Thursday March 25, 2021

What can we learn about death from the X-Men, small screaming rodents, and unwitting college students in psychology experiments? It turns out that the fear of death (or death anxiety) affects human behavior in all sorts of surprising and deeply troubling ways. Especially disconcerting is the way such fear entices people to cling so tightly to cultural beliefs that they will attack anything or anyone they perceive as a threat to their beliefs. And extra-super-duper disconcerting is how unaware most of us are that we are susceptible to such bad behavior when we’re reminded that one day we’ll die. Follow Jason, Rob, and Asher as they try not to deny climate change, vilify any out-groups, or assault one another while diving into the topics of death and terror management theory. In the Do-the-Opposite segment, Michael Hebb, author of Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner), shares wisdom for developing a healthier relationship with death. For episode notes and more information, please visit our website.

Transcript

Jason Bradford

Hi, I’m Jason Bradford.

Rob Dietz

I’m Rob Dietz,

Asher Miller

and I’m Asher Miller. Welcome to Crazy Town where we’ve installed a psilocybin and adrenochrome cocktail in our toilet’s bidet.

Jason Bradford

That’s not the preferred way to take that stuff.

Rob Dietz

Today’s topic is dealing with our fear of death and terror management theory. And stay tuned for a fascinating interview with Michael Hebb. Hey Asher, Jason, I’ve got a very, very important question for the two of you. I’m kinda hoping it’s going to lead us nicely into today’s main topic. Spoiler alert: death. Okay?

Asher Miller

Uh, can I leave now?

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Okay, so here’s my question. Really important. Get ready. Who is the best character in the X-men comics and movies?

Jason Bradford

Wolverine.

Rob Dietz

Wow, that was fast. Asher?

Asher Miller

So you’re talking to somebody who doesn’t know X-men very well. Who’s the dude in the wheelchair?

Rob Dietz

Professor X.

Jason Bradford

Xavier.

Asher Miller

I’ll go with that.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, he’s got the mind control.

Asher Miller

No, Magneto or whatever!

Rob Dietz

Mageto, the bad guy?

Asher Miller

Yeah. I like him.

Rob Dietz

From the concentration camp?

Asher Miller

He’s from a concentration camp?

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. He was a Jew. He was in Auschwitz.

Asher Miller

All the better. Yeah, that’s my dude.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Okay, you got Magneto. You got… Why Wolverine?

Jason Bradford

I mean, I don’t know, the fact that…

Rob Dietz

Is it the adamantium claws that burst forth from his…

Jason Bradford

But he takes anything and he wakes back up.

Rob Dietz

Boom. You’ve hit it. Okay, so I agree completely. Wolverine is by far… Sorry, Magneto is a good one. Yeah, but Wolverine is the best X-man. And the reason… Well, can we have a quick diversion to Storm? I mean, she controls the weather and flies.

Jason Bradford

I like her suit.

Rob Dietz

What an incredible power. Anyway, back to Wolverine. This guy — he actually tops the list. Like if you were to go online and say best X-man, you would see that he ranks the highest. And you’re hitting it Jason, it’s that this guy always comes back. He’s essentially immortal. Like you can shoot them in the forehead, and he heals back up. So his his X-power is this magical healing. So, Wolverine has essentially overcome death, and is like a hero in the quest for immortality. And this quest for immortality is actually kind of what we want to talk about with the hidden drivers that are bringing us into crazy town. So if you recall, we’re trying to look at surprising things that drive us to overconsumption and all the problems we’re facing socially and environmentally. And so today, we’re gonna hit this quest for immortality. There’s actually an academic theory, a well researched one, that’s all about this — called, guess what? Ready for it? Terror management theory.

Jason Bradford

God, I wish I could walk to a cocktail party and say, “What do you do?” And I say, “Well, I studied terror management theory.”

Rob Dietz

Yeah. You’re a terror management theorist.

Asher Miller

I’m a terror management consultant.

Rob Dietz

I will help you manage your terror. So I don’t think this is the most well known theory in the world. So maybe we can take just a quick tour of what we’re talking about here. Way back in 1973 there was an anthropologist…

Asher Miller

Yeah, that makes me feel old.

Rob Dietz

Dark ages right there. There’s an anthropologist named Ernest Becker, and he wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book called “The Denial of Death.” And it’s this big, multi-disciplinary philosophy kind of book where, where he basically claims that culture is an elaborate defense mechanism against the awareness that we’re going to die one day.

Asher Miller

Yeah, pretty bold statement.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. I like that to an elaborate defense mechanism. We just made this up because we’re scared of dying.

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. So fast forward a few decades, and these social psychologists kind of rediscovered Ernest Becker’s book and they really started digging in on this – these three guys named Jeff Greenberg, Sheldon Solomon and Tom Kaczynski. And they wrote their own book called “The Worm at the Core” on the role of death in life.

Jason Bradford

So you got kind of this theoretician guy, and then you’ve got the experimentalists. It’s like, physics is how that’s organized. It’s cool.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. And so you know, at the risk of boiling all of human behavior down to one issue,  terror management theory suggests that fear of death compels us to do all sorts of stuff. It could be from creating sublime works of art, to entering into wars, buying and consuming status signaling stuff, acting violently towards people who are different from us. . . In a nutshell, people do a lot of the things they do to avoid, or at least temper, their fear of death.

Asher Miller

And I think the key thing here is you’re basically talking about things are much broader than what people tend to typically think of as kind of a religious belief in reaction to to the fear of death. I think a lot of people understand that. That some of religious belief comes from us wanting to overcome death and our fear of death. But you’re talking about it being much broader than just our religious and spiritual beliefs.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I think this kind of almost goes back to what makes humans extra special as an animal.

Jason Bradford

But it’s not just that though. Okay, because when I think of this, the first thing I think about is like, just basic instincts for self preservation. Right. So, you know, you’ll hear stories of that tsunami in Indonesia.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, the Christmas tsunami.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. Okay. I didn’t even remember it was called that. But people, you know, people like were found on the tops of trees, just like hugging them for their life. And so there’s an instinct that when you are facing death, like literally facing death, you will do something to ward that off.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, do what it takes to survive.

Jason Bradford

Do what it takes to survive.

Rob Dietz

Okay, but so all animals do this, right? I mean, you see it when a gazelle runs away from a lion. In fact, in looking at the preservation instinct of animals, one time, I was actually in front of my house, and I was with my friend, Jeremy, who’s kind of a biologist type. And we noticed the dirt in the gravel moving near the house. I was like, “Whoa, that’s weird.” And went over to it and started scratching it away, and a mole pops up. You guys ever seen a mole?

Jason Bradford

They’re funny looking.

Rob Dietz

They’re the most awesome creatures — I hadn’t seen one up close. But, so Jeremy, like pounces on this — just drops his hand down, picks it up. So he’s got a mole in his hand. And he turns it over to so we could see its face. So we were getting a close up of this mole, which, you know, it’s blind. And you know . . .

Jason Bradford

Funny nose.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, funny paws. I’ve got to get away from the mic to imitate what this this mole did. As he’s turning it over in his hand. You just hear this *screech.* Like, this is horrible blood curdling scream from a mole.

Asher Miller

Was that to like — Is that like a survival mechanism?

Rob Dietz

I think it was just like, it was shitting its pants. Yeah, it was like the loudest most heinous sound it could make. And we felt bad. It actually worked. We were like, “Oh, we got to put this guy back.”

Asher Miller

Yeah.

Rob Dietz

But it just shows that an animal knows about death and is worried about it.

Asher Miller

But there’s a difference. There’s the immediate response reaction to danger, right? And to the risk of death in a in a situation. Where I think what’s different about humans, is that we are able to actually consider death, not just in a moment where we’re faced with it, right? We reflect on it. It’s kind of this ever present thing in our experience. And that makes us unique, I mean, in a sense, we’re incapacitated by our ability to grasp that it is something that we are all inevitably going to have to face.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. I think that’s right. That’s like, going back to X-man, that’s like the X-power of all humans, right? That we understand we’re gonna die one day. Although maybe it’s not a power, maybe it’s a disability or something. But . . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah, well, I think, you know, I think there is two levels, right? There is this, if you’re faced with with eminent danger, and have to think about death, maybe you do avoidance strategies that are very clear, right? You do what it takes to think about it. Eat bon-bons and watch Hallmark movies, or I don’t know, whatever. But if it’s sort of in this, always ever present unconscious state where you know about it, then I think what people do is they try to, like, to get back to the culture thing, they tried to create meaning that’s beyond themselves. That’s the idea. That if I’m not going to live forever, my culture will. Like my people, in a sense, you know. So they are really working hard then to become part of that culture, a part of that tribe, so to speak.

Rob Dietz

So it’s like they’re back in the tsunami and they’re climbing up the tree and then clinging to it, but this time instead of the tree, they’re actually clinging to something else; their culture or their religious beliefs, or . . .

Jason Bradford

Yes, and maybe then, I guess in terror management management, it’s like, they’re going to cling harder the more fearful they are. It’s almost like, if you’re afraid of death, you might become a super evangelist or super hard core member of your culture.

Asher Miller

Then there’s the down side of that, right? Which, you know, oftentimes cultures are at odds with one another. And when people cling hard to a culture or a religion, or some kind of belief system, or a moral code, you know, it oftentimes leads them to judge those of others, right.? So those become considered to be threats.

Jason Bradford

The outgroup, yeah.

Asher Miller

Yeah, and so you might be attacking them. You might be trying to conquer them and assimilate them, or you know, convert them to your belief.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, can I interest you guys into hearing a quote from one of those psychologists that we mentioned, Sheldon Solomon. I love this guy. He should be one of us in Crazy Town the way he comes up with stuff. He explained I think what you’re talking about, Asher, in a movie. He said, “My God is better than your God and we will kick your ass to prove it.”

Jason Bradford

I saw this cartoon where it was like these two armies facing off, right? And it was about to be . . . it was swords. It was like a hand to hand combat kind of thing. And it’s like, “We will not give up until they accept our Rabbit God and reject their . . . ” I don’t know, you know, “Screaming Mole God.”

Rob Dietz

Hey, I’m never going to reject the Screaming Mole God. I’m worshiping that guy till the day I overcome death with my quest for immortality.

Jason Bradford

Right, right.

Rob Dietz

Just so you know think this guy is Sheldon Solomon is a bit of a rock star because, okay, I’ll hit you guys with one more quote. He said, “The explicit awareness that you’re a breathing piece of defecating meat, destined to die and ultimately, no more significant than a lizard or a potato is not especially uplifting.” Which is why we invent all these psychological ways to maybe not confront a thought as rough as that.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, that’s something you have to work through as a human. I agree.

Asher Miller

Although I like potatoes.

Rob Dietz

You like your breathing pieces of defecating meat?

Asher Miller

Hey, man. If that’s what you are, you’ve got to embrace it sometimes.

Rob Dietz

Just roll with it, huh? So yeah, that’s a I think that’s a pretty good run through of what terror management theory is. It’s that will cling to things – to ideas and beliefs – as a result of our fear or anxiety of death.

Asher Miller

But is there any proof of this theory?

Rob Dietz

There is. Which is why, like I think the way you put it earlier, Jason was good. You had the kind of philosophizing with Ernest Becker and others, you know, this can go way back to other philosophers throughout history. Yeah, the Stoics. But these three guys started off on sort of these experiments and research. And a lot of other people have done research as well to where you’ve now got well over 300 experiments.

Jason Bradford

All done on poor college students.

Rob Dietz

So this is my favorite thing. I love psychology experiments, because they always like fool these sad college students into participating in something where they’re basically the dupes.

Asher Miller

Well, they probably got paid, right? So, they’re starving. They’re willing to do whatever they have to.

Rob Dietz

I did some of those in college. I was a dupe in some some psych and decision theory kinds of experiments.

Jason Bradford

I never got to do that. I wish I had.

Asher Miller

You were the anomaly. They tossed you out of the data set.

Rob Dietz

I was the one that just took electric shocks for everybody else. That’s where I am. So yeah, basically, those three guys, Greenberg, Solomon and Pyszczynski, did these experiments. And . . . we should share these.

Asher Miller

Yeah, I think I remember reading about one of these, right? They did this experiment where they, they took a group of students, and I think they were all Christian students. And they asked them to complete a questionnaire. Half of them, I don’t even know what the subject matter was, but it was sort of a standard questionnaire. The other half, they actually worked in a bunch of language around death. And I think it was like, pretty hardcore.

Rob Dietz

To make them contemplate their own death.

Asher Miller

Exactly. And then they presented them with these kind of two, you know, two fictitious characters, right? And they had to give their impressions of them. Now, these two characters have the same personality traits. The only thing that was different about them was their religious affiliation. One of them was Christian, the other one was Jewish. Right? And the survey takers were Christian. So, the ones that weren’t prompted to think about death kind of rated them, you know, equally – the Jewish and the Christian. The ones that had to contemplate death really went pretty negative on the Jewish. Which as a Jew myself makes me pretty nervous, you know?

Jason Bradford

Oh, God.

Asher Miller

Yeah, it’s kind of fascinating.

Jason Bradford

That’s not part of Jesus’s teaching. I thought he was a Jew?

Rob Dietz

Well don’t don’t remind people of death.

Asher Miller

Okay, never.

Rob Dietz

Well, yeah, I mean, that’s really interesting. Because that’s saying, when death kind of gets into your mind, you’re gonna treat outgroups not as well. But what I think’s great is their sort of a next level experiment. Because it’s testing this idea that you were talking about, Jason, with clinging to culture. So they wanted to see, hey, if we run an experiment where we remind people of death will, will they cling more tightly to their culture? So this this one is really ingenious, I gotta say. So same deal students, we’re gonna dupe them. Well, okay, so they’re told, “Hey, you’re going to take a test that looks at your personality and how it affects your creativity and problem solving abilities. And it’s going to be a two part deal. First, we’re going to ask you to do this questionnaire, and then you got to try to do these creative tasks. Okay?” So half the students get the questionnaire that’s the normal one, half of them get the one that makes them think about death. Okay? Same setup. Now, after you’re done with the questionnaire, you go over to this table, and you’re told, “Okay, you’ve got to do this thing. You’ve got to take this glass vial, that’s got a black liquid dye in it, and there’s sand that’s been mixed in there. And your job is to separate the sand out of this black liquid. Okay? And you can only use the tools here that I’ve given you. Okay, so the great thing about the experiment is the only filter there that can do the job is as a small American flag. So you have to pour this thing, this liquid with sand in it threw the flag into another vial. And if you do that, you’ll separate the sand. So the students who got the the regular questionnaire, they did this pretty quickly. The students who got the death questions were doing all they could to avoid using the flag, and it took them more than twice as long to separate the sand.

Jason Bradford

This is why this unconscious mind that you . . . you just have no clue how you can be messed with.

Rob Dietz

Right, right.

Asher Miller

They probably had no idea that they were doing that for that reason.

Jason Bradford

That they’re like, “avoiding desecration, avoiding desecration.” Whatever, it’s something  going on in the back of their mind. They don’t know. That’s frickin’ awesome.

Asher Miller

Awesome and trouble.

Rob Dietz

This says something about psychologists and their experiments too. They had a second part of this creativity task where they said, “Hey, here’s a crucifix and you’ve got to hang it on the wall using only these tools.” And the only way you could bang the nail in the wall was with the crucifix itself. So same deal, like…

Asher Miller

I’m asuming it was only Christian students as well, right. And the Jews would have probably been . . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, same result. Took more than twice as long to actually get there. So yeah. So you’ve got now, we’re gonna treat other cultures differently, we’re gonna cling to our symbols of our culture.

Jason Bradford

Well yeah, what worries me — I remember the horrific — I remember in the 90s, like, early 90s, I remember the Rwanda massacre, the genocide, right? And you had this . . . like how do these people decide they’re going to somehow commit these atrocious acts of violence against other people that are just around them and that they’re used to being around? So these psychologists are teasing out like, how can it get to that point, of actually now harming the out group? So how do you do this with college students?

Rob Dietz

Oh, you’re, you’re allowed to abuse college students.

Jason Bradford

So, they did the experiment with hot sauce.

Asher Miller

Oh, instead of violence. Okay, yes.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, okay. So, again, same thing, you know, remind people of death or don’t remind people of death, and then see how willing they are to put hot sauce in front of somebody who is in an out group.

Rob Dietz

Who’s kind of like — they’re forced — they have to they have to drink whatever’s in front of them.

Jason Bradford

Yes. Okay. And so, those who are reminded of death, gave twice as much hot sauce to their out group people that they had to force to suffer than when they were not reminded of death.

Asher Miller

Wow.

Rob Dietz

So, now we’ve got you get reminded to death and you’re willing to inflict more harm on . . .

Jason Bradford

on an out group? Yeah.

Asher Miller

Geez. That is, it’s fascinating and also deeply disturbing.

Jason Bradford

It’s very disturbing to me.

Asher Miller

Because all you’re talking about is just introducing the concept of death, or the reality of death in a pretty minimal way on a frickin’ questionnaire.

Jason Bradford

Right. Right. It’s not even not even real threat. This is just talking about the threat.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. And you wonder how much this is affecting us given how many reminders of death are around us all the time. Just read the news or watch a movie or . . .

Asher Miller

If you think about how this is manifesting now in the modern world, right? Like, we’ve actually put death kind of behind a closed door by a lot of ways. I mean, it’s — you think about human experience right now, at least in our situation. And I’m talking about like America. You know, people of our generation where we don’t —

Rob Dietz

pour black die on the flag, damn it.

Asher Miller

You know, we’re probably more kind of divorced from the reality of death than maybe any culture, or period in history, you know? Think about I mean, people are living have been living longer. And we’ve created a whole system where we take people who are at the end of life, where it used to be that, you know, we lived in multi-generational families, and first of all, you know, you think about childhood mortality rates used to be much higher. And then people live shorter lives. People live together. So, they were experiencing death kind of all the time. This is outside of situations where we used to have infectious diseases like —

Asher Miller

Oh, yeah, all the time

Asher Miller

— huge spots of the population. Now we stick people in old folks homes, nursing homes. You know, out of sight, out of mind, in a sense. There’s a whole industry built around keeping death sort of away and very sterile.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, yeah, totally.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I mean, you even put them in a big, oftentimes, metal box pumped full of formaldehyde and then stuck in a hole in the ground. We’re not going to let this person decay even, we’re just going to hide them away that much. Yeah, that’s crazy. I do think it’s interesting with this idea of terror management theory and the idea of death being in your mind to just think about different behaviors you see out there that could be at least related if not directly caused by it. So, I often think about how much we try to distract ourselves from having to think about anything heavy like that. Like binge watching, for example, is one of these distraction techniques that people use all the time. And I have to tell you guys about something I binge watched recently. And I’m not talking like a whole season of a show. I found one of those rabbit holes on YouTube.

Asher Miller

Uh oh. Did you just turn into a QAnon person?

Rob Dietz

I did not think, thankfully. But there’s a whole bunch of videos of GoPro cameras filming near death experiences.

Rob Dietz

Oh my god.

Rob Dietz

So these people don’t die, but like, there’s one with this guy’s on a snowmobile and there’s a grizzly bear and the bear turns on him, and the paw goes like right over his head and just barely misses slapping him off the snowmobile – which he deserved for chasing a grizzly bear in the first place. But I was actually wondering, am I contemplating death in a good way? Or am I binge watching to —

Asher Miller

You’re just on the edge. I think most people are distracting with any other thing that they could possibly distract themself with.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, alcohol, shopping, working out. There’s all kinds of…

Asher Miller

Well, there’s healthy ones and unhealthy ones. I gotta tell you on the distraction front, you know, we all have coping mechanisms for things. So, I have to confess one of my own, okay? Which is, I don’t know what you guys experience, but death will come in my head, on occasion. It usually comes from me when, like, for example, my son rides off on his bike to go to the intramural fields, you know, a few miles away. He’s on his bike, and he’s going to come home later when it’s, you know, close to dark. And I get this thought in my head where I kind of imagine something happening to him. And I immediately need to distract myself from that thought. I can’t handle it. In fact, I’m feeling it right now. And you won’t believe the thing that I do. Okay, I do this bizarre thing.

Jason Bradford

I can’t wait to hear this.

Asher Miller

It’s an amazing confession here. As a Jew, who is agnostic, who looks at superstition as kind of a silly thing, I knock on wood. That’s like my immediate thing. And you know, knocking on wood, I believe comes from knocking on the cross, right? So, for a Jew to do that is a little odd. But it’s like a way of relieving.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, the tension.

Asher Miller

For me, I just distract myself with it. That same son of mine, starting when he was around 10 years old, there will be times where, I swear it was multiple times a week, he’d be in the kitchen walking by me or something and he goes, “Ah!” Like that. And I would say, “What’s going on?” He’s like, “I just thought about death.”

Jason Bradford

Really?

Asher Miller

He was going through this phase where it would come to his mind, and he didn’t know what to do with it. And he would just go, “Ah! Ah!” You know, this visceral, physical reaction to it. Because he’s just like struggling to figure it out.

Jason Bradford

Well think about what’s going on with this pandemic. My gosh. That situation has forced people to confront it. A lot of people dying in hospitals alone. It’s horrible. But you’re at least — people are thinking about death, even if they don’t know someone directly. Because you see the statistics. And of course, what has happened, right? You mentioned alcohol consumption. Well, that’s spiked, right? People are finding ways to distract themselves from that existential angst that’s going on right now. And that can be unhealthy. So, in the meantime, a lot of the things that people used, were able to use, to cope may have been taken away. You have to stay inside, you can’t go hang out and socialize with people, you don’t go to religious services. And you may have lost your job and vocations provide meaning. Like, I’m being a service, I’m part of a community, and I’m contributing to my society through my job. And maybe you’ve lost that. So I think this is an interesting time in that, my gosh, you know, given what we’ve talked about, it seems like some of the outgrouping — that stuff should be worse right now.

Rob Dietz

Like the polarization that we see and politics in the US right now.

Asher Miller

Yeah, yeah. I definitely think we see it politically. You could look at things like racism and other forms of in group/out group dynamics. I don’t know that those are worse right now. I think that there’s been maybe a combination of feeling that politically, there was permission to express some of these things that were leading for people, you know?

Jason Bradford

So many contributing factors, but. . .

Asher Miller

Right, and I’m not sure that that’s, like, suddenly worse than it was. But I do think the political polarization, and again, I’m talking from my experience, so I may not be seeing that what others are experiencing. But certainly, you could see the political polarization as being even more extreme. And, I think a lot of people would say, “Oh, well, that’s just because, for example, Trump was this polarizing figure.” Right? But maybe there is this sort of combining force of the pandemic and the, you know, the realization of death that’s exacerbated.

Jason Bradford

I think that’s what I’m getting at. It’s like, that makes sense. Like, it’s worse than it would have been, even if there was just Trumpism and all the polarization of that. This is compounding it.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. I mean, that’s the hard thing, right? You, you can’t boil this down to say, “Oh, fear of death causes all the negative behavior that we see in the world,” but it could easily be a contributing factor or a compounding factor or, you know, combined up with some of the other things going on. I think about that with something as big as climate change. Let’s say your culture is what it is in America now. Sort of the materialist, capitalist, individual freedom, do whatever you want kind of idea of our culture. Well, somebody comes along with climate change. You remember Naomi Klein’s book was called “This Changes Everything,” which basically the premise was, climate change is going to make us rethink our politics, our economic system, our culture. Well, so climate change is an attack, basically. So that’s the other. And so that maybe terror management theory has something to say about why there’s so many vehement climate change deniers.

Jason Bradford

Yeah. That’s interesting.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. And then you can think the same thing about technology and progress, too, right? I believe in technology and progress. And this stuff about climate or biodiversity loss is is problematic to my worldview and my culture, so I’m going to cling to that tsunami tree all the tighter. So yeah . . .

Jason Bradford

Yeah, yeah. Space exploration, you know, we may screw up Earth, but we’re off to other planets. Like at least our culture, our spacefaring high tech culture, will shoot out to the stars and colonize the universe.

Asher Miller

Yeah. I mean, one thing that’s really concerning about that — So if that’s true, people are going to cling more desperately to cultural beliefs, religious beliefs, whatever beliefs they are, in the face of these types of crises, in a sense. When we should be responding to climate crises with a recognition that we have to do something differently, people may actually be more incentivized to stick with —

Jason Bradford

Yeah –

Asher Miller

Double down and hold on. So how do we break through that I think is a really interesting . . .

Rob Dietz

Cryogenic storage is the main way. You know, we freeze ourselves until all of this blows over. Then we’ll wake back up with our Wolverine immortality.

Asher Miller

But I do think it’s worth looking at people who have integrated a recognition of the climate crisis — how they’re managing in a sense the terror associated with that. By in the sense of doubling down on different kinds of beliefs. It may not be a belief that everything is going to be fine. It may not be a religious belief, you know, God has a plan. But it may be that technology is going to solve this problem.

Rob Dietz

Well, I think that three of us have talked about this issue with ourselves, being head of the Hypocrites Club of America, or whatever, you know? Where I can, on one hand know something about the existential threats we face from climate change and other environmental issues, and at the same time, still behave in ways that are contributing to the problem, right? And the only way I could do that is denying the problem at the time I’m — whatever it is — riding on a cruise ship or something.

Asher Miller

Yeah, I think what’s really interesting for me is to think about this as a hidden driver, of this idea of terror management. Normally, I would have thought, okay, well, people are scared of death, that makes a lot of sense. I could see why people would cling to a religious or spiritual belief that provides some kind of solace in believing that there’s an afterlife. But what we’re talking about here really is that it is deeply embedded in so much of our behavior. It’s not just what beliefs we have about what comes after life, or after death. It’s about all of these other ways that we behave in the world. And we don’t even recognize that we’re doing it. Just like those college students, you know, in those experiments. And so maybe, you know, one of the takeaways here is to sort of recognize how this might be impacting us, leading us to kind of double down either in group/out group dynamics. Whatever those are, you pick your in group, right? And pick your out group. Like this contributes to that dynamic or, you know, other forms of kind of denialism or distraction. And that we might have to actually just really reckon with this as being an ever present part of the reality.

Rob Dietz

Nah, I don’t think so, Asher. I do not want to wrestle with, this reckon with it. In fact, my in group is going to be the X-men, I want to get adamantium claws and then be cryogenically stored until all this worry about death is over.

Asher Miller

Stay tuned for our George Costanza Memorial “Do the Opposite” segment where we discuss things we can do to get the hell out of Crazy Town.

Jason Bradford

You don’t have to just listen to the three of us blabber on anymore.

Rob Dietz

We’ve actually invited someone intelligent on the program to provide inspiration. We’d like to invite our listeners to attend the Crazy Town Hall. That’s our exclusive webinar for financial backers of the show.

Jason Bradford

Oh, when’s that gonna happen?

Rob Dietz

Well, of course, it could only happen on April Fool’s Day.

Asher Miller

But wait for real. We’re doing on April 1?

Rob Dietz

Oh, yeah. April 1, we want to celebrate the three head fools in crazy town.

Asher Miller

Excellent.

Rob Dietz

This is a webinar that is meant for people who make a monthly donation to the program. Any amount, whatever fits your budget, make that donation and we will invite you to attend the webinar where you can insult Jason, you can make fun of me you can . . .

Rob Dietz

Give me lots of compliments.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, compliment Asher.

Asher Miller

Last year when we do this, we were able to raise enough money to hire Melody Travers to be our producer. Maybe this year if you guys give us enough money, you can replace us all together.

Jason Bradford

Yeah, outsource the whole program.

Rob Dietz

That would be great. Actually, having Melody on has freed us up to be able to bring on some people who are smarter than us, to give some real ideas with the interviews we’ve been doing, and really just improve the show.

Asher Miller

So if you want to support the show, go to postcarbon.org/crazytown and hit donate.

Rob Dietz

That’s postcarbon.org/crazytown. Your turn to repeat, Jason.

Jason Bradford

What are you guys talking about?

George  Costanza

Every decision I’ve ever made in my entire life has been wrong. My life is the complete opposite of everything I want it to be. If every instinct you have is wrong, then the opposite would have to be right.

Rob Dietz

So there’s a little bit of a paradox here because we’ve been talking about how awareness of death can make you do some stuff maybe you wouldn’t want to do. What we’re proposing here in the “Do the Opposite” is to contemplate death head on. Really wrestle with — I think like grab a scythe and have a scythe fight with death. You know, the guy in a black robe carrying his scythe. But to really tackle it head on and get a better, different relationship with the idea of death. And that can help tamp down some of that anxiety.

Asher Miller

Yeah, so you don’t mean like actually wrestling with death? Or like, putting yourself in a near death experience. Right? We’re not talking about taking it that far.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, no chasing grizzly bears on snowmobiles. Yeah, but no. Actually considering the idea of death taking time to not hide it away, not shy away from it, but really think about “How do you want to die?” You know, “How might you feel towards the end of your life?”

Asher Miller

You know, there are actually some some things out there that are great resources for doing this. My wife and I actually did one of these was called “Death over Dinner.” And this guy started this —

Rob Dietz

Is this, or I was thinking like the purple Kool Aid Guy. Like ,you drink this and everyone’s dead over dinner?

Asher Miller

No, I wouldn’t be here. No, it was really cool thing this guy just started. It is basically a website with some resources of things that people could read or listen to, or watch, and kind of some recommendations for —  this is how you organize a dinner:  you invite people over, everyone kind of agrees to listen or read something about death, you know? And then you have a conversation. In our case, we invited some friends over and it was a chance for a lot of us to talk about, not only death and mortality, and there was a kind of healthy debate going on there. But also, just how we’ve dealt with our families and thinking about our parents who are getting older. And what we might do there. I found it very, very useful.

Rob Dietz

That actually reminds me of probably one of the most powerful experiences I’ve had on an emotional level. And one of the most helpful things I ever did was — I was helping take care of my Uncle Jack, he had gotten esophageal cancer. And he was in this middle space trying to figure out, do I go through this treatment? Or is this the end of my life? And I think a lot of people are hesitant to talk with somebody who’s in a spot like that. And I just decided I would do this. And like I said, I think it’s one of the best things I did was to tackle the idea of his death head on. Not not that I was telling him what to do, or giving him advice. But just helping him come to terms and make that decision. And, you know, he ended up deciding “I don’t want to do the treatment. I’m ready to die.” And, and we ended up putting him on hospice care and he died at home with family around him.

Asher Miller

This is really weird. I, you know, we’re friends, Rob. I didn’t know this story. I didn’t know that he died of esophageal cancer. I had somebody in my life that was really close to me — she was like my surrogate grandmother — who also died of the same form of cancer. And when I was a young teenager, she’s Dutch, and she was actually a Holocaust survivor who lost many, many people in her family. And when she got cancer — she lost her husband to cancer as well — she didn’t want to go out in a protracted, agonizing kind of way, right? And when her quality of life deteriorated to such a degree, she decided that she was going to end her life on her terms. And in Holland, you could actually, you know, be euthanized. It was legal to do so. And she made a whole basically production out of her own death. She wore her favorite dress. She ate her favorite meal. She actually had a friend compose music for her, and she laid down, took a little pill, and basically went to sleep forever. And I really struggled with it. Because she actually, you know, my mom was telling me, “Honey is going to die at this point. You should say goodbye to her.” And I was maybe 13 or 14 at the time. And I just couldn’t wrap my head around this. I was mad at her, you know? And I it took me a very long time in my life to recognize like how, empowering that was, especially with her life experience to do that.

Rob Dietz

Well, I mean, that’s hard for a kid to grapple with that. And maybe we’re not asking a 13 year old necessarily to do it. But then maybe we are. Maybe that was a formative experience that years later, you can look back on and say, “Wow, that was something to emulate and to strive for. Rather than avoid, or put her on the worst machines and have that protracted suffering death.”

Jason Bradford

I remember talking to my grandmother the last time I saw her and she was asking me stuff like, you know, “Do you believe in the afterlife?” And all that, “What happens to us?” And I was kind of saying, “Well, I really don’t.” You know, but, “Are you afraid?” And just having these honest conversations and just sort of talking about her life. And I think, you know, what was interesting, what I think helps people is, is just having those connections. Knowing that people are thinking about them and know people really care about them, and just reflecting on their life. And, you know, it’s sort of just — if you’re resisting death constantly as opposed to sort of saying, “Well, there’s a cycle to things. We rise up above the soil, and we go back to it.” And it allows you kind of to let go a bit and see things more with gratitude than fear. And so I think a lot of people, you know, either react one way — like they get more fearful and they hold on and they’re resistant. And others just kind of go into this point of acceptance.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, kind of funny you talking about that is similar to how Michael Pollan in his book on — I can’t remember the title of his book.

Jason Bradford

“How to Change Your Mind.”

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah. “How to Change Your Mind.” Yeah, I read it. And he talks about how the active ingredient in psychedelic mushrooms, psilocybin, can help with that anxiety in terminal patients, too.

Jason Bradford

Yes, seeing the connections you have with everything really. And realizing that it’s okay, you know. Life begins, life ends, and I’m part of something bigger than myself. So I think this is like, what do you do? We’re talking about the terror management theory and saying, people are trying to create meaning beyond themselves, but often it’s in this non productive ways.

Jason Bradford

Right.

Jason Bradford

So part of this psilocybin book — he says that people got connected to nature. You know, “Mushrooms are amazing. And I want to be part of the mushroom cycle.” So if you can find meaning now that it’s about not harming out groups — Right?

Rob Dietz

Like, maybe there’s some other anxiety buffering things you could do rather than going to war?

Asher Miller

Yeah. It’s interesting because that means you’re not saying “I’m going to somehow conquer my terror, my fear of death. Or conquer my tendency, the human tendency to want to cling on to cultural beliefs,” or whatever it is, because of it. It’s sort of embracing that. But making sure that whatever those beliefs are, are pro-social.

Jason Bradford

Pro-environmental, yeah.

Rob Dietz

At least do no harm. Like, I always say, at the end of life, I’m going to take up squirrel suit flying and go over to Yosemite and jump off without a parachute, you know? You get that one last flight in. So at least I’m not trying to cling on to my tsunami tree and kill some other culture.

Asher Miller

So what we’re saying to our listeners here is, no, it’s not enough that you depress the living hell out of your friends and relatives talking about the existential threat of climate change, and, you know, depletion of resources and the end of economic growth. You need to also talk to them about death.

Rob Dietz

Yes. And then when you’re about to go out, go out big.

Asher Miller

Yeah, boom — goes the dynamite.

Rob Dietz

Michael Hebb is the author of the book, “Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner): An Invitation and Guide to Life’s Most Important Conversation.” And he’s the founder of deathoverdinner.org and eol.community, which is an end of life resource, the largest on the planet, that helps people deal with death and the end of life. And if you read Michael’s bio, you’ll quickly see that he’s a creative problem solver and organizer. I was really excited to learn that he’s a co-founder of City Repair, which is a project I always loved that helps residents transform their neighborhoods in really artful ways that build community. So Michael, welcome to Crazy Town!

Michael Hebb

It’s great to be here.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I’m excited to talk with you. Jason, Asher, and I have been discussing terror management theory. And we’ve been sharing some research about the fear of death, and how it can negatively affect people’s behavior. Sometimes in really profound ways. And one of our big takeaways on how to deal with that issue is that if you want to stop these kind of negative behaviors, then you’ve got to stop avoiding the topic of death, and you’ve got to wrestle with it head on. So you know, you get to this place where you can realize you’re going to die one day without being so anxious about it. And your work seems really fitting along those lines. Could you describe how you came to write your book and start up these organizations, Death Over Dinner and eol.community?

Michael Hebb

Yeah, I mean, it’s a long story, so we’ll keep it very, very short. it started with gathering people around the dinner table. First, actually, it started with gathering people into huts via City Repair. And realizing that there is such a deep yearning to be together in a meaningful way. Not in a way that is set up via transactions or consumerism, but in a way that is about deep personal connection. And that grew into a series of global conversations that I hosted with world leaders — talking about, can we end genocide in our lifetime? Why do we go to war? Why are there homeless? What is the gender gap and what can we do about it? And through hosting these conversations with Presidents, with Nobel Prize winners, with Grammy Award winning musicians, with people that were actively homeless, people that were dying, you name it, I became very clear to me that the most difficult conversations, quote, unquote, difficult conversations — the conversations that we avoid, the conversations that we think are hard, that require vulnerability, are the ones that have the most potential to transform our life and connect us to other humans. And really give us our why, the reason why we’re here. And so, ultimately, I realized that I needed to democratize these conversations, not just have them with leaders. And I built Death over Dinner as a pilot at the University of Washington. And there have been over a million people who’ve sat down and had death dinners ever since. So that’s the very short version of how these organizations came together.

Rob Dietz

Well, I just want to say thanks for taking on that work and it sounds fascinating. Also, the idea that so many people have done it is really exciting. Now, you you called it “Death over Dinner,” not “Death over Tiddlywinks,” or “Death over Walking the Dog.”  Could you explain why you selected the dinner table as as kind of the place for such a conversation?

Michael Hebb

Yeah. Well, you were talking about people avoiding the conversation. People — and terror management theory — and the negative impacts of us not talking about death. And the reality is you need to create a carrot, not just this notion of a stick. Like you should have this conversation. You’re going to be negatively impacted if you don’t. You have to give people something beautiful. Something they want. Or they’re not going to change. So it’s just core understanding of behavioral change. It comes from some sort of reward system, right? And people love dinner parties. And they love the idea of coming together and meaningfully connecting. And they also like when somebody has done a lot of the thinking, like a board game, right? It would be very hard to say, “Hey, guys, I’ve invented a board game, I want you to try it.” You’re not gonna get a lot of people excited about it. Somebody else has invented a board game. It’s called Monopoly. It’s really fun. Or, it’s called, you name it, it’s really fun. “Let’s get together, it was actually written up in the New York Times, it’s a cool thing.” That’s what we wanted to create around this conversation around death. An experience that you actually wanted to have. Not one that you were told that you needed to have, should have, etc., but one that you were attracted to. And beauty, food, wine, candles, remembering the people that have impacted our lives, these are things that we’re deeply attracted to. And then in the end, people end up talking about topics they’ve avoided and having really meaningful breakthroughs.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, yeah, that’s incredible. I do know Asher, one of our hosts here in Crazy Town, has participated in a Death over Dinner and I am thinking about doing so as well. Because all the things you’re talking about, I certainly long to have those kinds of connections and conversations with people I care about. I want to know if you have a good example of a person or some people who who have dived into this sort of conversation, and it profoundly affected them. Do you have an example of — maybe it’s even you. I don’t know, but somebody who’s gone through a Death over Dinner and really changed their outlook, maybe reduce their anxiety, or just had a moment of transformation from doing it?

Michael Hebb

Yeah, well, I mean, too many to detail, but the one that comes to mind is a dinner that I hosted, one of many dinners, but a particular dinner that I hosted with the Cleveland Clinic. And specifically with their cardiothoracic department, which is their heart surgery department. And this is a clinic, probably one of the most famous healthcare organizations in the world, but this is also where heart surgery, transplant surgery, was first performed. And I had the whole cardiothoracic department, nurses, doctors, anesthesiologists, all gathered for a dinner they were dreading. They did not want to be there, but many people were there because they wanted to report back to the Board of Governors that it was a bad idea. And I was scared. I told this group of pretty intimidating doctors, “Tonight, I want you to think about medicine differently. You think about medicine as something that stays off death. Something that keeps us alive. And I want you to actually take on this notion that death itself can be medicine. That death is medicine.” And you know, you could feel the air go out of the room. And then this amazing thing happened, which was a total softening. The walls came down, and doctors talked about why they were doctors, suicides in their family, losing somebody, and then wanting to save everyone. And the care teams, seeing the humanity of these very esteemed physicians and being able to share on that level, I knew and I watched that the care teams will interact differently with patients. They will interact differently with each other after that type of experience. So to see at an institutional level, both at the Cleveland Clinic and Memorial Sloan Kettering and these remarkable organizations that we work with, has been the most impactful work I’ve seen.

Rob Dietz

Yeah, I was just kind of in awe. I really liked the notion of, “Let’s think about medicine differently.” That those kinds of ways of guiding people through a conversation where, you know, you’re kind of forcing a perspective change. . . that’s, that’s . . . hats off! That’s a really smart way to get them to enter the conversation. And yeah, to get to that level of connection?

Michael Hebb

Well, it’s a bit of a stage dive. You know, there’s been a few moments where I’ve known that I’ve jumped off the stage, and I have no idea if anyone is going to catch me.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. Well, and you know, sometimes you hit the floor and you’ve just got to pick yourself up, right?

Michael Hebb

Certainly did that.

Rob Dietz

Yeah. So, among the people you meet, or even the people who are listening to us right now, I’m sure there have got to be some who have avoided thinking about death, and maybe who haven’t planned for it. Either for themselves or for a loved one. Now obviously, you and I would recommend to them that they participate in a death over dinner conversation. Maybe host one. But to draw people in who have been avoiding the topic, what would you say, are the most important things that they could gain from participating in a conversation and a death over dinner?

Michael Hebb

Well, it’s a long list. So let’s see – we’ll hit some of the top ones. One is human connection. Do you value the depth of the connection to your community? And to those that are closest to you? We actually know that our longevity is directly connected to how deep our connection is to our friends and family and loved ones. So having a death dinner or doing this work, and thinking about the end of your life, how you want to be remembered, is actually the most impactful way of deepening your connection. So you actually live longer by talking about death. So there’s one way — if you’d like life and you want it to extend. The other is, repression causes disease. We know this. We know that it’s directly linked, a repressive style, not talking about things, is directly linked to autoimmune disorders, cancers, and a variety of other disorders. Essentially, inflammation in the body. Which makes sense. You repress something, it gets inflamed. And we are not given many ways, as a culture, to work on the emotional depression among our loved ones. It’s one thing to go to a therapist, but it’s very important to do this work of sharing vulnerably among our family and friends. And talking about end of life is actually a way to exercise that muscle. You were just talking about being sore from, you know, your exercise regime. . . here is an absolute way to exercise a muscle that is the opposite of repression. And then, you’re going to live longer, you’re going to live healthier. But I’d say the most important for me is spiritual. And it doesn’t matter if you believe in God or what have you. When I say spiritual I mean life’s purpose. What am I doing here? What is your why? And there’s nothing better as far as coming to terms with our priorities, what we care about, what we want to accomplish, who we want around us, what we want to say, than thinking about our mortality. It’s always been that medicine — in all of the wisdom traditions, and religious traditions, and non-religious traditions, to confront why we’re here. And once we know why we’re here, that’s when consumerism starts to be turned down. We don’t need to accumulate when we know our why. So talk about Crazy Town, and talk about reducing our carbon footprint. Really the answer is talking about death.

Rob Dietz

Well, I really appreciate the way you’re you’re opening people’s minds, and mine too, about how important it is to have that kind of a conversation. So thank you so much for your work. Michael Hebb is the author of “Let’s Talk about Death (over Dinner)” and the founder of deathoverdinner.org and eol.community. Really, really important work and I so enjoyed meeting and talking with you. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town.

Michael Hebb

Absolutely. Pleasure to be here.

Rob Dietz

That’s our show. Thanks for joining us in Crazy Town.

Asher Miller

This is a program of Post Carbon Institute. Get more info at postcarbon.org.

Jason Bradford

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