Terror management in the age of quarantine
Mortality scenarios. If you are like me, you run them often, though I am given to understand that not everyone does. My husband Brian, for example, does not weigh his chances of life and death against every symptom that emerges or behaviour he indulges in. “Stress,” he says, “that’s the real killer.”
Me on the other hand? Every time I’ve detected the faintest metallic taste in my mouth over the last year, the tiniest wheeze in my lungs that leaves me reaching for the inhaler, I’ve asked the question. Is this it? And if so, what are my chances? I track back the household risk factors, minimal but present nonetheless: I still go to the grocery store and library; Brian has to go to work in the city once every two weeks; we have two single friends included in our household who we spend time indoors with.
I categorize our movements: Column A for risky; Column B for maybe; Column C for no chance of infection. It doesn’t matter that 95 percent of our days are spent in Column C, A and B are what I expend energy on analyzing. When I talk to friends online, or stop to have a chat with a neighbour out for a walk, I note how every conversation opens with an accounting for our recent whereabouts. We compare our lives and how much we have given up to keep on living them; we judge others who we see as threatening our efforts.
On the other side of quarantine I understand there are people who do the opposite, who broadcast the cheap deal to Mexico they got because they aren’t “living in fear” like everyone else. Those people aren’t in my sphere, so I don’t hear from them directly. During lockdown I’ve become newly aware of a tendency for rule-following in myself and those closest to me. We might not all live to the letter of every health order, but most people I know are intent on minimizing contact with others and sticking close to home. Daily compliance rituals such as donning a mask are not only a health strategy, but a symbol of order and social belonging in the face of a virus outside of our control.
“If you look at life one way, there is always cause for alarm.”
― Elizabeth Bowen
As a verb, alarm means “anxious awareness of danger.” As a noun it is an object that brings us into momentary awareness of something (an appointment, work, a fire, a chemical spill).
Alarm also best describes our collective resonance in quarantine times. We are “anxiously aware” of the dangers of leaving our homes, breathing on one another, touching items in stores, and any travel that involves leaving one’s vehicle. Each time I don a mask, or pump the hand sanitizer that now permanently lives in the cupholder of my car, I am reminded that to let one’s guard down is to invite illness and possibly death. It is the knell of the finite body, and I am jangled by its continuous ringing. Our grounding points–touch, breath, hug, walk–are a danger to others, and we are exhausted by the shifting rules and expectations we must monitor.
Is it any wonder that we want to dial down the noise? Drinking, binge watching TV, the all-consuming world of the conspiracy Internet. Or, we might try to banish thoughts of ill health and death by getting outdoors. Pushing against home confinement with our whole bodies we run, climb, jump into the frigid ocean and touch life, if only for thirty minutes or an hour. But whatever response we find ourselves gravitating towards, we are living in conscious opposition to a threatening presence.
In other kinds of hard times we might lean into the rituals of our culture to find solace. Carnival precedes Lent (and the leanest month of the agricultural year) for a reason. But because this virus transmits through breath, we have also had to adjust to the loss of every meaningful ritual involving other people. From weddings to dinner parties, funerals to meditation halls, the gatherings that underpin our societies have been cancelled or severely restricted for the better part of the last year. Our own mortality is not the only thing at stake; our cultural resilience has also been called into question with each cancelled event or shuttered institution. Technology has allowed us to reshape some of these activities, and yet that worries us. At what cost to the future do we invite ever-increasing screens and surveillance into our lives? Our culture going forward seems as opaque as the direction in which the virus takes us.
“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
― Ernest Becker
In attempting to understand some of my moments of frustration and fear in the last few months, I have found myself reaching to Ernest Becker, whose 1970s works Denial of Death and Escape from Evil planted the seeds for Terror Management Theory (TMT). What makes the human species unique is our awareness of mortality, and this awareness is central in cultural manifestations going back thousands of years. Becker theorized that as a result, our human ego forms around the denial of one’s own mortality. While this denial is necessary in order to function, it serves to obscure true self-knowledge. Rather than confront the reality of our existence, we are driven towards “immortality projects” via the cultural pillars deemed to have meaning (status, money, religion, and so on). This forms the root of all human enterprise. Becker tells us “The real world is simply too terrible to admit. It tells man that he is a small trembling animal who will someday decay and die. Culture changes all of this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some ways.”
While Becker’s theories were publicized in his lifetime (Denial of Death was a bestseller and won the Pulitzer Prize), it wasn’t until a decade after his passing that a group of researchers began attempts to test his theories through a series of studies. Over thirty years Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski have designed and run, or provided guidance on, hundreds of studies developed to test the connection between death anxiety and political views, personal reactions, and behaviours. Their work concludes, “There is now compelling evidence that, as William James suggested a century ago, death is indeed the worm at the core of the human condition. 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.”
Given that we have spent the last year reminded continuously of disease and death, some of the activity we see manifesting should come as no surprise. According to TMT research, we have two primary psychological strategies for creating, maintaining, and defending our cultural worldview against thoughts of mortality. These are termed proximal and distal responses. Proximal responses are often immediate and include threat-focused efforts to forestall, deny or avoid the problem of death. In the current pandemic, an individual’s response might include efforts to follow health guidelines such as mask-wearing and physical distancing, and to take care of one’s health overall. The shadow side of this is denial and results in defensive measures such as minimizing the severity of Covid (“It’s just the flu”, “It only kills old people”), or suggesting that it’s not real at all and instead the result of a government-control conspiracy. A third kind of proximal response is distraction, evident in the increase in alcohol sales, opioid deaths, screen time statistics, and online gambling in 2020-21. Proximal responses may be the first thing we reach towards, but as a psychological strategy they are problematic because they quite often interfere with our feelings of value and connection with the world. Masks cut us off, denial puts us at odds with others, distraction harms our self-esteem.
Our distal defenses, though often secondary and appearing as the immediate threat moves to the edge of consciousness, are much more robust over the long run. These appear as attempts to bolster faith in one’s culture or worldview, and improve self-esteem, an essential component of quelling anxiety in general. This can manifest as a more rigorous adherence to cultural norms and values, and the need to broadcast one’s ideological affiliations in rituals of belonging. These might take legitimate forms, such as a rise in protest around civil rights, or increase in involvement in political parties, but they might also devolve into adherence to separatist movements offering greater political power to those who see themselves as outsiders. For those whose proximal responses relied on denial, cult-like conspiracies have provided a semi-coherent distal defense by offering a replacement for mainstream cultural identification among its participants. It appears that recently-constructed, more fragile identifications such as the Qanon cult are hallmarked by angry estrangements, obsessive involvement, and threats of violence to the out group (Democrats, liberals, BIPOC). This squares with findings that while self-esteem is boosted by belonging to groups which seek to transcend mortality through lasting political change, it can be subverted into a desire to control the life and death of others.
More benign and positive examples of distal response can be found in the early-pandemic ritual of joining to ring bells in support of public service workers and institutions, as well as the rise of social media posts detailing sourdough baking or pressure canning projects. In Denial of Death, Becker observes that “Guilt results from unused life, from the unlived in us.” Perhaps this is what feeds our need for daily achievement even when we are confined to our homes. Through connecting to interest communities in the absence of real-world interactions we maintain our view that life is meaningful and in the context of that, we are valued contributors. This is central to quelling the fear that we may be more transient than transcendent no matter what we believe or do in this lifetime.
“It is better to conquer our grief than to deceive it.”
The Stoic philosophers of early Athens believed we should look death squarely in the eye and work to conquer our fear of it. They believed this would allow individuals to not only better appreciate the very fact of existence, but would free them to act courageously in pursuing a life of wisdom and virtue. Zen Buddhism is another approach eschewing corporeal attachment, in order to live fully in the present. In each case to greater or lesser degree, meditation, rigor in physical pursuits or work, and engagement in study are the cornerstones of practice.
But thousands of years of diverse human cultures and many philosophical approaches have not changed the fact, as evidenced through TMT studies, that our species condition of death-awareness and aversion is firmly embedded, and has tremendous influence over our actions as well as our cultural, and political institutions. It seems that the best we can do is understand what makes us susceptible to demagogues, cults, and con artists, while at the same time steering clear of messaging that activates denial-based responses in the listener. Institutions, thought-leaders, and even celebrities (with their sheen of immortality) have a role to play in shaping pro-social proximal and distal responses available to us in times of crisis.
In the past year of pandemic, we have seen a multitude of responses, from those which keep us personally and culturally safe to those which threaten the bedrock of North American society. If in the face of climate change, Covid-19 is a mere blip, we would do well to understand how to work with intrinsic motivations in order to move humanity forward together.
A lone apple has survived on the dwarf tree in the ditch across from my house and I don’t have the heart to pick it now that it has gone through the winter all on its own.
February recipe: Canned Lemon Curd
I posted this on instagram earlier this month and got so many questions that I’ve decided to share this magic with you all in honour of the fact that citrus is in-season (down South) in the wintry months. This recipe should be a boiling water canning no-no because it contains eggs and butter, but because of the high acidity of lemon juice it is tested and safe! This is an unusual canning process, so if you are new to canning, don’t start here.
Yield: About 3 to 4 half-pint jars
Equipment: Food thermometer, water bath canning equipment, 4 250-ml canning jars with new seals and rings, a wire whisk.
2½ cups of sugar (the original recipe recommends superfine, but I use regular white sugar and it works)
½ cup lemon zest (freshly zested), optional
1 cup bottled lemon juice
¾ cup unsalted butter, chilled, cut into approximately ¾" pieces
7 large egg yolks
4 large whole eggs
Wash your canning jars and pour boiling water in them to keep them warm while you prepare your lemon curd.
Fill boiling water canner with enough water to cover your jars. Use your thermometer and pre-heat the water to 180°F while you work on the recipe.
Combine the sugar and lemon zest in a small bowl, stir to mix, and set aside. Pre-measure the lemon juice and prepare the chilled butter pieces.
Heat water in the bottom pan of a double boiler until it boils gently (if you don’t have a double boiler, you can use a heat-proof bowl on top of a stockpot or large sauce pan which is what I do). The water should not boil vigorously or touch the bottom of the top double boiler pan or bowl in which the curd is to be cooked.
In the top of the double boiler or bowl, whisk the egg yolks and whole eggs together until thoroughly mixed. Slowly whisk in the sugar and zest, blending until well mixed and smooth. Blend in the lemon juice and then add the butter pieces to the mixture.
Place the top of the double boiler/bowl over boiling water in the bottom pan. Stir gently but continuously with a silicone spatula or cooking spoon, to prevent the mixture from sticking or curdling. Continue cooking until the mixture reaches a temperature of 170°F and thickens.
Remove the double boiler pan from the stove. Continue to stir gently with a whisk until the curd thickens (about 5 minutes).
Fill clean, hot half-pint jars, with the lemon curd leaving ½-inch headspace. Remove air bubbles and adjust headspace if needed. Wipe rims of jars with a dampened, clean paper towel; apply two-piece metal canning lids.
Put the jars in the canner and process, first bringing the canner to boiling point and then for an additional 15 minutes. This will result in about 40 minutes of total processing time.
Lemon curd is shelf stable for about 4 months, at which point it can separate and become unappealing - so eat up!
In the workshop
This newsletter is a reflection of my life and interests when I’m writing, which means things are bound to shift over time. Since December, my focus has moved away from making physical objects and towards writing and playing music. I don’t have any of that ready to share, but I have created a Comfort for the Apocalypse playlist on Spotify in case you are interested in what I’m listening to right now (hint: wintry strings in minor keys). I will keep adding to this playlist, so subscribe for new discoveries added weekly!
Terror Management Theory and the COVID-19 Pandemic (2020): A lot of what I wrote about this week came from this journal article, as well as the book written by the same researchers, The Worm at the Core (2015). If you are interested in TMT, I highly recommend that you read this book, and if you are interested in the more esoteric Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil is a favourite of mine.
The Rich are Preparing for the Apocalypse Better Than You: This 15-minute piece of reporting from last year by Vice Media underscores the fearful society we are living in right now - from the bottom (where people are vulnerable to disaster daily) all the way to the top (where people are mostly protecting themselves from those at the bottom). Very 12 Monkeys.
Lessons from COVID-19 for the climate crisis: An overview of lessons that we can apply from our collective response to coronavirus. In short: leadership and cultural reinforcement matters, doomsday messages are defeating and people tune them out. It’s not about terror management theory, but it sure fits.
This issue feels a bit heavy (besides the lemon curd!), probably owing to the fact it is February and we are one year into a pandemic. As much as we’re settled in our quarantine routines by now, some days are harder than others. But here on the coast, the sea lions are barking and the birds flitting around our yard again. Spring is returning, with longer days and more opportunities to socialize outside.
I am still running my subscriber contest (a draw for a tea towel and a book once we get to my next subscriber milestone) so please share with friends who might enjoy reading my bi-monthly offerings.