At a very convivial dinner party not some time ago, John, a friend I have known for years, turned to me and told me completely out of the blue that he never stops thinking about death. John is a very successful businessman. He built up a thriving property business from scratch and devotes long hours to it. My immediate thought was that by focussing so heavily on his work he was attempting to banish the thought of death from his mind for at least short periods of time. By creating and building his business, he was giving himself a purpose and an identity that would last beyond his own lifespan. After his death, his name would be remembered on estate agent boards across the north east of England.
I am being flippant, but the point is serious. I hadn’t heard the phrase ‘terror management theory’ at the time, but I now see that John’s devotion to his business can be classified as a form of terror management. And of course I can relate to his need to find a strategy to cope with the knowledge of his own ultimate fate. We all can. We all have to find meaning in our lives in order to make them worth living. For some people, religion is the answer. For me, it is not. I cannot manage my own terror by indulging in comforting thoughts of my soul residing in heaven for all eternity because I know for a fact that I haven’t got a soul. My own strategy is, in fact, very similar to John’s. I like to keep busy. I enjoy being in a state of flow. I don’t like to spend too much time alone with my thoughts.
Most people succeed in controlling thoughts of death to the extent that they are able to enjoy, or at least endure, living. The human species is the only species that comprehends its own mortality, but despite that the desire to be alive and stay alive is very, very strong.
Read an article by Stephen Cave about terror management theory and the four main strategies that people use to distance themselves from the knowledge of their own mortality. (FREE to view on the New Humanist website)
Visit the Terror Management Theory website
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