Events / On Campus

It’s the Role of Death in Life, Dude

By Brian Gully

I crossed paths with my class’s prestigious guest speaker, Sheldon Solomon, on my way to the building where the lecture was held. I paid him no mind. I remember assuming he was a member of the college’s janitorial staff. His long and bedraggled hair reminded me of a Led Zeppelin poster I’d seen in my friend’s basement, and his worn out tie-dye shirt didn’t leave much else to the imagination. I continued past him and towards my special topics seminar class, “Psychology of Religion.”

Inside, the same man who I thought was missing his mop was standing with my professor, Academic Dean Dr. Chris Frost. The two laughed in a way that betrayed their long lasting friendship. I still doubted that the gentleman, who looked like a well-aged hippie, could be the Sheldon Solomon that Dr. Frost had told all of us about.

My classmate, Paul, summed up my disbelief with a single phrase, “Wait, you’re kidding me right?” Paul was staring specifically at the large hiking boots Professor Solomon was wearing. They were paired with breezy athletic shorts as if he’d marched from Skidmore College in upstate New York to St. Joseph’s College on Long Island but lost his walking stick on his way through Manhattan.  

We sat in a Socratic circle, Solomon in a central spot so he could be seen by all. When he started speaking his voice was commensurate with his style of clothing. It had a twang to it which resembled a surfer’s. However, the content of Sheldon’s speech was anything but what you might expect from the average beach bum. Expert level vocabulary and obscure references to authors, poets and philosophers rolled off the top of his head with ease.

“We come out of the 60s,” Dr. Frost told me later. “For some people, it was a fad and they moved to the next one when it was over. Sheldon still reflects the intellectual content of that time and holds prestige based on the quality of his work [rather than] the way he chooses to dress or speak. If he had to hold an academic career by playing games, he would leave all together.”

Terror Management Theory (TMT) was created by Sheldon Solomon and two of his colleagues. It stems from the work of the anthropologist Ernest Becker, who wrote about the role of death in the life of human beings. According to Becker, the human paradox is that we are uniquely intelligent enough to be aware of, and imagine, our own death, but are also helpless and unable to stop it from happening.

To lighten the mood after that dismal observation, Solomon joked about the death-denying nature of human beings. He asked my class, “Who here keeps a list of things to do for the week? Walk the dog, buy groceries . . .  die!” At the end of his joke Solomon burst into a loud and contagious laugh, but almost immediately regrouped. Before he continued speaking he took a pronounced swig from his water bottle and jokingly exhaled in relief, “Ahh, vodka.” The loudest laugh in the class at that point came from Dr. Frost.

According to Solomon, and Becker before him, knowledge of our own death is an ever-present terror in our lives. In order to manage that terror and deny the presence of death, we need to create culture. With the help of our cultures we can literally and symbolically transcend death by practicing our religion, creating art, having children or doing any number of life-affirming things. Unfortunately, there are always oppositions to our transcendence, like extreme followers of a different religion, horrific images on news stations and other seemingly random tragedies.

William James, an American philosopher, described the knowledge of death as the worm at the core of human existence. In other words, it is the driving force behind our actions.  

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“Alright well, so what?” was Solomon’s next question. Because without a scientific basis, TMT could hardly be considered a theory at all. Ernest Becker was criticized in his time for being overly philosophical, and Solomon and his colleagues initially suffered the same dismissal from academia. A rejection letter of their earliest paper read, “I have no doubt that this paper would be of no interest to any psychologist, living or dead.” Solomon was undismayed by their brutal denial.

As with any theory, ideas on TMT needed to be supported with evidence. In an offhand way, Solomon described himself as lucky he’d received graduate training in experimental social psychology. His colleagues were trained in the same way; Solomon refers to them as “my buddies Tom and Jeff.” Solomon and his buddies pioneered research on terror management in the field of psychology. Now, over 25 years later, their theory is being widely studied by psychological scientists around the world, as well as scholars in other disciplines.

Solomon’s book is titled The Worm at the Core after William James’ expression and features results from numerous studies on TMT. Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski are his co-authors.  

The book had been assigned to my class weeks earlier, and was to be published by Random House. After its release Solomon would be traveling to other venues across the country, and world, to give similar lectures to the one he was giving my class. Scholars, professors and students from places like the University of Tennessee and Boise State would soon have their jaws dropped by a professor who seemed like The Dude from the Big Lebowski, except with a Ph.D.  

I started to feel a bit guilty. I greatly enjoyed Solomon’s presence and his lecture, but was harboring a dirty secret. I hadn’t read the book. I skimmed a few chapters and brushed up on some paragraphs that I thought were essential right before the class, but hadn’t read the whole thing, which I’m sure was expected from Dr. Frost. Solomon certainly didn’t seem like the type of professor who would be giving a pop quiz after his lecture or calling on us individually to put us on the spot, but I still had the feeling I’d cheated myself.

After adjusting to the shock value of his appearance and the comic nature of his voice, the true value of his words were clear. The things he communicated were at the heart of psychology. TMT aimed to explain some of the darkest, but also most incredible, parts of human motivation.

Dr. Frost described it to me as “psychology that moves beyond its own bounds. It is out of the box, and it is interested in questions that every human being finds of great value and interest.”

Skimming through The Worm at the Core was like watching a great film in fast-forward, so upon its release, I purchased and read it cover to cover. It seemed my duty as a psychology student, but more so a human being.

During one of his lectures, Solomon was quoted as saying “I am magnificently mediocre, and I am thriving.” Mediocre, in that statement, may need to be replaced with the word “modest.” Solomon’s apparel, his presentation and his disposition are all completely unconventional, but they are not for the sake of shock or an unspoken statement. Solomon’s comfort with himself and his character has allowed him to be the person he wants to be. He refuses to play the games presented to him and seeks knowledge for the sake of its value. Above his modest character powerfully stands Sheldon Solomon’s work. His research, his lectures and The Worm at the Core achieve a transcending symbolic immortality.

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