Saturday, February 25, 2023

Denying death the American way

Jeffrey Kluger, Why Americans Are Uniquely Afraid to Grow Old, Time, Feb. 23, 2023.

Why are Americans age averse?

But apart from fear of death—which, admittedly, is hard to get around—why exactly do Americans resist aging so much? It’s a privilege that is denied to too many, after all. And it comes with a raft of advantages like wisdom, respect, and for many, a comfortable retirement. So what is it exactly that makes us all so age-averse?

For one thing, argues Sheldon Solomon, professor of psychology at Skidmore College, and, at 69, a Baby Boomer himself, America’s senior cohort comes from a uniquely privileged background, one that has left them with the feeling that the frailties that come with aging—and even death itself—are not inevitable rites of human passage, but somehow negotiable.


In the 1980s, Thomas Pyszczynski, 68, professor of psychology at the University of Colorado, Colorado Springs, was part of a group of researchers who developed the terror management theory of facing death which, as its name implies, addresses the way we somehow get through our days knowing that somewhere at the end of the existential line lies the utter annihilation of the self. That’s a knowledge that other animals are spared, but it’s one that both haunts and animates our thinking.

“We have this evolved imperative to stay alive,” says Pyszczynski. “So the awareness of death creates this potential for terror. As a result, we use the same intellectual abilities that make us aware of death to manage our fear of it.”

Humans do that in one of two ways. The first is to cultivate a belief in literal immortality. “We detoxify death with the hope of living in an afterlife—like reincarnation,” Pyszczynski says. “Every culture has its own version of afterlife beliefs.” The other, less direct means is symbolic immortality. “That’s what people get by being part of something greater than themselves—something that will last forever, like having children or creating works of art, or building buildings. We leave a mark that ensures the world—or at least our families—will remember us.”

Americans are no different from others in leaning both on faith in an afterlife and producing good works in this one as a palliative for our fear of our own mortality. But as Solomon says, our culture—and particularly the Boomer segment—is pushing back against those old ways too.

“I think we just never got out of the Disneyland idea that life was always going to get better,” he says.

There’s more at the link.

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