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 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: email@example.com