How the Terror of Death Governs Human Life: The Worm at the Core


WILLIAM JAMES wrote in The Varieties of Religious Experience (1902) that awareness of our inevitable, unavoidable deaths is the “worm at the core” of human existence and consciousness. Hence the desperate imperative to avoid that awareness – to deny it and to live as if somehow we might be immortal.

Though writer-philosophers from Montaigne to Schopenhauer to Camus long ago addressed the futility of our existence, it took Ernest Becker to write a book called The Denial of Death (published, ironically, two years after his death in 1971).

This year, three American academics picked up where Becker left off and published The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death of Life, based on experiments they conducted to determine whether “death thoughts” caused people to respond differently to questions about beliefs, values and morals.

Turns out they did – massively. Just standing in front of a cemetery, for instance, made one group of Germans significantly prefer German food, cars and vacation spots to non-German ones. (Another group, not standing in front of a cemetery, was far less patriotic about its choices.)

What becomes very clear from reading The Worm at the Core is that even when we’re not consciously death-aware we are driven by our fear of it and our need to deny it. (This is classed as a “distal” rather than “proximal” defense against such awareness.) Furthermore, children as young as three are already death-aware and working hard to deny they will die.

Is this altogether surprising? No. How could we not be horrified and haunted by the bitter knowledge of our lives ending so terminally? But what might surprise some readers of The Worm is just how death-awareness permeates every aspect of those lives: how it drives us all to do sometimes crazy things in the frantic effort to ensure our lives mean something – or, more accurately, to ensure they will have meant something.

The authors refer to this as this attempt to achieve “symbolic immortality”: the need to make a mark or make a difference. We amass wealth, seize power, build monuments, invent supernatural worlds and, yes, write books and blog posts because the possibility of our insignificance and nothingness is unbearable. I know it is for me, which is why I found The Worm at the Core such a sobering and humbling corrective to the entrenched belief that I matter.

Of course, if I really accepted I don’t matter I wouldn’t be writing this at all. As the authors note, “it was clearly important to Schopenhauer, rather ironically, to convince others that nothing mattered”. On the other hand, moving slowly towards acceptance of one’s status as a “transient ambulatory gene repository” is what Buddhism has counselled for 1500 years: to accept death and to recognize the Ego as a false self that believes it’s separate from others, from the universe, from the “Not-Being” of Nirvana.

If striving for meaning drives all self-centred terror and anxiety – all competitiveness, over-achievement, oppression, tyranny, grandiosity, addiction, O.C. disorders, celebrity-worship, hatred of others – does that mean life is actually meaningless? Camus certainly thought so, and subsequent thinkers from Thomas Nagel to John Gray would probably agree. But Camus maintained that accepting meaninglessness freed us to live authentically rather than be governed by the denial of death. Meaning, he would have argued, is what you personally make of each sensory moment and interaction with otherness.

Reading The Worm at the Core gave me a new permission to stop taking my life so seriously and so personally. It’s never too late to learn.

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