanna on the other hand, whose guiding precept is summarized this way, at Wikipedia’s page:

        “Pollyanna’s philosophy of life centers on what she calls “The Glad Game”, an optimistic attitude she learned from her father. The game consists of finding something to be glad about in every situation.”

        Rather than recommending that people seek a palliative, or a balm for what may be their objectively wretched circumstances by trying, to the point of self-delusion, to find something to be glad about in every situation, I’m recommending something very different: that people face their circumstances, and our common circumstances honestly and without resort to games of distraction—no less so when they are wretched circumstances. Rather than adopting either Pollyanna’s course—“looking for something to be glad about” or Cassandra’s cursed fate—that of her clairvoyance being disbelieved—rather than succumbing to a supposed fate in hopeless despair, trying, instead, and within the limits of our realist mortality, to resist a fatalist resignation as a first and sole resort. None of that denies or even suggests a sugar-coating of our common mortal fates which, just like you, I accept as our final lot.

        In fact, you miss my point so badly that you even cite H.D. Thoreau’s words, “What danger is there if you don’t think of any?” as though his point there was somehow a counter-point to mine. But it isn’t. My point isn’t and never was rightly seen to be, “There’s no danger where none is seen!” Rather, I’m saying, indeed, there is plenty of danger—and the more common your lot is, the more danger there is. But ineluctable death isn’t a “danger”— it’s a fact. Nor, indeed, do those words of Thoreau in this case have anything the slightest bit helpful or useful to do with the fact that our ultimate fate is to die one day. What, after all, does an ultimately unavoidable death have to do with “danger”? We’re in “danger” of falling ill, or going broke, or losing a job, because these things might happen –if they haven’t happened already—to any one of us. But dying isn’t a “risk” we run—it’s a fate and we assume it (or not) whether or not we say “What danger is there if you don’t think of any?” Thoreau didn’t mean that this was relevant to the matter of our mortality; he meant it as regards other things(*) in life which are risks. And, reading on, we see Thoreau goes on to demonstrate this when he writes what your citation leaves out:

        “The amount of it is, if a man is alive, there is always danger that he may die, though the danger must be allowed to be less in proportion as he is dead-and-alive to begin with. A man sits as many risks as he runs. (*)

        And that– “A man sits as many risks as he runs.”—indeed, is very much part of the point I was and am trying to make.

        If you understand Thoreau’s point, then you see that he is saying,

        “Look here: as long as we’re alive, we’re liable to die. But, then, look you!: that risk is to be accounted all the less in the case that a man is as much as living a life which is might as well be reckoned as very death-like.”
        To drive the point home, he adds, as again, is at the center of my point: “A man sits as many risks as he runs.”

        Thus, when I wrote,

        … “as there is no one else but ourselves to make of our lives and our circumstances something worthy or something wretched, we have no good reason to submit meekly to the wretched and resign ourselves to a brutal competition which sees a relative minority capture for its own selfish use the bounty that is nature’s, and which no individual or group can morally and rightly claim as its own private goods.” …

        I meant by this to say:

        Look, since, after all, the evidence fairly-and-squarely-faced suggests that we’re alone here, and that, in sum, we’re all sharing the same ultimate fate—namely, to one day die—we may as well use our lives and our time to make this sojourn as meaningful and purposeful as we can, by virtue of our albeit limited intellects and powers. Thus, although, indeed, our circumstances may be rightly seen as wretched,
        it remains the case that “people aren’t condemned to silence or to complete stupidity or to utter futility. People can attempt to recognize their circumstances, understand them and then reflect on deliberate courses of action, individually and collectively.”

        What has this–just cited– to do with either Pollyanna’s Glad Game or with Cassandra’s cursed condition? Nothing at all.

        I’m surprised, really surprised, that you didn’t understand this in the first place. Anyone who could write as you did the essay above clearly has the capacity to see more and see better than you have in what I wrote.

  3. Pingback: Is Mind a Fluke of Nature? | Prometheus Unbound

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