The Psychology of Mortality: Death Anxiety Makes Us Hate People Who Are Different

UPDATE – BREXIT: UK votes for Brexit in EU referendum, triggering market shockwaves, on Financial Times, June 24, 2016: Pound plunges to 30-year low after popular revolt;
(my comment: maybe the second punch against the empire will be the election of an US-President named Trump. Now with this Brexit he may become able to introduce real changes. Will it be in the sense of justice for all, freedom and a real development of this humanity? – Heidi).

Interview with Professor Sheldon Solomon, Psychologist – Published on Spiegel Online International, by Rafaela von Bredow and Johann Grolle, June 21, 2016.

The fear of death is our constant companion. Psychologist Sheldon Solomon has researched how that anxiety affects our lives – and found that being reminded of death can bring out our worst.  

SPIEGEL: Professor Solomon, you have spent almost your entire professional life focusing on the fear of death. Can you remember the first time you ever experienced this fear?

  • Solomon: I do. I was eight years old and my mother said one night: “Say goodbye to your grandmother because she’s not going to be around much longer.” And she died the next day of cancer. Afterwards, I went upstairs and started leafing through my stamp collection. I had a lot of American stamps and they happened to all have dead presidents on them. So there was George Washington. He was a great guy, but he’s still dead. Here’s Thomas Jefferson. And then, like a psychological lightning bolt, I was like: “Oh, wow. This does not bode well for me.” And I had what I, at least in retrospect, remember as a convulsing realization that that would be my inevitable fate.

SPIEGEL: And this shock still affects you 50 years later?

  • Solomon: Essentially, yes. In the lovely language of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, there’s always a rumbling of panic beneath the surface of our consciousness. Our big forebrain gives us the capacity to think abstractly and symbolically and we are smart enough to realize that, like all living things, our lives are of finite duration. That conspires to give rise to potentially paralyzing existential terror.

SPIEGEL: Despite being so concerned, you seem quite happy … //

… SPIEGEL: Do our attitudes to death change throughout our lives? What happens, for example, when a doctor diagnoses a deadly disease? Does that intensify one’s fear of death?

  • Solomon: That’s a great question, and I don’t know. But we want to find the answer and right now we are looking at people who are terminally ill. My wife is a bereavement counselor in the local hospice and she talks about how people react completely differently to terminal diagnoses. Sometimes they react as we might expect: They get incredibly anxious, fearful and demoralized. But other times, they literally find life never more meaningful. It’s a psychological wake-up call that instigates a process by which they savor every last moment.

SPIEGEL: If we’re mortal anyway, why should it matter whether we have 30 years left to live or just one year?

  • Solomon: Henning Mankell, the Swedish crime writer, wrote captivatingly about exactly that question. He wrote about his reaction to receiving a terminal cancer diagnosis and how, for 10 days, he felt like he was on his way to hell. He describes himself as both paralyzed and terrified, and then he describes in a very poignant, literary and beautiful way how he comes to the realization that you’ve just proposed, which is, it actually doesn’t matter. He was then able to return to life in light of that realization.

SPIEGEL: Has your research helped you come to terms with death? … //

… (full interview text).

Related Link:

  • Sheldon Solomon on His Mortality, 2.51 min, uploaded by Transcendental Media, Aug 18, 2011 … in this clip from footage shot for Transcendental Media’s “Flight From Death: The Quest for Immortality,” Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College, shares his thoughts on his own mortality;

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