This mortal coil



I started this
Staff member
This mortal coil - AEON

The fear of death drives many evils, from addiction to prejudice and war. Can it also be harnessed as a force for good?

any people think consciously about their mortality only once in a blue moon. Maybe if an odd mole appears. Or after a close call in the car. Or when they read about the death of a celebrity their age. Maybe it’s in the middle of the night, when they can’t get back to sleep and the reality of their inevitable ending sinks in. I, on the other hand, have been thinking about my own mortality, and indeed everyone’s, most of my professional career. You might guess that I’m a mortician, or a coroner, or maybe an oncologist. But actually, I’m a social psychologist and my focus has been on trying to understand human social behaviour. What does mortality have to do with understanding human behaviour? More than most of us think.

I spent my early childhood in a working-class Italian neighbourhood in the South Bronx in New York City. Many African-American families were then moving into the area. At the time, I remember having two observations about people that bugged me: their pride and their prejudice. Everyone around me seemed to think they were right about everything – smarter and more moral than anyone else. And the people in my neighbourhood seemed to have something against those who had darker skin than they did. I thought about these tendencies occasionally, though they didn’t seem to concern people around me. Then, in 12th grade, I was assigned Jonathan Swift’s literary satire Gulliver’s Travels (1726), and I was shocked to find that here, finally, was someone who saw humans the way I did. And someone who died back in 1745 at that.