While largely unconscious, we all share an awareness that this existence is finite. No one gets out alive! And the fact that we all know we will die has a profound impact on our thoughts, feelings, and behavior. The fear and emotional anguish associated with anticipating the end of life are so painful that we unconsciously protect ourselves.
Most of us find it difficult to tolerate facing mortality directly. We repress the full realization of our inevitable dying and death. We repress deeply painful emotions from early-childhood, because when our nervous systems were undeveloped, the painful rejection of a parent or caretaker did feel like death. Flooded and overwhelmed with hurt and confusion, the body doesn’t feel like it will survive.
These developmental experiences coupled with the dawning awareness that we, along with our parents, our pets and everything in the universe, will die, brings us all to a layer of fear so primal and paralyzing, that in order to function, we must deny what we know to be true. We develop various defenses throughout our early developmental years that keep this denied material at bay throughout our lives.
Generally speaking, the concept of death and the realization of a finite existence evolve gradually as we grow through childhood. As young children, often as early as two years old, we can become aware of the fact of death. Between three and six years of age, children become conscious of the fact that mother and father are vulnerable to death. Eventually, as children we realize that we, in fact, cannot sustain our own lives.
At this stage, when death awareness becomes conscious, the world that the child originally believed to be permanent is turned on its head. Death awareness (or mortality salience) brings with it a subsequent intolerable terror that is necessarily repressed. Regardless of the age at which this discovery occurs, it destroys the child’s illusion of self-sufficiency. Even though defenses are instituted to block the awareness of death from consciousness, children’s fears are preserved in entirety in the unconscious. Thereafter, the suppressed fear of death continues to exert a significant influence on the personal life of the developing child and, later, the adult.
We subjugate death-related thoughts and orient to thoughts and behaviors that are “life-affirming.” Ironically, life is defined by death. We consume dead meat and dead plants to survive . . . to thrive. Deadness is the compost that nourishes and supports our existence. Life and death are inseparable, but we do our best not to notice.
Most people would say they rarely think about death. But on an unconscious level, we carry the truth, the knowing . . . And deeply seated feelings of death anxiety influence significant aspects of our lives and motivate most of our actions. Empirical studies by Terror Management Theory (TMT) researchers have demonstrated that people alter their behavioral responses and increase their reliance on specific defense mechanisms when their ‘mortality salience’ is aroused.
In one experiment, after subjects were subliminally presented with the word “death,” they more strongly endorsed the worldview of their own ethnic group or nation while, at the same time, they denigrated members of other groups whose worldviews differed from their own. In another study, judges who were exposed to the word “death” administered more punitive sentences than judges in the control group who were not exposed. If the single word “death” introduced subliminally in an experimental setting can produce significant changes in subjects’ attitudes and actions, one can only imagine the powerful effect on each of us when exposed to countless incidents and occurrences in the real world that remind us of our mortality.
What are your feelings when you consider that death is the source of the very life you are living? How fast do you want to shift your attention to other things? Are you able to sit with a plate of food and consider what is actually taking place? Even for a moment? How is your sense of reverence or gratitude or awe or mystery affected when you contemplate your very existence as a testimony to the power and glory of death?