The Safety Switch

You, and I, and everyone else in the world has a secret. 

And it’s a big one. Probably the biggest one there is. A secret that is foundational to everything we do and looms over our every action.

But we never discuss it. Not even if we find ourselves in a quiet place with our life-partner or our closest friend. It’s such a big secret that we try not to even think about it. Yes, it’s a secret we try to keep even from ourselves

Everyone in the world has the same secret. It’s pretty much the only thing we have in common. And every person throughout history has had the same secret and kept the secret from each other, and themselves. 

We are so terrified of the content of this secret that we bury it as deeply as we can inside our minds. The problem is, painful thoughts that we bury tend to affect our behavior in ways we don’t intend. 

Freud believed that when we encounter emotions or thoughts that are so unpleasant that our minds believe we may not be able to cope, our subconscious protects us by blocking the thoughts. This defense mechanism – repression – mostly happens during child development, when our subconscious is protecting a vulnerable mind. However, it can also happen in adult life if the emotion or thought feels particularly threatening.

Freud didn’t believe repression ever succeeded in the long-term. Traumatic knowledge or memories that are repressed express themselves unconsciously in our behaviors: anxiety, neurosis, disfunction, phobias. 

What happens when something is universally repressed and always has been? And how might our lives be different if we decided to no longer keep this secret to ourselves?

The answer to these questions has given rise to a school of thought called “Terror Management Theory” and the father of this school of thought was Ernest Becker. 

Becker was born in 1924 and died in 1974, just short of his 50th birthday. He was an academic who never truly fit in. He moved from one college to another, often on one-year contracts that were not extended. It might be argued that part of the difficulty he had finding a home was of his own making. Becker was a staunch advocate of academic freedom and often criticized his own employers when they pursued funding from the business world. He was also a critic of narrow academic research and his courses drew from multiple sources, which led to some faculty members viewing him as unscientific. His teaching styles were certainly innovative: for a lecture on existential choice and madness in “King Lear,” Becker dressed as Lear and used props and stage lighting. 

Over the course of his career, Becker bounced from Syracuse to Berkeley to San Francisco to Vancouver and from psychiatry to sociology to education to anthropology. The result was a career that even the website of his own foundation calls “scattered.” But for Becker, being an academic wasn’t just a job. He wasn’t bouncing from department to department trying to fit in. He was on a quest, a quest for the answer to a question that had absorbed him since he was 21-years old when, as a soldier in the US infantry, he had helped liberate a Nazi concentration camp. The experience created a burning need to find out: what makes people act the way they do? 

Becker answered that question in a seminal book that was awarded the Pulitzer Prize for non-fiction, unfortunately for Becker, posthumously. He died of colon cancer at the age of 49. The book called “The Denial of Death.”

And this is the secret we keep from ourselves and always have: that one day we will die. 

Becker’s thesis was that the history of human civilization is basically a defense mechanism against this secret. Drawing from psychological theory, he believed that we, collectively as a species, repress the painful knowledge of our mortality and we do this because, as humans, we have a fundamental need for our lives to have meaning and so our mortality represents a dilemma that is unresolvable.

Man has a symbolic identity, he is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life story, the ability to comprehend the cosmos and atoms and abstract concepts such as infinity. But, he is also worm food, his life is objectively meaningless and he will one day rot and disappear forever, it is a terrifying dilemma.“

     “The Denial of Death”

Becker separated our natures into two: a physical side and a symbolic side. Since the physical side is fated to die, our symbolic side seeks to create meaning through what Becker called “immortality projects.” These are any projects whose purpose is to create meaning for ourselves beyond our lifespan: fame, children, art creation, entrepreneurship, philanthropy, religion, politics. These projects act as an “immortality vessel” for our symbolic side to continue to exist beyond our physical lifetime. 

On an individual level, Becker’s theory answered why people suffered from depression – they believe their immortality project may or will fail – or schizophrenia – they become so obsessed with their immortality project that they live in another mental state. On a collective level, his theory answered why there is war and horrors such as concentration camps – they exist because of conflict between different people’s immortality projects.

Becker didn’t believe everyone engaged in “immortality projects.” Some manage their death anxiety through hedonic pursuits – alcohol, drugs, consumerism – or by “tranquilizing themselves with the trivial” – a general busyness without true meaning. 

Becker’s book birthed modern Terror Management Theory and has permeated not just anthropological study but psychological and sociological studies too. The avoidance of death may be behind the reason why:

  • those who suffer from low self-esteem are more prone to distracting themselves with hedonic pursuits or meaningless busyness instead of pursuing the best versions of their lives.
  • many struggle with addiction, because they have become disconnected from the symbolic realm and are unable to identify with something bigger than themselves.
  • discrimination is so prevalent. What motivates oppressor groups is a fear of their own death and insignificance. “Fear of other” has fear of death as its root.
  • some countries take comfort from the denial of climate change. Acknowledgement that the survival of our species is at risk is too much for some people or cultures to accept.
  • celebrity culture is so influential. Those without their own immortality projects may derive comfort from attachment to a celebrity who seems to embody their core values and beliefs. The celebrity becomes an ‘immortality vessel’ for these people.
  • fear tactics and death reminders by politicians can cause voters to take harder stances on immigration, overseas military intervention and curtailment of civil liberties. A suppressed fear for our lives causes voters to choose those who present themselves as protectors. 

Our brains and biology are too fearful to acknowledge death. So we flip a switch, what I call the safety switch, and we live our lives as if it will not happen to us, even though the repressed knowledge that death is waiting affects us in all the ways described above and many more.

The thing about repression is that it’s subconscious. We can’t stop it. And once it happens, our repressed reactions to it are unconscious too. It’s a loop. And the only way to break that loop is to bring what is subconscious into our conscious so we can control it.

I’m not writing this blog with the aim of tackling addiction, racism or climate change denial. I’m just writing it for those of us who want more from life. My goal is to share how becoming “death positive” might help bring about positive change in our everyday lives. 

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