The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg & Tom Pyszczynski
Reviewed by Beata Bishop
The title comes from William James, the worm is death, and the central theme and claim of this extraordinary book is the terror of death being the motivation of all human activity. I must admit that my first reaction to this tenet was negative for two reasons: it sounded too sweeping and all-embracing, and the term “terror” seemed exaggerated, but then in recent years that word and its derivatives have acquired a bloody shadow which didn’t exist in the early Eighties when the three authors, then young experimental psychologists at the University of Kansas, began to explore the subject.
Their interest was aroused by the work of the maverick academic Ernest Becker who claimed that all human activity is driven by unconscious efforts to deny and somehow neutralise the basic terror of mortality; that, in fact, this terror was the motive power behind the development of art, religion, science, economics and much of human behaviour. Expanding Becker’s ideas, the three authors formulated a “Terror Management Theory” which, however, was rejected by the psychological Establishment. Without some hard evidence, they were told, their ideas would not be taken seriously.
They took up the challenge, and thirty years later in this book they present the results of 500 studies and a wealth of additional research supporting their central theme. In Part 1, Terror Management, the detailed studies suggest that making people think of their own death immediately changes their behaviour: for instance, judges order harsher punishments in set-up cases, individuals become more hostile towards others whom they consider different from themselves, they show more devotion to charismatic leaders, and greater faith in the existence of God. (Throughout the book religion and all spiritual strivings are solely mentioned as tools to create emotional well-being and lower death anxiety.)
Part 2, under the heading of Death Through the Ages, lists various efforts to achieve literal or symbolic immortality. The range is wide: in the 4th century A.D. the Chinese needed a lot of gold to make an elixir that, they believed, would protect them from physical death. Being short of the stuff, they turned to alchemy, hoping to convert base metals into non-corroding gold. From all we know, neither the gold nor the immortality elixir ever materialised. Yet this ancient attempt seems less bizarre than some of today’s equivalent efforts. For example, at the Alcor Life Extension Foundation in Arizona, deep-frozen corpses are kept in liquid nitrogen canisters, awaiting the technological development that will allow them to be brought back to life, however long that will take. At $200,000 per person, time hardly matters. Those of more limited means may have only their heads and brains preserved for $80,000, in the hope that at de-frosting a new body will be provided for them.
Symbolic immortality can be built on fame, great and lasting achievements (Keats and Alexander the Great are prime examples), a fertile family line or the acquisition of a huge fortune, which is seen as “a sign of God’s benevolent intentions.” This chapter takes the reader on a highly readable tour d’horizon, bringing together cultural history, psychology, philosophy and much more – indeed so much that the terror of death almost vanishes from sight.
Part 3, Death in Modern Times, brings it back with a bang. Human destructiveness and cruelty, from Attila the Hun to Saddam Hussein, is quoted as proof that fighting “the other” strengthens one’s own sense of safety; already Thucydides stated that through warfare people strive to overcome “their mortal condition”. The “uneasy alliance” between body and soul reminds us that we are physical creatures who will die, so we try to distance ourselves from our bodily nature in many ways, ranging from transformative cosmetics to the mortification of the flesh. Even sex, “the most pleasurable of activities”, is linked to the body and therefore to death.
So how are we to live with this awareness? The authors advise us to cultivate self-esteem, become more aware and accepting of our mortality, and strengthen our sense of death transcendence in non-destructive ways, such as connecting to future generations, passing on our genes, values and possessions and offering them innovations and teaching in vital subjects. Or else we can consider the Epicurean cure (341-270 BC) which asserts that as dead people are devoid of all sensations, their condition is no different from never having existed. Brief but potent advice…
The authors’ own attitude to mortality is not stated, but they seem to identify themselves with their physical selves, hence no question of survival of any kind. Total detachment and objectivity are impossible, but, particularly with this subject, a clear personal attitude would be needed. Lacking this, I can’t help wondering whether their own fears didn’t occasionally carry them away to the detriment of their work’s scholarly standard, for instance when they claim that concerns about mortality influence everything, including “what you eat for lunch, how much sunscreen you put on at the beach, whom you voted for in the last election, your attitudes about shopping…whom you love and whom you hate.” Having seriously considered my choice of today’s lunch and the permanent object of my love, I disagree.
In the final part, claiming the persistence of the terror of death, the authors quote Hamlet’s famous line about death as “the undiscovered country from whose bourn no traveller returns”. But that is no longer true. Ironically enough in 1975, just before the three authors first met, Raymond Moody’s book, “Life After Life”, opened up a new era, in which the near-death experiences of clinically dead but resuscitated patients –travellers who did return from that bourn – put an entirely new perspective on physical death and a possible afterlife. Since then an avalanche of important books by eminent authors such as Elisabeth Kuebler-Ross, David Lorimer, Peter Fenwick, Ken Ring and others too numerous to list, has begun to change our individual and collective ideas about death. Over 13 million copies of Dr Moody’s pioneering “Life After Life” have been sold worldwide, offering a new focus on physical death, free from terror. In that light, “The Worm at the Core” can be seen as a splendid all-embracing monument to the age-old terror-struck attitude to death, but one that has begun to lose its validity.
Beata Bishop is author of A Time to Heal, and is in her 93rd year.