Imagine the following terrifying scenario. You’re on a flight that is out of control and destined to end in a fatal crash. There is nothing you can do about it. The engines have flamed out. The pilots are incapacitated. No one else knows how to fly.
Now for some devastating news.
This is you in real life. This is all of us, in fact. We are on that same flight. The time frame is slightly longer, of course, and the aeroplane is actually a giant boulder hurtling through space, but the destination is exactly the same. It’s the only certainty in life.
Death and oblivion.
How we deal with this knowledge – whether we’re conscious of it or not – determines almost everything we do.
So how do we deal with it? How do we ease our anxiety? More to the point, how do we find it within ourselves to live a life of vitality despite the knowledge of our impending doom?
The Paradox of Meaning
Well, this is where the paradox of meaning comes into play.
You see, unlike every other animal in the mighty kingdom, we don’t simply use meaning to orientate ourselves for the purpose of survival or to satisfy certain biological urges (like watching Netflix) – we also use meaning to defend ourselves from the knowledge of death itself.
Here’s the thing. Psychologically speaking, this secondary, uniquely human form of meaning is crucial. Without it, our mental aeroplane stalls and falls into the deep dark mental abyss. Meaning is our direct defence and offence against the all consuming dark forces of hopelessness and despair.
Now, this isn’t some crazy idea I’ve pulled out of my pilot’s hat – believe it or not!
Ernest Becker raised this point in his Pulitzer prize–winning book, The Denial of Death, claiming the why of human existence stems from a vital lie – man’s refusal to acknowledge his own mortality.
He called it a vital lie because we are biologically hardwired for survival, yet we know death is inevitable.
Biologist Ajit Varki argued the overwhelming fear of death would “be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness.”
If we didn’t have a way to keep our mortal terror at bay, we would remain frozen in our seats for the remainder of our short flight on this earth – like the proverbial deer caught in the headlights.
This is what happens when we lose meaning in life.
The worm lurches forth from the subconscious and consumes us whole. This is why a fear of death goes hand in hand with a fear of life. Ironically it’s also the reason many suicide victims take their own life. Because they’d rather be dead than live with a mortal fear of death.
So how do we use meaning to prevent this from happening?
Terror Management Theory
Terror Management Theory is an empirically oriented offshoot of Becker’s position. Authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski spent 25 years researching and testing Becker’s original hypothesis.
They presented the findings in their book, The Worm at the Core, showing conclusively that our unconscious fear of death and the desire to transcend it drives almost everything we do.
They note to manage the knowledge of death, humans call on two primary psychological resources:
“First, we need to sustain faith in our cultural worldview, which imbues our sense of reality with order, meaning, and permanence. The paths to literal and symbolic immortality laid out by our worldviews require us to feel that we are valuable members of our cultures. Hence, the second vital resource for managing terror is a feeling of personal significance, commonly known as self-esteem.”
Now, you can think of these two resources as your psychological armour. They act as a shield that helps to keep the worm at bay. They do this by maintaining a sense of significance in the belief that we are valuable members of a meaningful society. Something bigger than ourselves – something enduring.
The thing to note here is that these two things – “affirming the correctness of our world views and demonstrating our personal worth” – are intertwined.
Of course, it’s impossible to feel like you’re a valuable member of a meaningful community if you don’t value yourself. Modern psychology is primarily aimed at shoring up self-esteem for this reason.
But equally important, to value ourselves, we must also appreciate the cause we are serving and the community we are a part of. We must also respect our own humanity. Many of us don’t.
Part of this concerns the 24/7 media doom cycle that only broadcasts the worst of us. Another primary reason has to do with the values our modern society seemingly places on a pedestal above all others. Those of status and wealth.
The humiliation of not having these things is a source of anxiety for millions. Yet the hard truth is these things are out of reach for most individuals. Worse, we’re pursuing careers we don’t value intrinsically in a desperate attempt to get them.
All of the above is causing our collective self-esteem to plummet. We’re flying around in aeroplanes whose wings have been riddled with bullet holes.
The Fear of Death Paradox
Unfortunately, shoring up our defences is only half of the battle. Arguably our modern fixation on self-esteem is failing us on some fundamental level. It’s giving people much-needed relief, no doubt – but it’s not, ultimately, a cure.
It’s a bit like placing a bandaid on a gunshot wound.
Modern psychology often falls short of mentioning the worm at the core for fear of angering the hornet’s nest. I say we need to very gently give the hornet’s nest a good fucking shake!
Even with the healthiest self-esteem in the world, the worm is still buried deep beneath the surface. It’s still pulling the strings. While that’s better for the individual, this is potentially more dangerous for the wider world.
Here’s where I flip the aircraft upside down and turn the paradox of meaning on its head. (You may need a sick bag.)
You see, there’s something else happening at the other end of the meaning extreme. Not only are we losing meaning on a colossal scale we’re also becoming more rigid in the things we do believe.
This happens when we cling to our defenses tightly out of fear. The danger is we become so entrenched in them – so blinded by them – we resolutely refuse to challenge and update those beliefs, even – especially – when we desperately need to.
Not only do we run a greater risk of stalling, but we’re also more likely to take an entire passenger plane down with us – quite literally!
This really is a mindfuck. It’s something I like to call the fear of death paradox. I write in bold to really highlight this final point.
The beliefs we need to protect us from our own fear of death become the things we are willing to die (and kill) for.
It brings us to a rather uncomfortable but important philosophical question. Given our need for meaning is rooted in an existential fear of death, to achieve psychological equanimity, do we need something we are willing to die for? What if the only to stop the worm from eating us alive is to give ourselves up to something?
Now there’s a question to chew on.
This brings us to an even meatier one. One I mean to tackle next week. That of God. Specifically what His death has meant for us in the modern age.
I suggest you remain seated with seat belts firmly fastened.
This is part four of a series of posts on the subject of stalling in life.
Part 1: Stalling: The Aerodynamics of Life
Part 2: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift
Part 3: Stalling: Why We Lose Lift (2)
You can find more of AP2’s writing here at: https://clear-air-turbulence.com
You can also find him on Medium at: https://anxiouspilot2.medium.com
You can also email him directly at: firstname.lastname@example.org
21 thoughts on “Stalling: The Paradox of Meaning”
I like when you say “we also use meaning to defend ourselves from the knowledge of death itself”. The whole article is intriguing food for thought.
Glad it provoked some thought. Thanks Cristiana 🙏
It all depends on what we focus on. Years ago I was terrified to hear that all human life could be extinguished in the next century or so if we don’t make changes to our current behaviors. It would happen long after I would have died of old age, but the thought terrified me. I had to re-orient my thoughts into the present time, to do all I could do to live my life in the healthiest possible way, and then allow the chips to fall where they may, for so much is out of our control. Learning to focus on the present moment was the best lesson I learned as a perpetual worrier, for I was able to shift from worrying about everything to simply planning what I’m going to do on my next steps.
I think for most people – they’re not aware that they are being driven by an unconscious fear of death most of the time. It drives many to do stupid things in a desperate attempt to attain some kind of immortality – whether symbolic or otherwise. Concentrating on the present is certainly great advice but much easier said than done. As humans we are tied to the future as we are to the past. We need to resolve the past but also make our peace with an unknown/uncertain future. The best way to do, paradoxically, is to remain present. To bring our awareness to our pain. But also to live in such a way that brings us peace when our time is finally up. Thanks Tamara. 🙏
You’ve made some excellent points! Yes, all are important to resolve, and the way through is via the present moment in time.
My mind is still buzzing related to your post – thanks! An increasing awareness of mine is how many of us tend to avoid saying ‘he has died’. I read, ‘he has passed’; ‘he is at rest’; ‘he’s moved on to a better place’; we lost him’ etc but the ‘death’ word is avoided at all costs. Add to this our (our as in Uk) controlled mourning practices compared to those of yesteryear, no wonder many of us have problems grieving! We seem to be finding it increasingly difficult to be able to talk about death, as in ‘dying’! It’s worrying and concerning.
So much more to think about in your thought provoking post. 🙏🏼
You make a great point. I think we have a poor relationship with death. It’s a fate we must all learn to accept and yet one we avoid talking about it. It’s hard to say what the full repercussions of this are exactly but I’m certain they aren’t good. Thank you for sharing your thoughts Margaret. Pleased you got something from the post 🙏
Is it actually fear of death that pushes us to all kind of ugly things or just a fear of losing control? I can only talk for myself of course, but I am not afraid to die, what I am afraid of losing control over what is going to happen to me. It’s the reason why people take their own life, they want to be in control of what will happen, how it’s going to happen and when. Same motivation makes big guys start the war, kill, and destroy. Losing control is much worse than death, you die and you don’t have to care about so many things, but if you are still alive… you have to save face at any price, sometimes the price is too high.
Death is not always a bad thing. I mean, my grandma passed away before the war in Ukraine started. I am so happy she doesn’t have to be there now, without water and electricity. I am still sad she died but it was a perfect timing for her to go. I love her so much and I only want the best for her, and yes, I am happy she didn’t live to witness this ugly state of things.
About death positivity. There are people in this world who are not afraid to die, in fact there are a lot of folks who wish they were dead. Who wants to live forever? Who wants to witness all the atrocities happening to your loved ones? Who wants to lose everything they had and be still around, miserable and useless?
I just wanted to mention Caitlin Doughty whose main topic is death positivity, she wrote a few books on that. https://caitlindoughty.com/books/ Feel free to check them out!
It’s one and the same if you ask me. Why do we feel the need to stay in control? Fundamentally that need is driven by survival – it’s a fear of death at its root. I agree with you that death as a concept isn’t scary. It’s a release from suffering. The suffering conceptually is far scarier. But fear itself is a fear of death. I say that because the purpose of fear is to keep you alive. It’s the reason we look both ways when we cross the road. We are wired to avoid death. When people say they aren’t afraid to die I would argue that’s wrong. Everyone is. You can’t not be. However, because we know we will die eventually we need a way to cope/repress/deny/accept this. This is the paradox. We do this through our beliefs/the causes we serve. “Our why for being.” We have a larger self in a way that we come to believe is more important than we are. So we are willing to die (even though we are still afraid to die) for those things. It means that we we get to live on at least symbolically if not literally depending on what it is you actually believe. To take my children for example. I’m willing to die for them. That doesn’t mean I’m not afraid to die though. Yet, at the same time I can make peace with the fact that I will eventually die knowing I have given myself up/done everything in my power to ensure they live to have a meaningful life themselves.
Similarly when people who are suffering a great deal want to die. It’s not that they’re not afraid of death it’s just that death becomes preferable. It’s a release at that point. To your point about living forever I agree with you. Life would be far less meaningful if we got to live forever. It’s because so finite that’s what makes it so precious. It’s a miracle we exist in the first place. I do believe we can move to a state of acceptance regarding death – we can calm our fears – by living a life of deep meaning. By sacrificing ourselves for the things we love. Our family etc etc. I agree that we should ultimately look to see death as a good thing to help us move to a state of acceptance for all things. No death no life. They are inextricably linked.
I’m sorry to hear about your grandmother. Thank you for taking the time to leave such a thought provoking comment and for sharing that link. I’ll be sure to check it out.
Wishing you well 🙏
Thank you! I like the way you think. When I turned 10 years old I was really willing to die. I felt like this life is too much of a burden so I wanted to astral travel. This is when I really started talking to God and all this jazz. I feel like I lived 3 lives already, haha, when they talk about your past lives I wanna ask, which one. Every time we moved it was due to a very unpleasant event happening in the country or in the family, considering this it’s my 3rd life and I am still looking to start my life anew. I know it sounds funny, but when I had my past lives reading I felt pretty much at home. Not weird at all, also tarot reading said pretty much the same thing. It’s like all of these pointed out to something I already knew or thought of. Am I going crazy or is it just my bright imagination?
I thought you, the pilot, had turned the plane upside down and had us reaching for the sick bags, but you want us to remain seated with our seat belts? Say, what’s going on here with this #$&! airline (turns head to vomit profusely into upside-down bag, which, according to the laws of airplane physics, shoots directly into spewer’s face )…
You say you would “die for your children,” but that’s just a statement, not an action: how about you give all of your money to them, right now. Call it square, and you get to live.
Did Becker, Solomon, et al talk about the fear of children wanting all of our money, and resenting us for not providing them with it?
It is a statement. A hypothetical one. It’s not meant to have an action attached. I wouldn’t die for my children just because, but if it meant saving theirs I would. Give them all my money? Well they can have it all when I die. Which hopefully won’t be anytime soon. Thank you for taking the time to comment. 🙏
You’re a good writer, no question. Self-analyzing the human psyche is a tricky business, hence my skepticism about terror management theory.
The deepest level of your relationship with your children is your own business, not anybody else’s.
You as the pilot did leave your passengers hanging upside down, though, belted in, and thus in some literal “suspense” before your follow-up post,
I see what you’re saying. I appreciate your comments. I think you’re right to be skeptical. I mean to challenge the viewpoint in a later post myself. TMT offers a solid argument but I don’t believe it paints the whole picture. There’s another theory that offers a more optimistic view point, called meaning management theory. Worth a look into if you’re interested. Thanks again for taking the time to read and comment 🙏
Such a powerful, thought-provoking post AP. Its true we tend to avoid thinking or discussing death, it does tend to make us uncomfortable. However, I believe suppressing this dialogue could actually create more problems because negative, damaging thoughts can creep in causing bigger problems around mental health
I believe you’re right. The answer isn’t to suppress the knowledge of death (although I think we have to to a certain extent) but to learn to confront and ultimately accept the idea of death. We can do this by talking about it openly. Meditating on it. And to ask ourselves how we would like to be remembered when our time comes and act in alignment with those values. Thank you Brenda. I’m pleased the post gave you food for thought 🙏
What an excellent and thought provoking article!
Thank you Todd. Glad you enjoyed it 🙏
AP, this is well-written and interesting. thank you for this excellent treatment on the subject of death. I have thought about death in general and my own in particular since I was in grade school. I was friends with an undertaker’s son. His family lived at the funeral home, and I often visited him there. In high school, I thought it would be great to be buried without a casket and have a tree planted over me.
Now, at 73, my focus is on leaving a legacy through my interactions with family members and through my writing. The thing that concerns me most is losing Robert or him losing me…both equally concerning. I know from experience how painful it is to lose your spouse.
Hope all is well with you and your family! <3
Thank you Cheryl. Focusing on the legacy and how we want to be remembered is a great way to live. Wishing you and yours the best. 🙏