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How Meaning Helps Us Deal with Death

“When I dare to be powerful, to use my strength in the service of my vision,” Audre Lorde wrote in The Cancer Journals (1985), “then it becomes less and less important whether I am afraid.” This is consonant with Holocaust survivor and existential psychologist Viktor Frankl’s declaration that someone “who has a ‘why’ to live can bear with almost any ‘how.’”

But most psychological systems don’t quite know what to do with meaning. Maslow’s hierarchy of needs implicitly states that meaning is the least immediate need we have. Those who are inclined to triage our needs—which is what psychologists are trained to do—might feel that it is only after your physiological, safety, social, and self-esteem needs are met that your life cries out for something as abstract and intangible as meaning.

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Maslow’s hierarchy of needs. Image: 2014 © FireFlySixtySeven (Wikimedia). Licensed under Creative Commons Attribution-ShareAlike License 4.0.

But a growing body of scientific literature is to some extent flipping the pyramid by pointing out the degree to which meaning can help us address base-pyramid threats such as death anxiety, illness, and physical injury. It’s especially influential in terror management theory, the death-anxiety-focused psychological theory pioneered by The Denial of Death author Ernest Becker.

Becker didn’t create the theory—as an anthropologist, his duty was to describe the problem but not necessarily to articulate a solution—but he did argue that the very physiological problem of death is one that we suppress with a sense of meaning (or, as he put it, an “immortality formula”). In Maslow’s hierarchy, this makes little sense—how can we solve our most fundamental, primal problem by using our most abstract, socially constructed solutions?—but it wouldn’t have surprised Audre Lorde or Viktor Frankl.

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Tom Head is an author or coauthor of 29 nonfiction books, columnist, scriptwriter, research paralegal, occasional hellraiser, and proud Jackson native. His book Possessions and Exorcisms (Fact or Fiction?) covers the recent demand for exorcists over the past 30 years and demonic possession.
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