Terror Management Theory

There is a theory in social psychology that proposes a basic conflict in humans having a desire to live but knowing that death is inevitable. This produces terror, and a solution to the terror in the form of religion, belief in the afterlife, seeking immortality  and even acts of violence. After reading a bit about it, it seems that the fear of dying, unique to humans, is the prime motivator for what we do in this world. The anxiety of our inevitable end creates laws, belief systems, deities, writers, artists, and it is a subconscious foundation in all our lives, whether we are aware of it or not.

I am in a stage of life where the terror level is most elevated. Apparently, it is high in the young, peaks in the mid life stage, and lessens in the later years. I can tell you for a fact that this is true, because it occupies much of my thought lately, and robs me of sleep. Looking back on my life, I think the terror of it was always there, always closer to the surface than is probably wise, and lately, with every muscle pull, with every outward sign of aging, I am preoccupied with it more and more. My terror management has only ever been one strategy: the creation of art, or something that will last beyond my years, that will be linked to who I was and be regarded fondly or profoundly. I do not believe in the afterlife, I do not believe in Heaven or Hell, and I do not believe in the immortal soul.

I wish that I did.


It would be a profound comfort to have those convictions, that this person, this collection of experiences and memories and thoughts, would go on in another form, but still be intact and unique somehow. I know people who believe that energy can never be destroyed, and therefore all we are will return into the fabric of the universe in some fundamental way. That's all well and good, and maybe true, but it does not provide me any comfort, as that still means all that I am will cease, and the identity, the ego, the pattern I have become will be no more. We are cursed with self-awareness and intelligence, and those gifts make the prospect of death a bitter conflict to contend with.

I am being honest here. I am being as personal as I can, and I think my terror level and reactions to it are not at all unique, but we as humans need to not speak about it, indeed, we need to put it away, force it back, and transform it somehow. Some of us take a dark turn and subconsciously transmit our fear of death into the abuse of others - other humans or animals, to feel we have control over it somehow. Others, like me, seek to take the terror and make some use out of it - knowing full well it will only help a little, knowing that the expression of it into art is, at best, a vague hope, a feeble attempt at immortality or at least transformation of the angst into a visual or musical expression.

I may never get over the terror, I may never escape it being a preoccupation, but my body of work is all I have to calm it a little, and this one is all about me, all about the fear of dying. The model is close to my age, he shows damage or wounds - cracks in his visage, he holds his head in angst. He appears to be in a classic realm of heaven - all light and softness, but he is not at peace. Above him is the "soul" or soul energy, about to be released into the universe. It is a tiny spark, a small speck of light in the end, and it seems like it could drift off into the void with the faintest breath of wind. If he could see it, he would surely try to retain it, to pull it back into himself. His body is decaying, his mind aches. This image, and really, most of what I create, is my terror management.

All these thoughts and feelings were excellently expressed in a death soliloquy by the character Roy Batty in the film Blade Runner as he contemplated his rapidly approaching death:

I've... seen things you people wouldn't believe...Attack ships on fire off the shoulder of Orion. I watched c-beams glitter in the dark near the Tannhäuser Gate. All those... moments... will be lost in time, like tears... in... rain. Time... to die...