Jeremy Sherman: Spiritual Omnivore

Mirror Mortals

Why we’re the bravest species ever and need to be braver still

Recently I read Ernest Becker’s 1973 book The Denial of Death. A friend had given it to me over a decade ago. I got the gist of it from the cover but hadn’t read the insides. It sat on my bookshelf like a ritual object on an altar. It was as patient with me as its author had been with his assiduous research into the commonplace and esoteric.

The friend had heard me talk about ideas close to Becker’s. Maybe that’s why I didn’t want to read it for so long. It would just make me feel scooped and therefore lonelier. But my own ideas kept bringing me back to his thesis. I found the book in audio format and read it on a long drive. I swooned to hear Becker’s focused heart and mind converge in clear prose revealing a bigger picture, a picture beyond immediate loneliness that explained so exquisitely all loneliness.

If you haven’t read it, let me summarize, an offering for your mind’s eye altar if not your actual bookshelf. Our species is an experiment in foresight. Our unique language capacity enables us to imagine in fine detail everything and anything including our own deaths. We are mirror mortals. We see ourselves and care how we look and at the same time we are mere mortals. We see death coming and it doesn’t look good.

We cope by committing to culturally defined immortality campaigns, which we hope will make us much larger than our physical lives. None of them will because none of them can, for in recent generations, the mirror image has grown much sharper. We are cornered with overwhelming evidence that there is no grand purpose to serve. Purpose is local and ephemeral. There is neither an eternal heaven nor an eternal legacy. Evolution is not out to make us happy or successful, but it has strapped us with the ambition to be both. We squirm, trying to find a comfortable position for holding both hope and futility.

Becker analyzes our various immortality campaigns. Theologies with their afterlives and reincarnations are but one variety. In secular society, the dream of eternally passionate romantic love takes up where theology leaves off. Patriotism and any other reason to die honorably for a great cause plays out the same tension—and not just in modern society, but in all cultures and tribes. The violent clash of our immortality campaigns shortens more lives than it extends.

In pacifist reaction, there are the grand anti-immortality-campaign campaigns, spiritual movements that campaign for non-attachment, to escape from escapism by surrendering the ego. Ego is bad. When we overcome it, we approach enlightenment and become one with the eternal truths. These too play out the tension.

Becker describes and explains. He doesn’t suggest a way out. He simply invites us to face the predicament together in mutual empathy. I admire him this, and feel like his educational campaign is one I could get behind, one that has true lasting meaning. And yes, I see the irony in that.

We are such social creatures. Few of us have time or inclination to invent our own tailored immortality campaigns. Mostly, we climb aboard the prevalent campaigns within our culture. I want to feel immortal. I spot someone who looks happy in his or her demonstrations of immortality. I decide I’ll have some of what they’re having, whatever it is.

I’ve long been interested in the difference between making a difference and feeling like you’re making a difference. They aren’t the same thing. The way I decide if I’m making a difference is by the feeling that I am, which I can get through cultural affirmation regardless of whether I am. We fly by instrument, not aware and not necessarily particularly interested in what’s going on in the real world, more attentive to our instrument panels as we navigate through life. The feeling that things are going well feels more important than whether they really are. Political psychologist Stephen Kull said, “The instinct to survive is strong; the instinct to alleviate fear is stronger.”

Funny that we should be figuring this out just as a pretty grand purpose presents itself, a purpose like that of the Greatest Generation’s in defeating Hitler, only grander still. Ignoring the deniers’ squirmy nonsense, the climate crisis is it. There can be hardly any question what future generations will think of us, our moment, and our missed opportunities.

Think of how it feels when it’s payback time for some binge. You can hardly remember why you thought the binge was worth it. The fleeting pleasures are long past. All you’ve got to show for them is some faint flat memories and all of the negative consequences that have come home to roost. 

It only gets worse when it’s across time and generations, when our grandchildren look back at us and say, “they gave up everything so they could play out their silly little immortality campaigns!” For them, it won’t even be a binge they remember personally. And what comes home to roost isn’t just the loss of one’s life’s savings, but of all of life’s savings.

Or maybe they’ll spare us the shame because they’ll be more distracted than we are by the survival issues our choices will have imposed on them. Inspired by Becker’s work, social psychologists, in a subfield called Terror Management Theory, have been experimenting with human reaction to reminders of their own deaths. When the going gets tough, it gets much tougher to move people off of their culturally defined immortality campaigns. Cultural conformity goes up. People get more tribal, partisan, nationalistic, and closed-minded. When some life-threatening challenge calls upon us to think bigger, we burrow still deeper into the very campaigns that stand in the way of bigger thinking.

It’s understandable that we’ve been slow to respond to the vague and tentative threat of the climate crisis, but the research suggests that as the threat becomes more pressing, we’re not likely to get more receptive to doing the right thing about it.

Look at the Tea Party response to our financial crisis. When the going gets tough, people go on militant crusades to eliminate fictional enemies and demand unworkable solutions. Maybe our children will spare us their fury. Maybe they will be too busy with their own immortality campaigns. Without much audience, I write for posterity. It’s my wee immortality campaign, no less futile than anyone else’s. I like to treat it as careful betting. What could I say now that if it were read in 50 years (it won’t be, I don’t guess) would make the reader say, “yeah, he guessed right.”

On a more constructive note, I do think about what could be done to make a real difference. Top of my list: Climate crisis campaigners have got to pay more attention to Terror Management Theory research, and design their campaigns to work with, not against, the natural human response to mortality threat. If we become more patriotic, tribal, and religious, it’s going to be necessary to couch effective action in terms of those values.

Some have felt that the answer is to avoid making the crisis look too threatening because it only paralyzes people. I think that’s moot. In a few years, if not already, there will be no way to think climate crisis without thinking mortality threat. All we can do now is make the responses triggered more aligned with making a real difference instead of a fictional difference.

For that I’d look to Drew Westen’s research. He’s a social psychologist who argues that the realists have ceded the values discussion to the ideologues, to where we associate a strong stand on values with the most delusional factions in our culture. It will be a long slog, but values have to be wrested from them. It can’t be done without negative campaigning—aggressive targeted patriotic traditional-value-based attacks on the sleazy campaigning that associates delusion with high-mindedness. Westen draws a clear distinction between negative campaigning, which is necessary, and sleazy campaigning, which is not. Realists have been unrealistic about this, very squeamish to attack where attack is deserved.

Originally published on Mind Readers Dictionary.

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