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Sheldon Solomon — The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, a 2019 Cape Cod Institute workshop led by Sheldon Solomon, August 12-16, 2019

Sheldon Solomon

The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life
August 12-16, 2019

The uniquely human awareness of death causes potentially debilitating terror that we “manage” by embracing cultural worldviews that give us a sense that we are valuable persons in a meaningful universe, and thus eligible for literal or symbolic immortality.  The quest for immortality underlies some of humankind’s most noble achievements.  However, it also engenders some of our most ignominious affectations, including: distain for people with different beliefs; unwavering support for charismatic leaders; contempt for the environment; insatiable pursuit of money and stuff; and reckless disregard for our physical well-being.

Research demonstrates that death anxiety affects almost every domain of our lives.  Understanding the role of death in life by helping professionals will improve assessment and treatment both individually and systemically, ultimately promoting physical, emotional, and societal wellbeing.

This course will include psychological, philosophical and anthropological insights, illustrated with historical and contemporary examples and verified by research. It will be of interest to anyone who applies behavioral science to professional practice, including therapists, lawyers, clergy, business leaders, and teachers.

Death: The Worm at the Core

Back of everything is the great specter of universal death. . . . We need a life not correlated with death . . . a kind of good that will not perish…And so with most of us…a little irritable weakness will bring the worm at the core of all our usual springs of delight into full view, and turn us into melancholy metaphysicians.
William James, The Varieties of Religious Experience

  • Overview of Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death

  • Terror management theory and research

  • Cultural understanding of death

  • Self-esteem and psychological fortitude

The Anatomy of Human Destructiveness and the Politics of Mortal Terror

 History is a nightmare from which I am trying to awaken.
 -James Joyce, Ulysses

  • Summary of Becker’s Escape from Evil

  • Humankind’s seeming incapacity for peaceful coexistence

  • The allure of the charismatic leaders

  • Implications for democracy and public policy 

Fleeing the Body and the Quest for Immortality

…we have the desire to flee the body…because the body brings with it mortality, fear of death. If you accept the body as reality, then you have to accept mortality and people are very afraid to do that...
-David Cronenberg, The Existential Deal

  • How death anxiety makes us uncomfortable with our bodies

  • Alienation from nature: implications for gender, sexuality, and environmental sustainability

  • Quest for immortality: the insatiable pursuit of wealth, gambling, drugs and alcohol, shopping


Cracks in the Shield and How Death can be Hazardous to Your Health

All individuals are confronted with death anxiety; most develop adaptive coping modes—Either because of extraordinary stress or because of an inadequacy of available defensive strategies, the individual who enters the realm called “patienthood” …has been driven to extreme modes of defense…often clumsy modes of dealing with terror...
-Irvin Yalom, Existential Psychotherapy

  • How death denial leads to risky and harmful behaviors

  • The role of death anxiety in the etiology of schizophrenia, phobias, obsessions, PTSD, depression, suicide

  • Proximal and Distal defenses

  • Destructive vs. constructive defenses

Living with Death

Come to terms with death; thereafter, anything is possible.
-Albert Camus

  • Existential psychotherapy and Kierkegaard’s “School of Anxiety”

  • Developing deep and genuine connections

  • Bolstering terror management resources: Addressing the problem of meaningless, isolation, and death

  • Coming to terms with death: compassion, courage, and concern for future generations

Sheldon Solomon

Sheldon Solomon

Sheldon Solomon, PhD, is Professor of Psychology at Skidmore College. He is co-author of In the Wake of 9/11: The Psychology of Terror and The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life, and is featured in the documentary film Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality. Sheldon is a recipient of an American Psychological Association Presidential Citation, and a Lifetime Career Award by the International Society for Self and Identity.

We are delighted to welcome Sheldon Solomon in his first appearance at the Institute!

NJ Social Workers:

Social workers completing this course will receive 15 General Social Work Practice continuing education credits. ASWB ACE individual course approval statements can be found here.

For all other CE information:

Please visit our CE page and search by discipline.