Our penchant for denial. Especially of our mortality and the implications of this.
It was customary for Master and Student go spend time each day walking along the paths that wound through the mountains around the
monastery. One day, while Master and Student were out walking, they came upon a cliff edge. Master boldly stepped to the very
edge of the rock and gazed lovingly at the valley below and the surrounding mountains. He then turned to Student, who was
standing quite safely back from the edge of the cliff, and said “Come closer so that you can see the beauty that is all around
“No thank you Master,” replied the student nervously. “I can see quite well from here.”
“Nonsense,” said Master. “You must come closer.”
“But I may fall. Please Master, I am afraid.”
“Trust me,” said Master. “I would not ask you to do anything that would harm you. Now come closer.”
Slowly the student edged toward the cliff. As he reached the edge, Master smiled and put his arm around Student. “There,” said
the Master. “Is it not a beautiful view?”
“Yes, Master,” admitted Student. “It is quite beautiful. I did not know the valley was so far below our monastery. It is quite
a drop to the valley below.”
“It is not so far,” replied Master. “Here at this cliff you need but take a single step to reach the valley floor.”
“But Master,” insisted Student. “The drop from here is great. If I stepped out here, I would surely die from the fall.”
“You will learn that the distance between life and death is but a single step,” Master told him. “Our life is one long series of
steps. We go through life, step over step until one day we die.
“Each step brings us great joy and adventure as well as the possibility of death. But you can not simply stand still in fear of
meeting death upon the road. Walk boldly along the path of life. Enjoy the wonders that are there for us all to see. So that
when the day comes when you you do meet death, you will know that you have not shrunk from life, but embraced it.
I’m using the above story to illustrate a significant difference between us as humans and other self aware creatures. A theory or explanation that Danny Brower first put forth and Ajit Varki continues on with in the book “DENIAL: Self-Deception, False Beliefs, and the Origins of the Human Mind“. Part of which has been printed here in Alternet.
Here they propose that our evolutionary change came when we acquired self awareness which also includes the awareness of our own mortality. However it also required us to gain the ability to deny our mortality in order to move beyond where humans were at the time. That other species also have this self awareness but were unable to move and became stuck where they were, since they were unable to deny it.
The next mental step beyond the basic awareness of one’s own personhood that many of the species mentioned above seem to possess could be awareness of the personhood of others—in other words, knowing that others of your own kind are also equally self-aware. But Danny argued that gaining this useful ability would also result in understanding the deaths of others of your own kind—and, consequently , realizing one’s own individual mortality. And he suggested that this all-encompassing, persistent, terror-filled realization would cause an individual who first made that critical step to lose out in the struggle to secure a mate and pass his or her genes to the next generation—in other words, such an individual would reach an evolutionary dead end. Danny suggested that we humans were the only species to finally get past this long-standing barrier. And he posited that we did this by simultaneously evolving mechanisms to deny our mortality.
. . . . . . .
Among key features of human uniqueness are full self-awareness and “theory of mind,” which enables inter-subjectivity—an understanding of the intentionality of others. These attributes may have been positively selected because of their benefits to interpersonal communication, cooperative breeding, language and other critical human activities. However, the late Danny Brower, a geneticist from the University of Arizona, suggested to me that the real question is why they should have emerged in only one species, despite millions of years of opportunity. Here, I attempt to communicate Brower’s concept. He explained that with full self-awareness and inter-subjectivity would also come awareness of death and mortality. Thus, far from being useful, the resulting overwhelming fear would be a dead-end evolutionary barrier, curbing activities and cognitive functions necessary for survival and reproductive fitness. Brower suggested that, although many species manifest features of self-awareness (including orangutans, chimpanzees, orcas, dolphins, elephants and perhaps magpies), the transition to a fully human-like phenotype was blocked for tens of millions of years of mammalian (and perhaps avian) evolution. In his view, the only way these properties could become positively selected was if they emerged simultaneously with neural mechanisms for denying mortality. Although aspects such as denial of death and awareness of mortality have been discussed as contributing to human culture and behaviour, to my knowledge Brower’s concept of a long-standing evolutionary barrier had not previously been entertained. Brower’s contrarian view could help modify and reinvigorate ongoing debates about the origins of human uniqueness and inter-subjectivity. It could also steer discussions of other uniquely human “universals,” such as the ability to hold false beliefs, existential angst, theories of after-life, religiosity, severity of grieving, importance of death rituals, risk-taking behaviour, panic attacks, suicide and martyrdom. If this logic is correct, many warm-blooded species may have previously achieved complete self-awareness and inter-subjectivity, but then failed to survive because of the extremely negative immediate consequences. Perhaps we should be looking for the mechanisms (or loss of mechanisms) that allow us to delude ourselves and others about reality, even while realizing that both we and others are capable of such delusions and false beliefs. – Letter to Nature magazine
In other words, it’s this ability to deny reality and the common truth that enabled us as humans to advance and kept other species – though they also had self awareness – from advancing.
But as we all know this ability to deny and self denial is a double edged sword.
It sounds like a Stone Age existentialist novel!
We’re not yet fully adjusted to all this. One of the theories about major depression is that depressed people are the true realists—if you really want to know the facts, talk to them. The rest of us, fortunately, are in a state of denial and optimism. What is optimism? Denial of reality. What is extreme optimism? Extreme denial of reality.
Yet you feel that the denial of reality that enabled our species to survive and flourish could now be threatening our collective future.
And at an individual level, too. We know what we are supposed to do in terms of exercise and diet, yet most of us ignore it; we have this magical way of thinking, of denying the reality we face. Look at our national debt: we just ignore it and somehow imagine it’s going to go away. Our failure to do anything about climate change is the ultimate form of denial—now, of course, that reality is staring us in the face. – You Think You’ll Live Forever: PW Talks with Ajit Varki
Or as one European put it “Americans think death is optional”. Even those of us who see ourselves as some kind of enlightened individual are not completely in reality of this – or many other things.
As the story above illustrates, ZEN Buddhist though is to completely accept reality, but without the emotional baggage that we bring along. All but a few ZEN masters are incapable of this. Instead we must work toward that goal but in the mean time feel the emotions that go along with reality but accept it anyway and do what is necessary and needed to advance.
Still a tall order.