How would you describe your relationship to death in general, and your death specifically? Is it healthy? How did thoughts of your extinction influence how you lived last week, or how you might live next week? Does the shortening of your remaining time on earth make your life richer? Are you at ease with the specter of the world continuing without you, or do you crowd it out of your mind?
Most of us automatically blot poignant questions like these out of mind, or avoid asking such questions in the first place. But I hope to show that getting deeply acquainted with questions like these will relieve a lot of anxiety, and make life better for you and others. The fact is that you’ll spend infinitely more time un-alive than alive, so what are you going to do about your alive time?
Let me start by telling you how one man and his book changed my relationship to death and my orientation to life ever since.
Denial of Death
I stumbled upon the Pulitzer Prize-winning Denial of Death by Ernest Becker more than a decade ago by accident. The cover looked interesting at the time, and I wondered what the prize was all about, so I gave it a whirl. I could not have known that this book would be a serious life-changer for me.
First, a little about the author: Ernest Becker was sort of maverick, for whom chasing tenure and following the academic herd were turn-offs—teaching was not just a job to him. He was intensely driven by the need to get at the root of why humans do what we do, and tell the world about it. To find the answers, he did not feel compelled to stay in his traditional academic lane. Rather, he freely swerved and heavily borrowed from the several disciplines of psychology, philosophy, sociology, biology, and anthropology in his quest to explain our most basic motivations.
In the book, Becker skillfully dismantles Freud, excises the wrong and vain aspects of his complexes, and puts him back together again as a man on his own immortality quest. Freud was no god, but a man like any other—wishing to live forever, or at least for his legacy to do so. At the same time, Becker elevated less accessible, but more accurate thinkers like Norman O. Brown and Otto Rank, most of all, who plainly understood that man’s general anxiety was not driven by some Oedipal complex, but rather by the anxiety of his own “creatureliness.”
At the heart of Becker’s discoveries was his claim that our thoughts of vulnerability, weakness, impermanence, and mortality stir up anxiety and even terror in us. As a result of this mostly unconscious dread, individuals, groups, political parties, and even nations naturally spiral towards neurosis, or work like hell to mask, hide, mute, cover-up, and distance ourselves from the anxiety of mortality and all of its reminders.
This is why we build layers, and layers of personal, cultural, and mythical character armor to shroud and disguise the worm at the core of our existence—that we all go away, never to return. These immortality projects aim to create the illusions of order over chaos, permanence over decay, triumph over evil, and so on and on.
Before Becker, nobody acknowledged or talked about this powerful undercurrent driving our individual and collective behavior.
Terror Management Theory Backs Becker's Insights
Terror Management Theory (TMT), is a derivative of Becker’s writing. Coined by students of Becker, TMT gave structure to Becker’s ideas and began to test them with falsifiable, experimental rigor. TMT shows that the psychological force behind propaganda, prejudice of all kinds, evil generally, blind deference to authority, war, politics, religion, patriotism, art, symbolism, and much more is our fear of mortality. It's powerful and pervasive.
Even though Becker’s insights and TMT have amazing explanatory and predictive powers, they remain very accessible and practical in real everyday life. Here’s what Denial of Death, and Terror Management Theory have taught me:
We All Fear the Reaper, but Life Doesn't Have To Suck
Many years after reading Denial of Death for the first time, I still reflect on what the book has done to and for me. Reading it was one of those singular moments, impossible to forget where I was at the time. For me, there was life before reading the book, and life after. That book shook me awake from a comfortably numb, materialist existence, to a genuinely heartfelt “glad to be here” attitude (at least on most days).
We take life for granted, but we really, really shouldn't be here—there are just too many forces conspiring to knock us down or knock us off. Evenif we manage to dodge every proverbial bullet, there is a natural upper limit to our biological organism, and our internal parts will wear out. There are a million ways to die, and one of those ways will catch up to us—we will all go the way of spoiled milk, the Romans, and the dinosaurs. One day, we will not get up again. We will breathe our last. And when we are gone, we will be really and permanently gone.
When death shows its many faces, there are four ways our psyche can deal with it:
- Denial — (the default response for most of us, as shown by Becker)
- Despair — (the terrifying response we use denial or fight to avoid)
- Acceptance — (a rare response that allows us to function)
- Embracing — (an even rarer response that transforms the life we have)
Becker showed that the thought of extinction haunted Freud and Jung, causing them both to faint whenever they contemplated visiting Rome (by then extinct). As a result, both men continued to pour more energy into their immortality projects—their legacies.
For me, reading Becker made my own denial of death, my death a non-option. I couldn't unsee the skull in the mirror. My former immersion in the cultural milieu, and my belief in national and religious myths suddenly became like the emperor’s clothes—whispy, and translucent. The promise of life after death was exposed as a threadbare, moth-eaten security blanket—intended to soothe my fears in exchange for compliance. To be sure, that realization was deeply wounding and disillusioning, and I longed for the naivete I once enjoyed. I was going to die, and the world would carry on without me in it.
Contemplating Death as Medicine
Since Denial wasn't an option and I didn't want despair, I chose acceptance instead. And now I practice embracing my death as an essential part of my life. When death overtakes me, I want to be as fully present as I can, but until then, I have work to do.
Contemplating death in small, regular, safe doses makes life better—not in the morbid, neurotic, masochistic sense—but in the practical sense thattoday matters—a lot. The right dose of contemplation is one that leaves you feeling authentic, and grateful for this day.
Sudden stark reminders of death shatter our bliss, as when driving past a gruesome accident, learning that one has cancer, losing a pet, or attending a funeral. These triggers recruit our survival instinct and evoke a denial response, which leads us to harden our character armor. But when we honestly contemplate our death for a brief moment every morning and night, or at meals, the experience is like a bitter tincture going down, but rejuvenating and empowering between doses.
This regular practice builds immunity against the anxiety of death that makes us shrink or rely too much on mythical or cultural salvation. It works by the principle of familiarity, or acclimatization. We get accustomed to small doses of the fact of our death to the point that it no longer makes us anxious.
Since reading Denial of Death, this has become my motto:
Life is short—walk hard.
In the scriptures I was raised on, we were taught to shun the “eat, drink, and be merry" lifestyle because it was a kind of trap that would get you stuck in a lower world in the afterlife. I no longer believe in judgment day as the reason to live well. And I think the millennials might have it right after all when they say “you only live once”. YOLO is right, as long as it is not tossed about too casually. With conviction, YOLO can make you powerful by giving your fucks to the things that matter most.
Wedo only live once. Somake today matter. Connect with somebody. Express your love or concern. Mend a fence or two. Invent something. Clean up that mess you made. You will not live forever, but you can enjoy paying it forward today, and making life better for someone else.
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