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COVID-19 and the Denial of Death

By Ewan Morrison


Has COVID-19 changed the way you behave? Has it made you more depressed, defensive, or even aggressive? Since the pandemic began, we’ve seen increases in mental illness, anxiety, domestic violence, and suicidal ideation. Some of us feel—I know I often do—that we’re like lab rats in a vast global experiment.


In many ways, we are. Quite accidentally, the world population is currently living through an unintended experiment that might end up validating the theories of cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974).According to Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book “The Denial of Death” (1973), the knowledge that we as individuals are fated to die is a uniquely human problem, one that can lead to existential despair, mental illness, and paralysis of the will. As a result, he claims, we humans have evolved different methods to repress our fear of mortality.


Death denial takes many ritualistic social forms. There is the belief in an afterlife, found in most religions, while in secular societies, we commit ourselves to political causes or national identities that will live on after we die. We have children so we can pass on our DNA, or attempt to create great works of art or to make scientific discoveries that we hope will guarantee us symbolic immortality. The belief in "Progress" has the same death-defying function as heaven does in monotheistic religions, being a guarantor that history is not meaningless and that our lives were "for something."


These are all different, ritualized immortality narratives that save us from being paralyzed in fear before the prospect of our own deaths.


Many of us intuit that Becker’s theory is correct, that what motivates us most in life is not some "Will to Power" (Nietzsche) or the drives towards sex and death (Eros & Thanatos in Freud) but fear of death itself. Becker died young in 1974, and so was not around to scientifically verify his own theories or to defend his own legacy. As a result of this and the controversial nature of his claims, his ideas ended up being sidelined for a good 30 years.


Thankfully, Becker’s work re-emerged with “Terror Management Theory,” a research program in Social Psychology that has since led to over 1000 published scientific studies. The findings of its leading exponents, Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski, were put together in the book The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life (2015), and these findings have great relevance to what we're living through in the second wave of COVID-19, with its daily reminders of death and suffering.


Over thirty years, Solomon and his clinical associates tested hundreds of participants in different social settings to see how they reacted to death reminders. They amassed a wealth of data, which not only empirically proves Becker’s thesis but also warns us that fear of death impacts our attitudes, behaviors, and choice-making in unforeseen and dangerous ways.


According to Solomon:

"When people are reminded of their own death, Christians for example become more derogatory towards Jews, and Jews become more hostile towards Muslims. Germans sit further away from Turkish people. Americans reminded of death become more physically aggressive to other Americans that don't share their political beliefs. Iranians reminded of death are more supportive of suicide bombing and they're more willing to consider becoming martyrs themselves. Americans reminded of their mortality become more enthusiastic about pre-emptive nuclear chemical and biological attacks against countries who pose no direct threat to us.”


Solomon's studies claim that judges who were reminded of death before sentencing were likely to set bail bonds seven times higher than normal. He also found that people reminded of death also want to spend more money on high-status luxury goods and escapist entertainment. They are also, alarmingly, less compassionate towards animals and more averse to sex and to nature, while becoming “more willing to exploit natural resources for personal gain.”


The findings of Terror Management Theory also bear out the theories within Becker’s final book, Escape From Evil. In it, he formulated that the cultures and rituals that our different groups create to guarantee symbolic immortality necessarily come into conflict with those of other groups with differing beliefs. For example, if you believe that God is a huge lizard that vomited up the planet Earth, and I’m an atheist who believes that mankind will one day create a utopia on Earth, then you and I will both have to try to convert each other to our own immortality narrative because the existence of any other immortality narrative threatens to make our own look stupid and constructed. If one can’t convince the other, then conflict ensues, and ultimately either the lizard god narrative or the utopian narrative will win, and those on the losing side will have to be silenced or eradicated. In this way, ironically, our need to deny death leads us to attempt to destroy other groups.


As we enter the second winter of the COVID-19 pandemic and approach 1,000,000 deaths globally, we are being drawn into increasing political polarisation, distrust, and violent conflict. Instead of letting ourselves be drawn into escalation, we could ask ourselves whether this period of intense reactivity is actually the consequence of COVID-19 reminding us daily of our own deaths. Maybe the terror is too much to bear, and so we’re investing even more in our clashing immortality narratives.


Perhaps we could ask: Are we becoming more aggressive towards people of other religions and political beliefs? Are we now more punitive and censorious towards people who do not share our values? Are we favoring violent insurrection or military action over debate and compromise? Are we actually enjoying the sense of solidarity and meaning that hatred of another group is giving us?


Perhaps, as Becker believed, we are craving enemies to distract ourselves from the greater subconscious fear of death itself.



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