I’ve just finished serialising in quotes Sapiens: A Brief History of Humankind, and I came to love the discipline of extracting quotes and sharing them on as many days as I could. I did it for Sapiens because I thought it a remarkable book: as I read it on my Kindle I took more quotes from it than from any book that I’ve ever read. (Mind you, I do seem to be taking ever more as I age.) But there are other books that have had a great influence on me, and as I like the process I’m now going to serialise in quotes The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life by Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski. The book argues that almost everything—our cultures, religions, arts, political systems, and personal behaviours—are driven by fear of death.
I finished the book about a year ago, and I have been meaning to extract the quotes and write a blog on the book ever since. But I haven’t got round to it, partly because I’m a year behind with copying out quotes from my Kindle—from many books. But technology has come to my aid. I’ve discovered—no doubt belatedly—that I can download the Kindle app to my PC and then copy the quotes without having to write them out again. I miss the copying by writing—because it takes me closer to the heart of the authors’ thinking and into the rhythm of their prose—but when I’m so far behind I accept the second best of copying and pasting.
So here we go with the first instalment.
The awareness that we humans will die has a profound and pervasive effect on our thoughts, feelings, and behaviors in almost every domain of human life— whether we are conscious of it or not.
At a more personal level, recognition of our mortality leads us to love fancy cars, tan ourselves to an unhealthy crisp, max out our credit cards, drive like lunatics, itch for a fight with a perceived enemy, and crave fame, however ephemeral, even if we have to drink yak urine on Survivor to get it.
The cradle rocks above an abyss, and common sense tells us that our existence is but a brief crack of light between two eternities of darkness. —VLADIMIR NABOKOV, Speak, Memory: A Memoir
We will do just about anything to stay alive. Yet we live with the knowledge that this desire will inevitably be thwarted.
Terror is the natural and generally adaptive response to the imminent threat of death.
And here’s the really tragic part of our condition: only we humans, due to our enlarged and sophisticated neocortex, can experience this terror in the absence of looming danger.
The poet W. H. Auden eloquently captured this uniquely human conundrum:
Happy the hare at morning, for she cannot read
The Hunter’s waking thoughts, lucky the leaf
Unable to predict the fall, lucky indeed
The rampant suffering suffocating jelly
Burgeoning in pools, lapping the grits of the desert,
But what shall man do, who can whistle tunes by heart,
Knows to the bar when death shall cut him short like the cry of the shearwater,
What can he do but defend himself from his knowledge?