“Death tugs at my ear and whispers,
‘Live! I am coming.’”
—Virgil (70-19 BC)
Attempting to write an article about 9/11 is fraught with peril from the outset. What can be said that is not repetitious? Then there is the ever present risk of offending those whose lives were forever changed in an overawing, tragic manner. Finally, we are still too close in time to speak of the tragedy in a detached, analytic way, lest it be misinterpreted as callous or dismissive. I weighed all these perils in my deliberations to write an anniversary article, and decided that there may yet be some meta-psychological issues worthy of discussion.
On the 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks, our collective fight/freeze/flight response can scarcely be said to have been extinguished. Our stress response systems, both individual and cultural, remain on high alert, as proclaimed by news media: “As the nation prepares for the 10-year anniversary of the 9/11 attacks—a date al-Qaeda has cited as a potential opportunity to strike again—security is intensifying at airports, train stations, nuclear plants, and major sporting arenas around the country.”1
Death denial and terror management
On a very primal, almost pre-verbal level, one message (among many) from 9/11 was extremely powerful—yet buried underneath the staggering, appalling destruction. That message was: “Here is Death in all its arbitrary, uncontrollable, horrific reality—All attempts at denial shall fail.” It was as if we were force-fed a living nightmare—a shocking, petrifying reminder of our mortality. Can there be any question as to why the US termed one of its initial attacks on Iraq as “Shock and Awe”? The forced awareness and immediacy of our own mortality produced within us a formidable response—and continues to do so to this day. It is this response that I would like to address on this 10th anniversary of the 9/11 attacks.
Roughly 30 years before the 9/11 attacks, sociologist Ernest Becker2 laid bare our psychological need to deny the reality of death. Over the following decades, and after the 9/11 attacks, researchers following his lead have proposed that death is the “worm at the core” of human pretensions to happiness.3 Since the reality of death may be too painful for us to remain fully conscious of, “human beings have fabricated cultural meaning systems and complex social organizations to suggest that . . . human existence is not finite.”3 For example, certain dogmatic religious beliefs have been viewed as playing a critical role in managing the terror of death. This concept has been researched extensively and has been referred to as Terror Management Theory (TMT).
According to TMT, our innate biological instinct for survival, combined with our capacity for self-consciousness, sets the stage for painful awareness of our mortality and its attendant terror. TMT research findings suggest that fear of death (called mortality salience in the literature) can motivate aggression against “others” who threaten one’s death-denying worldview.4 Thus, reminders of death act to intensify efforts to defend a particular faith or worldview.5 TMT research has relevance to the study of inter-group and international conflict. When people hold the belief that they are valued participants in a “cosmically significant cultural scheme,” they are able to push aside, to varying degrees, the fact that they are physical organisms subject to decay and death.5
Put simply, TMT “concerns the impact that awareness of the inevitability of death has on how we live our lives. Thus, it is essentially a theory about the effect of death on life.”6 Perhaps the central insight of TMT is that “human beings attempt to fulfill culturally sanctioned dreams forged to escape the encompassing nightmare, not just of human history but also of human existence itself.”6 As far as we know, only humans are aware of their awareness, and as a result have become “time-binding” animals that can reflect on the past and anticipate the future.6 But the self-awareness that one is alive and “able to anticipate the future inevitably produces the unsettling awareness of one’s inexorable death,” and that death can and does occur tragically, prematurely, and arbitrarily.
Perhaps of necessity, we rarely experience the resulting existential terror directly and/or consciously. Rather, we have created culture(s) that enable us to view our plight in such a way as to “solve” our existential crisis.6 Cultural belief systems, when shared by a group, bolster our ability to deny the dread of the inevitable. At the individual level, we create our own “immortality projects” designed to cement our status in some “heroic” fashion—eg, celebrity, wealthy mogul, revered statesman.7
One may argue that strong evidence for our denial of death lies in our insistence on “guarantees” in life. These include guarantees that our health will not fail if we eat right and exercise regularly, that our regular church attendance or performance of good deeds will ensure a particular kind of afterlife, or that our hard work will all “pay off” in the end. It is usually not until a tragic event occurs that our core belief in an “orderly and benevolent universe” is abruptly shaken. Events such as extreme violence or terror, particularly against innocent people, have a tendency to undermine all our former assumptions. This may then lead to “a collapse of the normal means by which people protect themselves from the frightening aspects of life.”6
Our comforting assumptions and guarantees may be threatened not only by reality itself but also by “others” who do not share our culturally fabricated “social consensus.” The mere “existence of others with different cultural worldviews is threatening,” explaining our psychological inability to tolerate others who do not “subscribe” to our “death-denying cultural constructions.”6 This is frequently the cause of wholesale aggression to eliminate the threat of death, and ironically it produces a scenario of humans willing to die in order to overcome death. We begin to see the dreadful, destructive power of death denial as entire groups or cultures may store up a reservoir of annihilation fears, creating suffering and perpetuating self-destruction.
At base, death-denying cognitions are a form of a “wish.” Held up to the light of day, this fantasy wish is for nothing other than to provide a “compensatory sense of triumph over reality.”6 But of course, reality cannot be overcome, and to maintain such a stance toward life is to increase one’s suffering. Certainly, this dilemma may be considered a major facet of the human condition. When considered deeply, one cannot help but conclude that “we are all living within a tough situation and all deserving of compassion.”6 Viewed in this manner, death becomes a unifying concept pointing us all in the direction of a humbling and profound lesson.
Psychiatrist Robert Lifton, who has spent a lifetime studying survivors, noted that Hiroshima survivors were ultimately concerned with holding onto a sense of immortality he characterized as a symbolic effort to secure human connectedness and species continuity. However, Lifton notes that his work “taught me much about the deep necessity of survivors to commemorate their atomic bomb experience and the profound inadequacy of every means of doing so.”8
Living in the shadow of the valley
As everything in the world is but a sham,
Death is the only sincerity.
—Hagakure: The Book of the Samurai9
It would seem to be an impossible practice to live in a state of acceptance of what is uncontrollable and unknowable. Whether through psychotherapy or other means, consciously surrendering this inner resistance is the only path away from suffering and toward taking any necessary, helpful action. In this same manner, cultivating an awareness of one’s own mortality leads one to relinquish inflexible resistance. One is then able to live “with the voluntary consciousness of death, [and] can choose to despair or to make a Kierkegardian leap and trust in the ‘sacrosanct vitality of the cosmos.’”10
The field of traumatology has grown rapidly as a result of large-scale tragedies over the past decade. PTSD and depression were frequently observed in the aftermath of the 9/11 attacks.11 Yet the research also suggests that resilience may be more prevalent than previously believed. In a study examining the prevalence of resilience (defined as having either no PTSD symptoms or 1 symptom) among 2752 New York area residents during the 6 months following the 9/11 attack, resilience was observed in more than half (65.1%) of the subjects.12
How do resilient people adapt and/or change their worldview to cope? The early research seems to suggest that after a major trauma, people’s belief systems are impacted and may be modified. For example, they may experience changes to their view of the world “as they knew it” and their views on human nature, spirituality, and their own identity. Certainly, a grief and recovery process is a necessity, but many will still need to assimilate or accommodate new values.13 But even in resilient persons, it is possible that close proximity to the 9/11 disaster has greater effects on brain structures now known to regulate the stress response.14
And so we are still left with the pressing issue of how to effectively manage our traumatic stress and, in particular, our pervasive death fears. Can there be a “middle ground” between the rock (our need for “death-denying belief systems”) and the hard place (relativistic, uncertain worldviews)? Indeed, “If we are unable to find this safer place, then perhaps the human race is doomed to ignominious self-extermination.”6 One hopes here for something along the lines of what Lifton has called “species consciousness”—an awareness of one’s inseparability from other humans, particularly in so far as we share the ultimate concerns of life, death, and the motivation to protect the species.8
Returning to TMT, some possibilities have been emerging. For example, recent TMT research has shown that “less mindful individuals showed higher worldview defense” when exposed to mortality salience reminders.15 The authors of the study concluded that “mindfulness” may help “emphasize the nature of conscious processing in understanding responses to threat.”14 Although there has been a recent explosion of mindfulness-based research in the mental health field, let us focus on a simple definition. One description of mindfulness is that it is paying careful attention, on purpose and nonjudgmentally—in the present moment.16 While this may suggest, on the surface, an attempt to annihilate the ego, it is important to note that “mindfulness is not a means of forgetting the ego; it is a method of using the ego to observe its own manifestations . . . a more fluid ego able to constantly integrate potentially destabilizing experiences of insubstantiality and impermanence.”17
With careful, mindful observation, painful or even terrifying emotions may be allowed into consciousness, whereupon they “cease to be felt as an alien force, but come to be experienced as an inseparable part of a larger whole. In so doing, the emotions are permitted to spontaneously mature. . . .”17 The term “working through” is well known to therapists, and in the field of mindfulness training, it is noted that emotions simply cannot be abolished, because they have a tendency to flee and hide under cover of denial. Rather, “working through an emotion . . . often means something different from merely eliminating it. . . . To work something through means to change one’s view.”17
Beginning with the notion that we must somehow get rid of the emotion is to empower “the very forces that we seek to escape. On the other hand, when we can use the arising of emotion to examine our underlying sense of identification, we tap the transformative potential of sublimation.”17 While it is still quite early in terms of mindfulness research, small studies are beginning to report that mindfulness-based stress reduction may result in neuroplastic changes in the amygdala that are correlated with perceived stress reduction.18
Can there be hope for handling our death fears in a way that will not lead to our own self-destruction? I believe so, and it appears as though homo sapiens, ever resilient and odds-defying, are in search of a way. Perhaps it will ultimately result in a sublimation even Freud could not have envisioned—a transformation of our views and ways of processing our fears. So much misery and unhappiness in our lives is fear-based, most of which may be traced back to avoiding awareness and acceptance of the present: “We worry about tomorrow because we are afraid. . . . We run away from what is happening right in front of us. We try to find things that make us feel more solid, more safe and secure. . . . So we wait for the magical moment—sometime in the future—when everything will be . . . as we want it to be.”19
Perhaps death fear may ultimately serve as a cognitive reorganizer for the species—our call to develop a stronger “existential self-consciousness that sustains a process of self-overcoming.”20 Death may be thought of as the ultimate narcissistic injury and an urgent invitation to look inward. Surely inwardness is the most honest and fruitful path toward overcoming denial, projection, and actions that ultimately “do to the other what we do not know about ourselves.”20 But genuine inwardness necessarily requires mindful awareness: “If you live without awareness, it is the same as being dead. You cannot call that kind of existence being alive. . . . We are pulled into the past or we are pulled into the future or we are caught by our projects or our despair and anger.”19
Inwardly processing our death fears may likely be one of our next great tasks as a species. Or as Lifton has put it: “In every age man faces a pervasive theme which defies his engagement and yet must be engaged. In Freud’s day it was sexuality and moralism. Now it is unlimited technological violence and absurd death. . . . Our need is to go further, to create new psychic and social forms to enable us to reclaim not only our technologies, but our very imaginations, in the service of continuity of life.”8
Yet here is a task we must accomplish without undue reliance on guarantees. We must rely instead on our innate capacity for inwardness and creativity—recalling, for example, the symbolism embodied in our myth of Orpheus, whose task it was “to sing us back from death into a new way of being that blossoms in those who can suffer the contradictions of their time as the untranscendable horizon of thought, action, and passion.”20
1. US security intensifying as Sept. 11 anniversary nears. August 31, 2011. http://www.syracuse.com/news/index.ssf/2011/08/us_security_intensifying_as_se.html. Accessed September 8, 2011.
2. Becker E. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press; 1973.
3. Schimel J, Hayes J, Williams T, Jahrig J. Is death really the worm at the core? Converging evidence that worldview threat increases death-thought accessiblity. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2007;92:789-803.
4. McGregor HA, Lieberman JD, Greenberg J, et al. Terror management and aggression: evidence that mortality salience motivates aggression against worldview-threatening others. J Pers Soc Psychol. 1998;74:590-605.
5. Landau MJ, Solomon S, Greenberg J, et al. Deliver us from evil: the effects of mortality salience and reminders of 9/11 on support for President George W. Bush. Pers Soc Psychol Bull. 2004;30:1136-1150. http://psp.sagepub.com/cgi/content/abstract/30/9/1136. Accessed September 8, 2011.
6. Pyszczynski T, Sheldon S, Greenberg J. In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror. Washington, DC: American Psychological Association; 2003.
7. Leifer RJ. The Happiness Project: Transforming the Three Poisons That Cause the Suffering We Inflict on Ourselves and Others. Ithaca, NY: Snow Lion Publications; 1997.
8. Lifton R. Witness to an Extreme Century: A Memoir. New York: Free Press; 2011.
9. Tsunetomo Y. Hagakure. The Book of the Samurai. Wilson WS, trans. Tokyo: Kodansha International; 1979.
10. Keen S. Foreword in: Becker E. The Denial of Death. New York: Free Press; 1973.
11. Galea S, Ahern J, Resnick H, et al. Psychological sequelae of the September 11 terrorist attacks in New York City. N Engl J Med. 2002;346:982-987.
12. Bonanno GA, Galea S, Bucciarelli A, Vlahov D. Psychological resilience after disaster: New York City in the aftermath of the September 11th terrorist attack. Psychol Sci. 2006;17:181-186.
13. Jordan K. What we learned from 9/11: a terrorism grief and recovery process model. Brief Treatment Crisis Intervention. 2005;5:340-355.
14. Ganzel BL, Kim P, Glover GH, Temple E. Resilience after 9/11: multimodal neuroimaging evidence for stress-related change in the healthy adult brain. Neuroimage. 2008;40:788-795.
15. Niemiec CP, Brown KW, Kashdan TB, et al. Being present in the face of existential threat: the role of trait mindfulness in reducing defensive responses to mortality salience. J Pers Soc Psychol. 2010;99:344-365.
16. Baer RA. Mindfulness training as a clinical intervention: a conceptual and empirical review. Clin Psychol Sci Pract. 2003;10:125-143.
17. Epstein M. Psychotherapy Without the Self: A Buddhist Perspective. New Haven, CT: Yale University Press; 2007.
18. Hlzel BK, Carmody J, Evans KC, et al. Stress reduction correlates with structural changes in the amygdala. Soc Cogn Affect Neurosci. 2010;5:11-17.
19. Hahn TN. No Death, No Fear: Comforting Wisdom for Life. New York: Riverhead Books; 2002.
20. Davis WA. Death’s Dream Kingdom: The American Psyche Since 9-11. Ann Arbor, MI: Pluto Press; 2006.