Monday, March 9, 2020
In light of the recent COVID-19 (Corona Virus) pandemic that has taken the world's humans by the psychological throat and rendered them terrified beyond belief, it is important that we try to better understand what we are doing as humans and how our brains function , yes. But more importantly, how they can frequently function with flaw and error.
Terror Management Theory originally derived from Ernest Becker and his book The Denial of Death, but it is championed today by three main researchers: Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon, and Tom Pyszczynski. Together they have come up with some fascinating research about our awareness of death and how it influences our behavior, and more specifically, our beliefs.
Take, for instance, the current human behavior regarding information about the COVID-19 virus. It is safe to say that people are scared. Just the information and updates about global deaths occurring from the virus has everyone on edge. Behavior has been altered as evidenced in the buying out of toilet paper, food products, and the stocking up on disinfectant cleaners and hand sanitizers.
But at the heart of all of this is a human behavior that has been studied and identified by the three researchers named above, who together wrote the book, The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. Basically what they have to say is that our current behavior tends to be affected by our current awareness of our inevitable death. And at any given time, we may therefore use a bundle of tactics to wipe that awareness from our current awareness simply to maintain a sense of human functioning and self-esteem. Of course, this makes sense, as it is very hard to maintain a sense of meaning and goal-oriented functioning when we are constantly aware that our own life and the lives of others we may know and love, will eventually end.
What's interesting in their studies, however, is that when we are made more aware of our inevitable death, such as we are now with the daily bombardment in the media regarding COVID-19, our behavior alters because this information clashes with our basic survival instincts. What they found in their work is that humans prefer to push awareness of death as far away from awareness as possible, and when people are struggling to do this--such as now, due to the introduction of death awareness via the nightly news--they tend to begin using faulty thinking and behavior.
For instance, we begin to make up ideas and beliefs about how we don't really ever die. Such as reincarnation, life-after-death, and an ongoing future existence in an after-realm. In addition, we begin to seek out only those that think just like we do, which the research has found, leads to bigotry and prejudice. So basically, we begin to "manage our terror" of death in these faulty ways, as a form of self-created survival instinct. Our human confusion and conflict between "terror of death" and "instinct to survive", looks for ways to solve it. Interestingly, the human brain begins to make mistakes about reality just so-as to convince itself there is plenty of reason to keep focusing on the "instinct to survive". We give ourselves false hope by making up scenarios in which death never comes.
Why is this important now? In the face of the COVID-19 virus? It's important because we need to realize as human beings that we can be aware of our inevitable death AND also function with our survival instincts on a daily basis, WITHOUT falling into the trap of faulty thinking. More toilet paper and food in the freezer will not eventually put an end to death. But embracing reality (i.e., that death eventually comes), can instead help us to live more in the present moment. Though we may understandably have an awareness that death comes, we may also know that in the present moment "I am alive and breathing". In moderation, we can prepare for illness, quarantine if necessary, and yes... even prepare for death if it comes. But we cannot stop death and we cannot wish it away with a mythological fantasy.
In some forms of Buddhism, monks might be asked to meditate while seated in a field next to a decomposing body. Each day, they return to meditate in the vicinity of this decaying human body in order to help them see that death comes to all of us. Even to the meditating monk. Eventually the monk becomes aware of much more than death. They become aware that the only place life truly exists, is in the present moment, and in each breath. Existentially, awareness of death can make us more aware of the urgency of life. Terror Management Theory study can help us see the ways in which we try to deny awareness of death, and try to convince ourselves it will never happen to us.
In the face of COVID-19, work to remind yourself that death is real and does come in time to us all. It doesn't mean you don't take precautions to protect yourself and others by washing your hands and not touching your face. It doesn't mean that you don't quarantine when necessary or avoid some social gatherings for awhile. It doesn't mean you don't stock up (in moderation) on enough food and supplies to be in that quarantine if necessary. And it doesn't mean you act as if this precious one life is not worth protecting and prolonging.
What it does mean is that we can breathe into the awareness that some things in life we cannot control. But we can breathe into this very moment and know we are here and alive RIGHT NOW! We don't have to trick our mind into believing things that aren't true just so we can sleep at night. It is possible to be aware of the reality of life (and death) limitations, as well as live each moment to its fullest. Approaching the COVID-19 virus situation with moderation is a sound decision. Stock up if you need to. Wash your hands and disinfect, as you should. But know that death comes, and... you can live with that awareness.
Here are some helpful videos about Terror Management Theory (TMT) and Corpse Meditation:
Stephen Caves: The 4 Stories we tell ourselves about death
Sheldon Solomon: How Death Affects Everything You Do
Corpse Meditation (The Washington Times)
Thanks to Mathias Ripp for the great photo from Bamberg Germany