Terror Management and Depressive Realism

I happened across terror management theory. Intuitively, I find it compelling. It’s a basic explanation of an important aspect of human nature and how it is expressed in society.

It “proposes a basic psychological conflict that results from having a desire to live, but realizing that death is inevitable. This conflict produces terror, and is believed to be unique to human beings. Moreover, the solution to the conflict is also generally unique to humans: culture. According to TMT, cultures are symbolic systems that act to provide life with meaning and value. Cultural values therefore serve to manage the terror of death by providing life with meaning.”

The originators of this theory wrote a couple of books together, the authors being Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski. One book is The Worm at the Core. The other is In the Wake of 9/11. The introduction to that last book has some quotes from Americans describing the recollection of their thoughts and experiences following the 9/11 terrorist attack.

It’s been so long ago. I don’t normally think back to that time. The reign of Bush, from stolen election to the great recession, wasn’t a happy time for this country. The attack itself was just one tiny part of an era of gloom, the decade of the aughts.

Reading the quotations brought back my own experience of that event. I’m reminded of how atypical I am. My immediate response, upon first hearing about 9/11, was a lack of surprise. It somehow seemed inevitable to me, something that was bound to happen one way or another. It fit the mood of the times. Maybe nothing good was ever going to come out of the aughts. But, before that fateful day, we Americans had no idea how bad it could get with 9/11 along with it’s aftermath of War On Terror, endless war, and the growing intelligence-police state.

On the eve of 9/11, I had fallen asleep with the radio playing. The next morning, with the radio still on, I slowly returned to consciousness with news reports of some great catastrophe that had befallen the nation. I suppose that is a surreal thing to wake up to. But, as I recall, I didn’t think of it as shocking, unexpected, and abnormal. It fit into the world I knew, which obviously wasn’t the world most other Americans knew.

Let me explain why that was the case. There were a number of contributing factors to my mindset.

The radio being on is the most central factor for multiple reasons. One study found that people who heard about 9/11 on the radio, as compared to seeing it on television, were later on less supportive of Bush’s War On Terror. It wasn’t ideology or partisan politics that drove the public attitude of revenge and aggression. Rather, it was how the initial experience was mediated. (Never doubt the power of media. Also, never doubt that those who own and control media fully understand that power.)

At that time, radio was my lifeline to the world. I didn’t have a television or internet. Nearly all info came to me via words—from radio, newspapers, magazines, and books. The first image I saw of the burning buildings probably was from a newspaper and so probably was black-and-white. The vividness of the event wasn’t immediately conveyed to me. I didn’t sit around watching video of the attack on endless loop, as so many did, repeated imagery that created a permanently traumatized state of mind. I’m more of a verbal person and words do communicate in a different way than images.

There is another important factor related to my radio listening. The most common reason I’d fall asleep with the radio on is because of a particular radio show I regularly listened to, Coast to Coast AM with Art Bell. It was old school alternative media before the internet had made popular the new forms of alternative media.

Art Bell’s show was an island of independent thought, sandwiched in between the status quo liberalism of public radio and the crazed ranting of right-wing radio talk shows. Back in those days, when Art Bell still ran the show, it had a bit of a radical and leftist bent to it. But the guests themselves were all across the political spectrum, not to mention all across the sanity-insanity spectrum. Art Bell would allow almost anyone to talk, as long as they were basically honest and respectful.

It was from that show and other alternative media that I was initially educated about the goings on in the larger world. Coast to Coast AM would quite often have serious guests, including scholars, political commentators, investigative reporters, etc. From such guests and other sources, I became aware of the meddling of the US government around the world and aware of growing conflicts, terrorism, and much else. Unlike most Americans, I understood that blowback was coming our way and, when it hit, it would be a doozy.

The other thing is that I had been experiencing years of severe depression at that point. My emotions had already hit low points on such a regular basis and for such lengthy periods of time that I had grown familiar with despair and agony. About five years before, I had attempted suicide and been temporarily institutionalized. As such, suicide ideation was ever lingering on my mind, a regular contemplation of suffering and death. This led me to an attitude of depressive realism, a stark appraisal of human nature and the human world.

Maybe this inoculated me against terror of death. If anything, I was prone to emotional numbness from long-term psychological stress and over-exertion. My normal emotional response is a bit broken and my psychic reserves are typically not far above zero. Entrenched depression brings on regular bouts of cynicism. I’m prone to expecting the worse and being unsurprised when the worst comes.

It’s hard for me to sympathize with those who are surprised. The world is a shitty place. That seems obvious to me. It doesn’t take a terrorist attack to get me to notice this sad state of affairs.