“The fear of death follows from the fear of life. A man who lives fully is prepared to die at any time.”
― Mark Twain
Isn’t life ironic?
We spend all our days coming into our own, developing our talents and unique gifts, chasing our passions, learning to stomach the disappointments and tragedies of life, finally making it to a ripe old age as a mature and unique individual—only to be good for dying?
And unfortunately, unlike all other species on the planet, we know it’s coming. We shuffle through a whole life with the burden of knowing our fate.
What a horrible predicament. “The weight of the days is dreadful”, as Camus reminded us.
Most of the time we live without thinking of death. But sometimes, more often when we get older, death comes lurking up into our conscious and we realize that one day we’ll be buried in the dirt and mostly forgotten. The life we had lived so structured, divided, and safe; a life of love, compassion, and goodwill, will end just like the life of the rodent and insect.
We’re going to die. Having this knowledge alone should inspire us to live more deliberately and mindful; never letting the frivolous things in life bog us down. But we don’t.
The poet Charles Bukowski put it best:
We’re all going to die, all of us, what a circus! That alone should make us love each other but it doesn’t. We are terrorized and flattened by trivialities, we are eaten up by nothing.”
What if our fear of death is permeated so deep in our minds and souls that it subconsciously drives our actions while we’re alive? What if we spend our days creating and living in fantasies to dilute the terror of our looming death? What if we suppress the idea of our pending fate at a horrible cost?
What if our fear of death is making us retreat from life?
The Denial of Death
In his brilliant 1974 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker wrote:
This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, and excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression – and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax. . . What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food?”
Perhaps this explains why in today’s postmodern age we’re all so spiritually ill, riddled with agony and a seething sense of hopelessness. In America alone, 40 million adults are living with an Anxiety Disorder. 15 million adults suffer from depression. Living standards are better now than ever before; it’s a safer more prosperous world than ever before and yet, it doesn’t fulfill. People are bitter, unhealthy, deluded and full of spite.
As Becker realized:
Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.”
There’s an unexplained feeling of abandonment and anxiety that has a hold of us. You can see the angst in the eyes of those in coffee shops and in the hastily ways people live their lives. People so busy, so consumed by the trivialities of culture, never leaving time for a little reflection that leads to self-awareness.
As Becker writes:
the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for men.”
We refuse to admit our smallness, our meaningless in a frightful world where our body is in constant decay. What we long for is immortality and so we attempt to create something of lasting worth. Or we latch on to institutions much bigger than us like a government (patriotism), a religion, or cultural status.
As Becker argues:
Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.”
Religion at one time offered us a way to overcome the feeling of insignificance. Denying ourselves by putting faith in a Creator that loves us and has a special place for our lives after death helped us cope with our death anxiety. Religion offered a way “to become part of such a larger and higher wholeness” to escape the nagging trepidation of the “fallen man.”
But today, as religious dogma has become increasingly problematic for us to swallow, we’ve turned to culture as a coping mechanism.
Becker claims we create “cultural hero-systems” in which we “serve in order to earn this feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.”
In other words, our urge to be a hero in our society—whether through our actions, or groups, or good deeds, or creating art—is a subconscious attempt to deny the reality of our approaching death.
We spend years desperately trying to claw our way out of the relentless clutches of mediocrity. We yearn for fame, fortune, and notoriety; we climb that corporate ladder, run for office, join mass movements, buy expensive cars, and create art. This is our attempt to disguise our animal nature; an attempt to evade mortality and grasp for a type of heroism which Becker defines as “a reflex of the terror of death.”
His Foundation further explains that we need to “create or become part of something that we feel will outlast our time on earth. In doing so, we feel that we become heroic and part of something eternal that will never die, compared to the physical body that will eventually die. This gives human beings the belief that our lives have meaning, purpose, and significance in the grand scheme of things.”
Human Character as a Vital Lie
Becker believed that man is terrified of standing alone. He writes:
the reason man was so naturally cowardly was that he felt he had no authority; and the reason he had no authority was in the very nature of the way the human animal is shaped: all our meanings are built into us from the outside, from our dealings with others.”
Becker argued that it’s these external forces that give form to the “self” or the “superego.”
In other words, our character is a lie because it’s built from the influences of culture rather than our inner being.
“Our whole world”, Becker writes, “of right and wrong, good and bad, our name, precisely who we are, is grafted into us; and we never feel we have authority to offer things on our own.”
Becker argued that we build up our character walls as a “defense against despair” in an attempt “to avoid insanity because of the real nature of the world.” He recognized that “man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that really he drew his courage from a god, a government, sexual conquests, a flag or cultural status.”
We build character and culture in order to shield ourselves from the devastating awareness of our underlying helplessness and the terror of our inevitable death.”
Becker discovered like many other intelligent minds have, that’s it’s our fear of death that causes us to shrink from life.
The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation, but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”
Stated differently, as Sam Keen deciphered in the introduction of Becker’s book, “We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality; encapsulate ourselves to avoid death. And life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character.”
The Problem with Heroism
Like everything else in life, there’s a dark side to our heroic projects. Becker settles that our quest for heroism is also the source of everything evil and destructive in the world. He contends that our pursuit to rid the world of evil is also in effect how evil is brought into the world.
With our idea of heroism comes with a type of self-righteousness that breeds divisiveness and human conflict. For example– my god against your god, my country against your country, my politics against your politics. We tend to vilify other groups of people and their ideas, which strengthens our faith in our own. This is the great plague of humanity.
With our self-righteous beliefs, our misguided thinking of “right and wrong”, we do terrible things to each other. We become intolerant and violent and crave power, vast or slight, in an eager attempt to grasp some type of domination to make up for the nihilistic despair we veil behind insincere smiles. This is mankind’s brutal history. Our denial of death in the guise of heroic action has soaked the soil with continuous bloodshed throughout the ages.
Becker’s assumption mirrors what the great poet T.S. Eliot once observed:
Half the harm that is done in this world is due to people who want to feel important. They don’t mean to do harm, but the harm [that they cause] does not interest them. Or they do not see it, or they justify it because they are absorbed in the endless struggle to think well of themselves.”
How do we live fully in the face of death?
Embrace it. Have death in the forefront of your brain every single day.
Becker concludes that our urge for cosmic significance will inevitably fail no matter how deep we plunge ourselves into our self-comforting delusions. We can only hide behind our brittle walls of character for so long. We can’t break away from what we truly are—creatures of insignificance unable to transcend the limits of the human condition.
The moral courage to confront the silence of the universe and the anxiety of meaninglessness is a real manifestation of cosmic heroism.”
Becker clearly understood that we must destroy the character lie that has us striving for outward concepts of heroism in the first place. By doing so, he says, we open ourselves up to infinity, or “the possibility of cosmic heroism.” Once the character lie is shattered we’re able to clearly see our “secret inner self,” discover our true talents, and enhance our “deepest feelings of uniqueness … to the very ground of creation.”
Out of the ruins of the broken cultural self, there remains the mystery of the private, invisible, inner self which yearned for ultimate.”
It’s no secret that people who are most alive are the ones who’ve been diagnosed with a terminal illness and those who have endured a near death experience. They’ve come to terms with death, live with death in the forefront of their lives. With death acknowledged rather than suppressed, it’s been shown that people live more intensely and more grateful lives.
As the great existential writer Camus once put it, “Come to terms with death. Thereafter, anything is possible.” Or as famed Swiss psychiatrist and psychotherapist Carl Jung preached, “Until you make the unconscious conscious, it will direct your life and you will call it fate.”
I’ll end this post with the words of one of the most prominent thinkers of the 20th century, Martin Heidegger, that perfectly sums it all up:
If I take death into my life, acknowledge it, and face it squarely, I will free myself from the anxiety of death and the pettiness of life – and only then will I be free to become myself. ”
Ernest Becker’s masterpiece book, The Denial of Death, is one of the most thought-provoking and life-changing books that you’ll ever read. Try to get your hands on a copy as soon as you can. It’ll reshape your whole mindset in a positive way. (Click here for the book)