Self-Esteem and the Denial of Death
Human children gain increased cognitive complexity as we grow, and with this comes the capacity for self-awareness. Still physically weak and relatively powerless and defenseless a child of 4 – 7 years of age has matured enough to understand the concept of death as biological, universal, and inevitable. With self-awareness comes the capacity to imagine potential threats and to project into the future the possibility of mortal threats, be it the first day of kindergarten or the monsters that live under the bed or in the closet that will come in the night ahead!
With self-awareness also comes the recognition that the child’s parents are mortal and made of flesh and blood. They are able to see that their parents are flawed human beings who are therefore incapable of protecting the child from the many dangers in the world. From this newly developed perception emerges the familiar inquiries of children, such as; “Where do we go when we die?” Questions like these reflect the budding awareness of the impermanence of the human experience. This is possible because the child’s cognitive capacity for self-awareness, the capacity to perceive themselves in relationship to other selves. This marks the ‘birth of meaning’, the point at which humans become capable of considering a broader, more enduring source of protection, beyond what could be provided by their parents or any other mortal being.
This point also denotes a shift from the child's more narcissistic orientation to relationships with other humans (in service to their own self-esteem), to a motivation to be a valuable contributor to a meaningful universe. Children’s dawning awareness of mortality propels them to broaden their security base from adherence to the standards of their parents, to the standards and values of the greater cultural system of ideas, which provides answers to existential questions – and also provides the means for achieving immortality – the ultimate solution to the problem of death.
For example, in many cultures throughout the world, people are taught that an all-powerful god created the universe and human beings, and this belief has implications for what people should be doing with their lives. If God is The Creator, then devotees should be following His (or Her) plan for human beings as laid out in the Bible, the Qur’an, or whichever text one believes is correct. And if believers follow this divine plan, there is the ultimate death-transcending reward of an afterlife.
If one is not partial to religion, there are answers to the basic existential questions in Western, secular culture, as well. For example, many non-religious people believe that the universe was the result of a big explosion billions of years ago, a Big Bang that sent fragments and rubble hurtling through space. Some of this fragmented matter clumped together to form stars, planets, and moons. It just so happened that on Earth, the conditions were conducive to the formation of life as the result of a series of chemical reactions. Humans and animals then evolved to their current forms over the course of billions of years.
If a person believes that science has the answers to life’s questions, they might dedicate themselves to a particular domain of scientific inquiry, becoming a scientist. They might exhibit their contributions to their colleagues in their field through the writing of books or the making of films – and when a person can document their important discoveries, and even win awards for them, there is at least some sense that their achievements will live on in the scientific community after they are dead.
In addition to the scientific community, there are numerous other cultural domains through which people can exhibit their contributions and obtain a sense of symbolic immortality. The field of entertainment is a good example, where one may be remembered for their role in an award-winning film, television show, or Broadway play. Similarly, painters and musicians may hope to be remembered for their works of art, entrepreneurs may have visions of growing a corporation that spans generations, and athletes may wish to be immortalized by being inducted into the Hall of Fame.
And of course, many people can achieve a sense of life-continuity through the production of offspring, who not only pass on their genetic material, but also remember them and carry on their legacy. In these ways, even if a person’s cultural beliefs do not include the possibility of literal immortality, all cultural belief systems make it possible for us to create symbols of the self that live on in the culture after death.
By meeting whatever standards of ‘goodness’ one’s cultural meaning system prescribes, we are able to achieve the immortality offered by our culture. In doing so, people earn self-esteem, the belief that they are valuable contributors to an ongoing cultural drama. Self-esteem is the currency by which people purchase the illusion of death transcendence. The sense of purpose and value attained by living up to cultural ideals provides individuals with some needed, yet artificial assurance that they are on a path to life-continuity, which functions to temporarily assuage the deeply rooted existential fear, or death anxiety, that lives at the core.