An outgrowth of Ernest Becker’s 1974 Pulitzer-Prize winning tome, The Denial of Death, terror-management theory posits that human beings experience a psychological conflict between wanting to live and realizing death’s inevitability. In Becker’s view, the world is terrifying and human behavior is motivated by a biological need to cope with anxiety. “This is the terror,” Becker writes. “To have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die.” In an uncertain world, death is the only thing that is a given. The “main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death,” Becker writes. So we adopt a hero system that permits us to believe that death is transcended when we participate in something immortal, something that will last beyond us: an empire, a religion, a sports team.

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