On NOT Doubling Down in the Face of Death
David R. Weiss – April 10, 2023
Escalation is understatement. There has been an explosion of anti-LGBTQ+ and especially anti-trans sentiment in our midst. 2015-2018 saw a wave of specifically anti-trans bills in the U.S.: 19, 55, 45, 26 respectively. But consider the numbers from 2019-2022: 19, 66, 144, and 174. And so far in 2023, 492 new anti-trans bills have been introduced. Bills intent on erasing transgender rights—and, if possible, erasing transgender persons.(https://translegislation.com)
Some portion of us is undeniably and irrationally obsessed with the need to bound the gender and sexual expression of others. But why?
There are many proximate (near-at-hand) reasons. The instinctive disorientation before difference (a disorientation open to either wonder or fright). The political expediency of fearmongering as a way to consolidate power. The internalized contempt of sexuality fomented by repressive religious traditions. The psychic yearning for unambiguous gender as the complexity of the world leans ever in on us. I think all of these and more are afoot.
But there is also something less proximate, looming on a horizon less distant than we imagine that inexorably presses in on our worldview. Mostly beneath our conscious awareness—and therefore all the more able to evoke irrational human impulses that in fact threaten to dehumanize us. What’s looming is death. According to Ernest Becker and those whose work follows his lead, our lives, from our individual character to whole cultures and civilizations, are in a dance in which death is our unseen partner. Deliberately unseen. Compulsively unseen.
Every animal dies. We alone (so far as we know) have the capacity for—the unavoidable burden of—foreknowledge of death. We live with this damning awareness. We. Will. Die. And we invest enormous energy in suppressing this knowledge.
In his Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death (1973), Becker chronicles our resolute yet unconscious commitment to disavow death’s claim on our lives. He says we’ve developed myriad ways to distract ourselves from the otherwise overwhelming anticipation of our own mortality. But the single strategy in which we are most deeply invested in our cultural worldview: the whole combination of values, assumptions, religious beliefs, psychological tendencies, power dynamics, etc. that become the canvas on which we tell the tale of our lives. We count on that canvas to carry meaning … to the very depths of our soul. And we count on that felt meaning to drown out the drone of death taunting us at every turn.
Indeed, according to Sheldon Solomon, a contemporary proponent of Becker’s thesis, death’s persistent taunt is the defining TERROR of our existence. Hence, his work exploring how we tend this taunt is called Terror Management Theory. One core function of our worldview is to manage this terror; to “tame” death; to reduce it to one notion on a crowded field. But for self-aware imaginative beings, the notion of our nonbeing is fundamentally feral. It will not be tamed.
In other words, no cultural worldview is foolproof, or feral-proof if you prefer. Every now and then, death catches our eye. And winks. What then? Solomon’s research suggests—his hard data objectively demonstrates—that we double down. That is, whatever cultural worldview—whatever buttress of meaning—we’ve been using to “protect” ourselves from death, we double down on THAT and hold it even more tenaciously. Even irrationally. Because responses to terror lie outside of reason.
Usually, our worldviews are only momentarily punctured by tragedy: someone close to us dies, or we have a brush with death ourselves. Or torn by trauma, which, by its very nature, calls meaning into question. We do our best to patch them up and move on. When something like a war or a pandemic presents death with the opportunity for a sustained series of winks, that’s when differing cultural worldviews can polarize us as we dive down deeper into differing worldviews.
Persons who rely on liberal values and beliefs to construe meaning, will double down as liberals. Because liberalism is how they fashion meaning and security. Hence, compassion gains extra urgency; empathy may become overwhelming; socialism might even be imaginable. Meanwhile, those with conservative values and beliefs will double down in that direction. As that worldview tilts even more rightward—for sake of meaning and security—it acquires a dangerous momentum. Militant anti-masking. Runaway conspiracies. It might even … flirt with fascism.
Beyond even war or pandemic, the breakdown of the whole planetary ecosystem—now hinted at daily from every ecological angle and seeping steadily into our news cycle—allows death not merely a series of winks, but a relentless leer. We may notice how the news sets us on edge. What we usually don’t notice—because it plays out just below our conscious awareness—is how that leer breeches our worldview and lay siege to our souls. And how we impulsively double down in the face of death.
Right now the ecological crisis leers unrelentingly at all of us amplifying the proximate causes for the current explosion of anti-trans and anti-gay sentiment and legislative initiatives. Even as we refuse to acknowledge the full scope of what is coming our way, we cannot escape the nonstop subconscious insertion of death into every moment of our life these days. For those invested in a worldview of fixed roles, identities, and affections—of bound gender and sexual expression—as part of a larger canvas that promises meaning in an uncertain existence, well, when death leers, that worldview get doubled down. And we’re watching that play out in real time right now.
It isn’t just anti-trans legislation. That’s simply the flashpoint that caught my attention. It’s also evident in the assault on reproductive rights. The obsession with guns. The othering of immigrants. The thinly veiled racist dynamics operative in state houses. The gleeful gerrymandering of districts. The rightward rhetoric of so much political language in democracies around the globe. Consider Putin’s irrational obsession with Ukraine amid reports of his paranoia of death. And, yes, it’s playing out in Biden’s ecocidal moves forward on fossil fuel projects, revealing a worldview more loyal to economic growth than the restraint necessary for human survival. The list could go on.
The point is not that proximate causes don’t matter. Rather that all proximate causes are being amped up by the apocalyptic horizon that will, from now until kingdom come, be dominated by an angry planet and angry-fearful people. Recognizing that does not make responding any easier, but it does make the distortions in our social reality more understandable. In short: the ecological crisis is driving the social crisis, both externally and internally.
The deeper point, though, is to recognize—and exercise—the human agency available to us. To all of us. Such agency is muted in direct proportion to the extent we mask our own mortality in worldviews that fail to reckon with finitude. This is a critical lesson for those of us on the left, because no less than our siblings on the right, being unaware of how existential dread impacts us can allow our own worldviews to be driven by forces of unreason. We can become tribal in our own ways. Uncritical in our politics. Empathetic to such an extreme it disempowers our capacity to act with compassion. Our own best values and commitments can become caricatures no longer serving the best interests our humanity or the planet.
I truly believe that the values of justice and mercy, compassion and grace, community and service, love and humility, are worthy of reverence. Regardless of whether such values resonate with Something True in the cosmos itself or “merely” bequeath meaning as a gift of humanity to the cosmos, they frame a worldview that fashions meaning in a way that honors the integrity of the planet and the diversity of its people (and its flora and fauna). The fact that it can allay existential terror while simultaneously promoting the flourishing of life is either cheery coincidence or pure providence. Maybe a bit of both.
Fortunately, there are concrete actions that demonstrably help safeguard this worldview from being doubled down on in ways that would undo its aspirations. Here are four of them. You might think of them as ways of cultivating compassion during the apocalypse.
First, be deliberate in seeking out relationships across difference. We are naturally inclined (in essence, hard-wired by evolution) to be helpful, friendly, even altruistic toward members of our own group. But the means by which we measure “our group” is a moral muscle. And we have the capacity to strengthen that muscle, to widen the circle of those to whom we attach feelings of warmth and belonging.
This can be especially helpful—transformational of our own impulses—when we dare to build friendships with those who move through the world in markedly different ways and with markedly different experiences than our own. Our own perceptions are broadened and our care for others becomes both wider and more concrete. You can press this even further by fashioning friendships with the more-than-human world. From pet to wildlife, from plant to place, it is possible to include all of these as kin. Not easy, to be sure, for those of us who have been taught to set ourselves outside and above the web of life. But possible. Transformative. Perhaps redemptive.
Second, commit to a daily practice of gratitude. The universe is overfull with streams of energy at all times—and those streams we choose to connect with shape who and how we are. To steep oneself daily—even just 5-10 minutes morning and evening—in gratitude, is to invite awe and wonder into the marrow of your being. And frankly, the more your marrow is fed by gratitude, the less interest it has in anxiety.
I’m still working on establishing this practice for myself, so these “helpful hints” are as much for me as for you. Create a rhythm. Your body gently (or less gently) insists on a morning routine that includes toilet, teeth-brushing, breakfast, coffee. You know better than to deny it these things. Allow your spirit to have a morning routine no less insistent: 5-10 minutes of gratitude. It can be as simple as asking yourself, “For what am I grateful? What sparks awe and delight in me?” Then dwell there for a few minutes. Consider the “supporting forces” that made your particular point of gratitude possible. Before long you’ll discover how nothing is on its own. The entire universe is a woven fabric of wonder. Is there suffering and death? Yes. But by fashioning tether lines of gratitude to steady our souls, the tumult may buffet us, but is far less likely to overturn our resolve to be our best selves even in the worst of times.
Third, make humility a playful, reverent art. In fact, humility may be among our most unsung superpowers. Research has shown that simply cultivating humility can be as powerful an antidote to death-anxiety as an entire worldview. This isn’t about self-deprecation, but rather true perspective. Being at peace with our basic smallness in the grand scheme of things.
But there’s more at stake than simply being at peace. Much of the human pathology that visits harm on others—whether on person, planet, or the countless beings between those poles—flows from the the notion that we (and all our kind) are better and more important than anything else. And for this prideful disposition, the inevitability of death appears as an intolerable affront … which only beckons us to double down on the hubris itself. By honing a vibrant sense of humility we can, in fact, lower the volume of death’s siren call.
The art of humility is both a philosophical and practical pursuit. Philosophically, it means owning my smallness and my foibles, but also the debt I owe to the stardust that made me possible. Thus, humility spills over into connection and gratitude. As a practical pursuit, most everything you learn about an ecosystem—whether your own body or psyche, or the larger systems in which you live and move—can be an exercise in humility, wrapped in wonder, topped with gratitude. But don’t be surprised or discouraged if this path is initially disorienting. Virtually the entirety of Western civilization has been dedicated to putting humanity on top (exactly where we don’t belong).
Fourth, there is power in naming the elephant in the room: death, the blunt personal facet of finitude. This is, in effect, humility hitting us in the gut. Because finitude as an abstract notion is fine. As a function of my life, it’s deadly. And yet, it is one pattern in the wondrous woven fabric of the universe. And it is possible to frame death as the fuel of life, the preface to beauty. We have been taught—often in the holiest words possible—that death is the enemy. But what if it is the very infrastructure of abundance?
I’m not interested in arguing with religious traditions that speak of life after death. But I need to take issue with religious beliefs of any stripe that use an afterlife to sidestep the terms of this life. Here and now finitude gets the final say. Not as curse or punishment. Not even as disappointment. Merely as down payment for the next cycle of wonder. Our religious traditions can—and must—do better by death. (Indeed, there are Eastern, Indigenous, Jewish, and humanist traditions that wrestle creatively with finitude.) Given that we’re in a dance with death, it’s time we meet our partner’s gaze with grace.
But what about the damage being done right now?!
We need to fight like hell. Because the harm being done to those othered by frenzied attitudes and fear-driven legislation is real, immediate, and sometimes fatal. Yet, we cannot afford to dehumanize ourselves or our adversaries in this fight. I suppose that’s why this essay wound up (somewhat to my surprise) being more about “us” than “them.” For better or worse, we are in this for the long haul. Because the writhing so evident in our current social-political world isn’t driven purely by proximate causes, the best any quick fix will do is displace vengeful anxiety from one targeted group to another. We need to do better than that.
The “slow fix,” the salving of souls—indiscriminately, on the scale of grace, reaching in every direction—requires that we ground ourselves first. Ungrounded, we are ineffective in aiding others. Once grounded, we can act first in deep solidarity with those targeted, blunting the blows aimed their way and challenging the systems that deliver them.
And finally, because anything less does not break the cycle of harm, we must work to lessen the deadly hold that death has on so many of our siblings. I had thought this essay would map that work. But it took a different direction, and I suspect now that this work is … emergent. We will learn how to do it … on the way. The tools, insight, and inner calm necessary will only become available to us as we engage in meeting death’s gaze with more grace ourselves. That’s where we begin.
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For an introduction to Terror Management Theory, see “This Mortal Coil: Sheldon Solomon on How Fear of Death Affects Our Lives,” interview by Deborah Golden Alecson in The Sun, issue 544, April 2021, pp. 5-13.
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David Weiss is a theologian, writer, poet and hymnist, doing “public theology” around climate crisis, sexuality, justice, diversity, and peace. Reach him at firstname.lastname@example.org. Read more at www.davidrweiss.com where he blogs under the theme, “Full Frontal Faith: Erring on the Edge of Honest.” Support him in writing Community SupportedTheology at www.patreon.com/fullfrontalfaith.