12/18/2015 Laura Newcomer

Alumni Profile: Sheldon Solomon '75

This magazine article is part of Fall 2015 / Issue 83
  • Sheldon Solomon '75 Image Credit: Mark McCarty

Sheldon Solomon '75 has a longstanding disinclination to die. This hasn't prevented him from devoting his career to the study of death.

Specifically, Solomon is interested in how the specter of death underlies human attitudes and behaviors in all facets of life, from the art we create to the ways we treat other people, shop, and even vote.

The answer may lie in Terror Management Theory, which proposes that humans erect and maintain culture in order to impose order, meaning and purpose on an otherwise terrifyingly finite existence. Solomon proposes the theory in his latest book (with co-authors Jeff Greenberg and Tom Pyszczynski), "The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death In Life."

"It's always bothered me that death is both inevitable and arbitrary and we have no control over when it might happen," Solomon says. This awareness has plagued him since his grandmother's death when he was eight years old. Yet his scholarship came about largely by accident.

After graduating from F&M with what Solomon describes as "a tremendous education in experimental psychology," he obtained his doctorate at the University of Kansas before accepting a teaching position at Skidmore College. It was there he encountered the ideas that would change the direction of his scholarship. While wandering the library, Solomon discovered "The Denial of Death" by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who proposed that the fear of death is ubiquitous and culture is humanity's means of coping.

These ideas so affected Solomon that he devoted his scholarship to expanding on Becker's work. Equally comfortable citing Søren Kierkegaard and Erik Erikson, Sigmund Freud and Albert Camus, Solomon has spent decades learning to be comfortable with talking and thinking about death. And yet, he acknowledges, "By intellectualizing the problem of death, it has spared me the trouble of confronting it directly."

What Solomon has confronted, with remarkable cheerfulness, is resistance from the academic community.

When he first gave a talk on Terror Management Theory, in 1984, 200 people were in the room—and by the time he was done talking, most of them had left. When he and his co-authors first penned their ideas, the paper was rejected by every outlet to which it was submitted. It took almost a decade before the work was published.

Were it not for Solomon's persistence, these ideas might not be alive today. What began as an abstract concept has emerged as a robustly examined niche within experimental psychology. So far the theories put forth by Solomon's work have been tested in 25 countries across five continents, in children and the elderly, in academic labs and on city streets.

"There's [evidently] no culture that isn't preoccupied with death and that goes to enormous lengths—usually embedded in ceremony and ritual—to provide people with ways to manage the associated grief and anxiety," says Solomon.

Which isn't to say the fear of death is wholly a bad thing.

"If we weren't afraid of dying, the gene pool would be empty in relatively short order," Solomon points out. "It's when we refuse to acknowledge death anxiety that it bears malignant fruit."

And there—in humanity's capacity for self-reflection—lies Solomon's optimism. "As mortal creatures, we should evaluate who we are and what we do, and we should think about how much of what we're doing is a reflex of death anxiety," he says. "The more we do that, the better our chances of inspiring personal growth or social change."

Or, in the words of Camus: Come to terms with death. Thereafter anything is possible.

 

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