Conscious awareness of death drives us to fear it and avoid it, which is how we fall prey to superstitions and doomsday predictions.

If you’re reading this, it’s safe to assume that the Winter Solstice has come and gone and the world, as we know it, has not ended, despite the brouhaha surrounding the Mayan calendar’s termination. It’s amazing how much employment the whole imbroglio has generated for doomsday prophets, and how much time and energy scientific organisations like NASA have had to invest to quell the inordinate fear, anxiety and even hysteria concerning December 21, 2012. That doomsday prophets exist doesn’t surprise me, for they’ve been around for millennia, exploiting ignorance and naiveté, expounding their gory visions to anyone who cared to listen. That they continue to find followers in such large numbers, despite the technologically and scientifically advanced world we now live in, is astonishing. And, frankly, concerning.

Almost exactly 13 years ago, I remember a panicked world anxiously awaiting the mayhem and chaos that was predicted to be unleashed on January 1, 2000. Apart from spawning a fairly substantial Y2K industry, nothing much really happened. I also remember the sheepish expressions on the faces of several techies I then knew who had been so strident in their predictions of global bedlam. Doomsday fears obviously don’t afflict only the ignorant and the naïve.

There is truth in the popular belief that modern technology offers easy conduits through which disinformation, untruths and half-knowledge can be spread; the Internet is not discerning in what it disseminates. And therein lies the paradox, for the same Internet is also the storehouse of as much, if not more, information, truths and knowledge, but these don’t seem to be as readily accessed as conspiracy theories and doomsday predictions. Evidently, for some of us at least, fear seems to be more likely to drive us to action than the pursuit of pleasure.

In his 1920 classic Beyond the Pleasure Principle, Sigmund Freud, who had thitherto believed that the pursuit of pleasure (and the avoidance of ‘unpleasure’) was the human being’s primary driving force, evolved the concept of what he referred to as the ‘death drive’. This in later years has been variously described as the ‘death instinct’, the ‘death wish’, ‘thanatos’ and so on. I’m not going to get into the nuances, merits, demerits and applications of the concept. Let’s just say, even at the risk of oversimplifying it and making it sound platitudinous, that the conscious awareness of death drives us to fear it and avoid it. For many of us, the conscious fear of death is neither overwhelming nor top-of-the-mind. For some of us, it is just below the surface and could kick in when confronted with doomsday prophecies. For some others, this fear could be paralysing enough to interfere with day-to-day functionality.

It is because of this fear that we sometimes tend to be superstitious, and engage in certain ritualised behaviours to avoid anticipated pain. This fear also facilitates rumour-mongering and the creation of what is referred to as urban legends, a term used to define modern folklore or exaggerated stories meant to convey a message. Some of us deal with such fears by vicariously experiencing them in a controlled situation, as when we watch vampire or horror movies with friends, Sometimes we watch with horrified fascination, as tragedies are graphically displayed on our television screens. Sometimes we allow ourselves the experience of schadenfreude (pleasure at other’s misfortunes), which may not necessarily have malicious origins, but appears to be more out of relief that it’s happening to someone else. These are all manifestations of primal fears of the unknown that all of us have felt or might feel in the course of our lives. And if, by virtue of hard-wiring or due to traumatic life experiences, one is more fearful than others then one easily falls prey to superstitions and doomsday predictions, which have been made up over and over and again even though history has taught us that all of them have been absolutely baseless.

Seeking pleasure, as long as it is done responsibly and in cognisance of the context one exists in, is obviously a good thing. But if we spend less time doing this than finding ways to avoid pain, we’re going to end up making life more difficult for ourselves and for those around us, for it will be fear that drives us and not pleasure. I’m not suggesting that we abandon fear and engage only in untrammelled hedonism. Often fear can be a very beneficial drive, helping us adroitly navigate life’s minefields. But if this becomes our primary motivating force, we will be very vulnerable to exploitation. The practice of mudita (the Buddhist concept of ‘sympathetic joy’ or finding joy in the happiness of others) will make us fear our fellow humans less and reduce our susceptibility to doomsday prophecies, whereas schadenfreude does just the opposite.

So the choice is ours. Will we let ourselves be driven by our fears and wait for the end of the world, or will we have a sympathetically joyful new year? Hopefully, we’ll choose wisely, and learn to ignore the doomsday prophets’ premature obituaries.