This book makes a compelling argument that we are driven on an individual and societal level by our need to stave off our awareness of the inevitability of death.
It’s not a depressing book; rather, it made me much more aware of my thought patterns and gave me a sense of peace – knowing that all humans are wired the same, and that we’re running from the same fears in similar ways provides a sense of clarity and acceptance.
The authors propose the terror management theory – managing our fear of death through escapism that spreads tentacles into all aspects of life – self-esteem, culture, rituals, myth, religion, sex, etc.
“Self esteem protects us from deeply rooted physical and existential fears.” A higher self-esteem staves off anxiety while the opposite – “when self-esteem is undermined, death thoughts come more readily to mind.” We manage terror by leaning towards beliefs that we are immortal – our souls go to heaven, we are reincarnated. We want to leave a mark, to be remembered through our art or through our children as “significant contributors to a permanent world.”
Some memorable and often disturbing tidbits the book – we lean towards charismatic, polarising leaders rather than rational leaders when reminded of death or when we feel the weakness of a disjointed society. Those reminded of death in studies reject our similarities to animals – finite flesh – which conflict with our ideas of symbolic immortality. The same goes for sex. “Sex is of the body and the body is of death.” Through bone-chilling studies, the book draws a connection between violence against women and men’s “sexual ambivalence” – the need to separate animal instincts from their lust. “Men crave sex but simultaneously they want to punish women for arousing that desire.”
People also drink more when reminded of their mortality. Alcohol is a weapon to ward off “the worm at the core” – beautifully explored in Olivia Laing’s book, Trip to Echo Spring, on writers who suffered from alcoholism.
So what do we do with all this information? The authors hope that we become more aware of whether we are acting out of fear or going after what we consider important in life.