Sunday, May 21, 2006


This experience has made me a whole lot more interested in Terror Management Theory. This is a psychological theory that argues that humans are motivated by a fundamental existential anxiety--basically, the fear of death. And all sorts of processes, both good and bad, might reflect the influence of this fear. So, we strive for higher self-esteem as a buffer against death; we denigrate other groups of people as a buffer against death; we seek status as a buffer against death.

In the first days after my diagnosis, I would tell you that I wasn't thinking I would die. But I was hard-core into terror management anyway. My identity became really important to me--when I'd go into the doctors' offices, I'd want to be dressed for work, and I preferred reading journal articles to more mindless, comforting fare. I'd want to be dealt with as a professor, not just as a patient. It made me feel more protected, in some ways; it made me feel less helpless. And I really think that it was fundamentally an existential concern. Just as, throughout life, we accumulate possessions and positions that seem to cocoon us from danger, in my early days of grappling with a new, unwanted identity as "cancer patient," I clung to the trappings of strength and status.

And in more recent days? Well, I can't say that the desire to be seen as "professor" over "patient" has lessened, but when I go to the hospital for treatment, my priorities are comfort and distraction. I dress in my most comfortable sweats, bring along DVDs of kids' movies (Harry Potter--thanks, Alison!, Ice Age, Finding Nemo, The Incredibles), and eat popsicles. It's not that I'm any happier with the identity I didn't ask for, but having poisons pumped through a needle into my veins has pushed me closer to the raw state of existence. Many of the terror managing strategies have dropped away.

Am I less concerned with self esteem, less likely to derogate other groups? Well, I'm not sure about that--I worry about my (fake) hair looking good and I still resent Republicans. On the other hand, I just can't care too much about comparing my appearance or accomplishments to others' right now, and though gossip is a fun distraction, some kinds of derision just seem too trivial to bother.

The fact of mortality has become much more salient, even though I do think I'll be cured. And with that fact comes an awareness of the laughability of our little efforts to be Safe. I think all of American society is designed to make us feel invulnerable (think gated communities, Hummers, resistance to oil conservation...hell, boob jobs and Sephora), and we've evolved a psychology to match. But something like this reminds you that all the protections meant nothing. Ultimately, none of us will be Safe. Money and status are ways of distancing ourselves from that fact, but (so far, at least) even these buffers haven't proved effective in the end.


Anonymous said...

You still derogate others for DWA and reasonable facsimiles thereof. And you resent Democrats too. But you overlook my pizza face and love my hair as never before! For that TYTB and ILYMTYLM.

Heidi and Sarah Face The Day said...

Hey Jen. If you haven't seen that movie "Wit" yet, it might interest you to at some point as it covers a lot of the stuff you wrote about. It is heavy though so may I suggest Little House on the Prairie episodes right now instead. That's what we watch at home these days and we are loving it! With that said, that show can get pretty heavy at times too. Have you seen Little Britian?

Jenny said...

Hey Sarah--yeah, I saw "Wit" and let me tell you, I wouldn't touch that with a 50-foot pole right now! WAY too depressing. (Though good, yes.) Haven't seen Little Britain--will have to look for it. Thx! -j

Heidi and Sarah Face The Day said...

Little Britian is HILARIOUS!! if you like British humor. It is totally un-PC. Maybe we can watch it this summer -- if your DVD player can play PAL and other regions. It's a must-see. And yes, I can surely understand why you wouldn't want to see Wit now. See you soon. SRA

Lara said...

I think you look beautiful in your short hair -- even if it isn't the look you would have chosen.

I'm impressed with TMT that it is actually feeling relevant to you right now, or maybe it's just a sign of what a dedicated academic you are.

Thinking of you!