How to apply terror management theory to improve human lives | Aeon Essays

The most obvious way that worldviews provide this hope is through belief in an immortal soul that lives on after our body dies. The oldest burial sites and ancient artifacts suggest such a belief in an afterlife goes back more than 50,000 years. We call that ‘literal immortality’. The other major way is through a sense that the symbols of us – the things that represent us – will continue on after our physical deaths: our nation, our offspring, our contributions to the world through teaching, art, science and the causes we identify with. We call this ‘symbolic immortality’. The first known written story, The Epic of Gilgamesh, attests to how central these concerns have been to our species. Gilgamesh becomes obsessed with death and how to avert it. He first tries to appease the gods for immortality, then he tries to find a plant that will let him never die, and finally settles for symbolic immortality by being remembered for doing great deeds and building great monuments – and he actually achieved that through the tablets that conveyed his story.

Literal and symbolic immortality are fundamental bases of our psychological security, but they depend on two things. First, we must maintain faith in a culturally based view of the world that provides a basis for believing in the possibilities of literal and/or symbolic immortality. Second, we must believe that we are valued contributors to this world so that we qualify for these forms of transcending our physical deaths.
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