Death Is a Big Deal—Mortal Motivation Theory in Psychology


Death is a big deal. Most of us know it, or acknowledge it. Those of us who don’t are in denial—a fairly typical way of coping with unpleasant or unwelcome realities.

A handful of psychologists have developed a theory about how the fear or anticipation of our personal demise influences the way we make sense of our world.

On their view, our notions about death drive much of our behavior, and in ways we little suspect. This may seem obvious for some people, organizations, religious groups, and such. But these psychologists propose a completely general thesis with universal application. What is most controversial is their claim about each of us as individuals:

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.

This movement within the field of psychology has come to be called “terror-management theory.”

Some who demand an evolutionary explanation for our psychological constitution, in all of its rich complexity, apparently feel some uneasiness about the proposal. But Sheldon Solomon, one of the theory’s chief architects, doesn’t seem to be fazed by this. He has no trouble referring to a human person as a “breathing piece of defecating meat.” I would imagine we have evolution to thank for that.

His book, a co-authored treatise, is called The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. William James (1842-1910), the philosopher and psychologist, provided the authors with their title in his own reference to death as “the worm at the core” of the human condition. I suspect, though, that similarities between their conception of human persons and William James’s don’t extend much further than this borrowing.

Also, I wonder if they’ve thought very deeply about how the Christian religion locates the problem of our mortality within the total picture of human meaning and purpose. More likely than not, they would explain the hold of a Christian worldview on the minds and psyches of so many people as a fear-of-death management-system. That would make for an ironic parallel and discontinuity between their perspective and that of the Christian Bible.

That the anticipation of death reverberates throughout our sensibilities and actions has been thought before. The authors themselves credit Ernest Becker (1924-1974), author of The Denial of Death, for setting them on this particular research path. But the notion may have special appeal in a social context dominated by scientific naturalism. In such a context, one advantage of their theory is that it lends support to convenient debunking of claims about life after death. Doctrines of immortality are reduced to coping mechanisms. And that’s about all there is to it.

If belief in immortality provides a person with psychic support in the face of death, it may be supposed, then we have a psychological explanation for his belief in immortality.

Or not. The trouble is, the move made in this explanation for belief is a non sequitur. For a doctrine might actually be true and a believer in immortality might actually be justified, on reasonable grounds, for affirming that doctrine, even if immortality does provide believers with psychic support. In fact, belief in immortality would be a triple advantage if (1) the doctrine of immortality is true, (2) there’s good reason to affirm the doctrine, and (3) the doctrine provides powerful psychological support (in the form of hope, for example) in a world of mixed blessings.

Of course, the believer must reckon with the specter of a modus tollens reversal:

  1. If the doctrine of immortality is true, then the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false.
  2. The doctrine of scientific naturalism is true.
  3. Therefore, the doctrine of immortality is false.

This isn’t a serious obstacle, if the doctrine of scientific naturalism is false. It isn’t an obstacle if there is little evidence or argument that scientific naturalism is true. And since the evidence for scientific naturalism is ambiguous at best, the doctrinaire naturalist still has reason to consider the significance of his life within the framework of the possibility that some doctrine of immortality is true. And this may induce fear for anyone clinging to scientific naturalism.

No naturalistic explanation for the psychic power that derives from hope for an afterlife can dispense with this challenge to naturalism.

So what if belief in immortality aids in managing the fear of our eventual earthly demise? I suppose it’s as likely that the denial of immortality could also be a terror-management strategy. How convenient to think that death is not a threshold of crossing between the known and the unknown, but just the end of it all?

The Stoics advised composure in the face of death on the grounds that when it comes there will be no regret because no one left to regret it. Or at least no basis for fearing it. Why fear now what you won’t fear when it actually happens? But that isn’t the problem, is it, this side of the fatal divide? The real problem is knowing whether there is something in it for us beyond the threshold of death, and knowing, if there is, what it might be, and whether there are different possibilities, depending on your existential and doxastic commitments here and now.

There is room, I think, for more than one version of “mortal motivation theory” in psychology. There is the secularist-naturalist version promoted by the authors of The Worm at the Core. And there is the religiously serious version according to which death is a fitting device for contemplating our place in a super-naturalistically haunted universe and reflecting on where it might all be leading.

***

For a detailed review of the book in The Chronicle of Higher Education, click here: Mortal Motivation – The Chronicle Review – The Chronicle of Higher Education. Direct quotations in this post are from the Chronicle review by Marc Parry.

Forgiveness and the Problem of “Betrayal Bonding”


When I began writing about the virtue of forgiveness I recognized the need to identify prevalent yet mistaken attitudes about forgiveness. For example, many think that forgiving someone who is no longer living is a meaningful act. But I maintain that this misunderstands forgiveness.

Sometimes a virtuous form of behavior is confused with forgiveness. What I’ve called “therapeutic forgiveness,” for example, may be rooted in healthy beliefs and practices, without counting as forgiveness in the proper sense. A person may feel negative emotional ties to someone who was abusive but is no longer living. These emotional links can be especially crippling and efforts should be taken to break them. Fortunately, there are effective tactics for doing this. But these tactics do not consist in forgiving the abusive person.

Another confusion arises in cases where a person defends an attachment with a person who has betrayed him and may be known to betray others. This kind of attachment has been called “betrayal bonding.” The idea of forgiveness comes into play for the person who “looks past” the behavior of such a person and “accepts them as they are.”

I’ve seen this in several instances where a charismatic figure, very likeable from a public vantage point, is personally nefarious in his dealings with people who work closely with him or are members of his family. In another post, I wrote about “Snakes in Suits,” where I recommended a book with this title. Snakes in suits are among those who cultivate psychically dangerous and damaging relationships. But the type can be found in many different contexts.

What does betrayal bonding look like?

You may be friends with an individual who has a record of wrecked relationships that many would have thought were healthy, even exemplary. You may harbor vague puzzlement about this pattern. You may accept the individual’s explanation for relationship collapse, where blame-shifting often is featured prominently. You may wish to defend this individual out of a sense of loyalty—loyalty that may have intensified if you think the individual has been “abandoned” by “so-called friends.” You may wish, contrary to the evidence, that the individual is blameless in his dealings with others. You may suppose that your relationship with the individual will survive and that you will never be relegated to the sidelines or cast upon the pile of carnage. You may judge that the individual’s “quirks” and “foibles” are tolerable, and perhaps should be “forgiven,” given his importance in whatever cause you identify with.

All of this is evidence of betrayal bonding. (Betrayal bonding is not to be confused with co-dependence, though subtle co-dependencies may be at work.) The effect is unhealthy for the least suspecting person—YOU.

How do you know whether you’re bound to someone in this way?

Here’s a clue: If while reading this you have found yourself thinking of a particular person whose friendship you value, but whose relational skills by certain important measures are a little sketchy, then there’s a chance you suspect the presence of betrayal bonding. If so, this merits further exploration.

The International Institute for Trauma and Addiction Professionals (IITAP) has developed a “Betrayal Bond Index Test.” It’s a series of straightforward questions that you answer with a simple “yes” or “no.” Unlike much psychological testing, there isn’t much scope for uncertainty as you answer each of the 30 questions. And it goes quickly.

Today, I would answer all questions in the negative. But I would also be thinking of a destructive relationship of the past. Sometime after the early stages of that relationship, an honest answer to many of the question would have been a “yes.” That relationship, which I mistook for a friendship, pooped out a long time ago. I still have occasional encounters with the person, but I have not the slightest inclination to restart a relationship, to imagine that he has changed for the better, to give him a second chance, to make excuses for his conduct, to give him a pass or defend his reputation because of his popularity or perceived importance. (Forgiveness, a precondition for restoration, must await repentance.)

If he’s reading this, he probably knows who he is. At the moment, I’m happy to say, I can think of no one else who qualifies for the ignominious status rightly accorded to this person of the past. In fact, I can’t remember any other person prior to that relationship where I was at risk of “betrayal bondage,” (except, possibly, a girl I once dated). I guess that makes me a lucky guy.

How about you? Have you been so relationally blessed that none of this speaks to the inner you? Then by all means, celebrate. (It shouldn’t matter much who you celebrate with.)

But maybe you’re not so sure that you’re in the clear. Then the IITAP Index Test may be a good place to start toward better understanding!

Face the Fear—Peter Bregman’s Advice for Procrastinators


“Failure in a long-term project isn’t just a work issue; it’s an identity issue. Is it any wonder that we procrastinate?” This simple insight lies at the heart of Peter Bregman’s excellent counsel for those who have trouble getting started on BIG PROJECTS. You know who you are:

  • first-time book authors
  • second-, third-, and fourth-time book authors
  • PhD candidates confronted with writing a dissertation
  • public speakers
  • athletes
  • those who aspire to developing a new hobby
  • parents
  • generals of armies
  • book keepers
  • bloggers

Yep. Pretty much anyone who ever wanted to do something of value.

Bregman recognizes that the salami technique is useful, but he notes that it doesn’t deal directly with our “issues” as procrastinators on large undertakings. (The salami technique consists in slicing the biggies into smaller, more digestible sizes, then acting on each, one at a time, gradually making forward progress until the end is in sight.)

No need to repeat what Bregman says. Just visit his post for the Harvard Business Review here.

The Christian Introvert


Adam S. McHugh has written a wise book of guidance for the Christian introvert. I’m convinced by his argument that the Christian church in the West is, by and large, an “extrovert church,” and that this has stifled and confused many members of the church and enervated the church’s influence in the world.

Here’s my chapter-by-chapter review of Introverts in the Church: Finding Our Place in an Extroverted Culture, by Adam S. McHugh.

Chapter 1, “The Extroverted Church,” documents the extroverted tone of the Christian church today. The author’s citation from Eugene Peterson gets right to the point: “American religion is conspicuous for its messianically pretentious energy, its embarrassingly banal prose, and its impatiently hustling ambition.”  Such “hustling ambition” is part of the legacy of the first and second Great Awakenings. I would add that it is also a capitulation to modern western culture. Approximately half of the church’s demographic is temperamentally introverted, and so a large sector of the church is made to feel alienated and inadequate to the call of God in their lives.

Chapter 2, “The Introverted Difference,” helpfully describes the differences between two temperaments, the extrovert and the introvert. Any Christian reader will probably know whether she is an extrovert believer or an introvert believer after reading this chapter. And if she is an introvert, she will probably feel considerable relief that someone understands her. McHugh’s affirmation of the introvert temperament begets inspiration to own your introvert temperament and re-engage with the church and the culture in ways that draw on your strengths as an introvert.

The fundamental difference concerns the direction of energy flow in the life of the individual, especially in relation to social interaction. The extrovert, of course, seeks out and is energized by interaction with others. The introvert, though capable of participation, feels the energy drain away as a result too much interaction. This affects her perception of herself as a member of an extroverted culture. And it can be misunderstood by the extroverts who set the tone for this culture of extroversion.

Note: Being an introvert doesn’t make you shy, or inhibited, or anti-social. And being an introvert is no better or worse than being an extrovert.

Chapter 3, “Finding Healing,” addresses the need of so many introverts for healing from the wounds inflicted by the exclusivity of our extroverted culture. Often lonely and confused about the role they should play within the church and the world leads, introverts are vulnerable to depression, isolation, and despondency. McHugh distinguishes between introversion and shyness, and helps the introvert reader understand how participation in communal life is possible and why it is necessary.

The next few chapters explore ways the Christian introvert may thrive as a disciple of Jesus Christ.

Chapter 4, “Introverted Spirituality,” introduces ways that Christian introverts may deepen their relationship with God. These ways complement the introverted temperament. McHugh describes contemplative spirituality. His outline of the examen on page 74, though concise, is practical. And his counsel to adopt a “rule of life” is especially good. He speaks several times of learning to discern the voice of God. Though I would gloss this differently, what he says is consistent with my own take on divine guidance.

Chapter 5, “Introverted Community and Relationships,” admonishes the introvert to re-engage in communal life and offers practical suggestions for doing this, consistent with the introvert temperament. McHugh speaks as an introvert who has practiced what he preaches. He attests to the refreshment that becomes possible for the introvert in community, and to the joy that accompanies meaningful participation.

Chapter 6, “The Ability to Lead,” speaks to me. On the Myers-Briggs personality evaluation, I’m an INTJ. Translated, this means I have stronger tendencies to probe below the surface for what is important, rather than seek out concrete experiences, to make decisions based on deliberation, and to prefer structure over spontaneity in many (though certainly not all) areas of my life. For all of my adult life I’ve had a leadership role of some kind within the church and within society. Leadership feels and looks different for the introvert. But the introvert leader brings important skills to the table. Models of introverted leadership include Mother Teresa, Martin Luther King Jr., and Jonathan Edwards. Old Testament saints Moses and Jacob probably were introverts. The young pastor Timothy, so important to the ministry of St. Paul, may have been an introvert (see 2 Timothy 1:7). Then there’s Mary, the mother of Jesus, and Mary, who was Martha’s sister (see Luke 10:38-42). I suppose Esther, the Old Testament figure who changed the course of history for Israel, was an introvert. Not bad company, really.

(Diane Hamilton offers a sample list of celebrities, showing some famous extroverts and some famous introverts.)

Chapter 7, “Leading as Ourselves,” is one of the longest and most valuable chapters. McHugh extends his treatment of leadership and gets into specific details of preaching as an introvert, functioning as a spiritual director, the differences in leading extroverts and leading other introverts. He writes very candidly on this subject.

A consistent critique of my ministry has been a lack of communication. What people sometimes consider to be my flaws betrays their extroverted expectations for communication.

Speaking from experience, I can say that there is real lived wisdom in that statement. University students, for example, expect—and often prefer—extrovert communication. This is reinforced in countless ways. At the graduate level, many of them aspire to be the kind of teacher that they expect their teachers to be. Which is to say: extroverts (in the Jungian sense). But they are not all extroverts themselves, and they never will be. So they need models of introvert leadership in teaching and mentoring. Also, they might benefit from considering what an introvert teacher offers that most extrovert teachers do not, because of how they’re wired. (This topic deserves several posts at another time!)

Chapter 8, “Introverted Evangelism,” begins, “An introverted evangelist? Isn’t that an oxymoron?” Very little has been written about personal evangelism that doesn’t assume a extrovert personality. This chapter is an exception. McHugh stresses that evangelism is needed and occurs in different contexts. Many contexts—some of them very natural and routine—are overlooked. And these often are contexts where introverts thrive. Here’s one tidbit that may interest you in this aspect of evangelism:

My evangelistic conversations these days resemble spiritual direction more than they do preaching. . . . Because introverts process internally, we can offer a nonjudgmental posture and others will be comfortable opening up their lives to us.

I’m a big fan of “conversational evangelism.” But many extroverts are clumsy in their use of this approach.

Note: McHugh and I differ about how rational argumentation and lifestyle persuasion relate to each other. Whereas he places them in tension with each other, I see them as complementary, no matter who we happen to be conversing with.

Suggestion: For more on conversational and lifestyle evangelism, I recommend the book Lifestyle Evangelism: Learning to Open Your Life to Those Around You, by Joe Aldrich, and Conversational Evangelism: How to Listen and Speak So You Can Be Heard, by Norman Geisler and David Geisler.

Chapter 9, “Introverts in Church,” surveys the diverse ways that Christians do church, and relates each of these to the interaction styles of introverts, who may or may not be Christians. McHugh describes some wonderfully creative ways to energize the worship experience and communal life for the many introverts who are otherwise neglected by standard protocols. I know of Christians who have never felt at home in churches they’ve attended. After awhile, many of them begin to feel that something is wrong with them. Some even begin looking beyond Christianity for spiritual sustenance. It is a grievous error of the church to miss what’s being done to these dear believers.

Introverts in the Church includes “Questions for Reflection and Discussion” for each chapter. How fitting it is, in a book for and about the Christian introvert’s discipleship, to place reflection and discussion in that order! These are not perfunctory questions. They probe and delve deeply in ways that will help the introvert understand herself more fully and will inspire new ways of being in community with and leadership among other believers.

There pages of “Further Reading” include categorized lists of other resources. On evangelism, McHugh recommends Mike Bechtle, Rebecca Manley Pippert, and Rick Richardson. He lists three memoirs by “introverted authors,” Anne Lamont, Donald Miller, and Lauren Winner. For more detailed study of introversion, he suggests Susan Cain, Laurie A. Helgoe, and Marti Olsen Laney. There are other recommendations for “Community and Relationships,” “General Personality Type,” “Leadership,” “Spiritual Direction,” and “Spirituality.”

The book I’ve found most useful for delineating personality theory and personality types is Please Understand Me II: Character, Temperament, Intelligence, by David Keirsey. Basic to the theory is Isabel Briggs Myers, Gifts Differing: Understanding Personality Type. McHugh also recommends and frequently cites Type-Talk: The 16 Personality Types That Determine How We Live, by Otto Kroeger and Jane M. Theusen.

Two books I would add to McHugh’s list are:

Other links:

David Foster Wallace


He was someone I thought it would be great to meet sometime. Had I known he was living and working only a stone’s throw away, it might have been arranged.

Unfortunately, that won’t be possible. David Foster Wallace hanged himself and was found by his wife when she returned home Friday night, September 12, 2008. He was 46.

Wallace was clever with words. He was inventive. He employed extensive footnotes in his fiction. And he was candid. He went naked onto the page and exposed his soul in ways few novelists do.

His parents were university professors, his father in the department of philosophy at the University of Illinois (Urbana-Champaign). David Foster Wallace himself majored in English and philosophy at Amherst College. And it shows in his writings.

His writings reveal something else, too. In his tribute to Wallace, David Gates writes that “we’ll surely be spotting more and more of these clues in his work,” clues of his long-standing depression and contemplation of suicide. I find it hard to believe that Wallace’s readers didn’t suspect it already, because the clues are littered everywhere.

While reading Wallace myself, I would recall the thesis that genius and great art are often accompanied by threatened madness, that great talent and erudition can only be managed with a colossal effort of self-possession that no one else but the artist can know.

In her book, The Midnight Disease, neurologist Alice Flaherty examines the mental disorders that frequently haunt the most creative writers. She develops an illuminating theory of “manic hypergraphia.” Kay Redfield Jamison, whose work I’ve recommended on this blog, explores the culverts of this condition in a wonderful book called Touched with Fire: Manic Depressive Illness and the Artistic Temperament. The treasure of a gifted man’s labor is more precious when understood in the light of this fire.

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As it happens, David Foster Wallace travelled with John McCain’s presidential campaign in 2000. He wrote a book about it that came out this past summer. It’s hailed as a journalistic tour de force by someone other than your typical political journalist. It’s called:

McCain’s Promise: Aboard the Straight Talk Express with John McCain and a Whole Bunch of Actual Reporters, Thinking about Hope.

Kindle edition

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