The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker

Tags:  non-fiction,

In The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker examines the central and unique tension of the human creature: we are going to die, and unlike other animals, we know we’re going to die. This is the fundamental source of human anxiety. It’s not culture-specific. It’s universal to the species, affecting all humans everywhere.

The Denial of Death

We’re born into a world we don’t initially understand. We arrive helpless and dependent, and we know that. Bewilderment, helplessness and dependency are terrifying. Soon, we also learn that we and everyone we know will die. How can anyone function in the face of such terror?

Humans have two coping mechanisms: repression and culture. Both are healthy responses when done right. If death is not imminent, and mostly it isn’t, it’s not healthy to obsess over it. You can push back (repress) your fear of it and spend your time and energy on something more immediately productive, like making your next meal.

Culture works on a larger scale to mask and repress the fear of death. It can provide a roadmap for an entire lifetime: you go to school, learn a profession or trade, get married, have kids, buy a house, etc. If you measure yourself against the roadmap–and society is always encouraging you to do so–you can assuage your anxiety with the reassurance that your life is right on schedule, or at least close enough.

That’s a simplistic example, but the gist of it is that culture and society give you things to focus on and ways of channeling your energy so you don’t have to keep asking those unanswerable questions like, “Why am I here? What’s the point of going through all this if I’m just going to die in the end?”

Becker points out that the person Freud called the neurotic, the person whose functioning is impaired by anxiety, is merely one who sees through the cultural distractions to the truth culture covers up. For this person, the culturally-approved milestones and distractions–the professional career, the house, the car, the ideal partner–don’t cut it. They are always aware of the abyss beneath. Remove the supports of cultural and society, and we are again helpless, dependent, powerless, and doomed to die.

Becker, like Otto Rank, says this person is not unhealthy. They are merely seeing reality for what it is, and they are likely to remain miserable until they can find some personal meaning that overshadows the fear of death and nothingness.

Becker describes a spectrum of these “seers,” these “neurotics” for whom the common illusion of culture won’t suffice. On one end is the artist who maintains some semblance of emotional health by expressing in their art the tensions of the world they perceive. The artist can convey powerful emotions through image, sound and word, producing effects that are somehow more than the sum of their parts, that pierce the veil of ordinary perception to reveal extraordinary depth of feeling. Art bypasses the everyday modes of expression and affects you in ways you can’t fully explain.

On the other end of the spectrum is the highly sensitive person without creative ability. These people see and feel what the poets see and feel, but have no way of expressing of it. Lacking the release of creative expression, they suffer deeply and persistently, and often they go mad. (In fact, in his account of the inmates of Paris' Pitié-Salpêtrière mental hospital centuries earlier, Phillipe Pinel remarked that a great number of his patients were poets who lacked the gift of poetic expression.)

The bulk of humanity falls between these extremes. What they need to keep sane is a meaningful framework of understanding for their existence, one that accounts for death and everything else they’ll experience between the cradle and the grave.

Religion used to provide that framework. Over the past several hundred years, science has replaced religion in the West, offering “better” explanations of all the phenomena of life, the world we live in, and the universe surrounding our world. Its one massive failing has been its refusal to even attempt to explain why we are here, and what meaning we might find in an existence that arises from nothing and returns to nothing.

Psychoanalysis took over one role of the old religions, delving deep into the psyche of the suffering to uncover the conflicts, hang-ups and sticking points that leave us feeling bewildered, hopeless and stuck. Becker (along with Otto Rank) claims that psychoanalysis oversold itself as a solution to these problems, which it doesn’t really solve at all. Psychology can make us aware of what’s going on inside, and that’s a big step, because you can’t fix a problem until you identify what’s wrong. But once psychology helps us identify the problem, it’s still up to us to find and implement a solution.

While religion offered both the introspective tools to uncover problems and the faith- and ritual-based solutions to solve them, psychoanalysis offers only the exploratory tools, and Becker claims this can be damaging in many cases. It’s as if the therapist helps the patient to see through all the social illusions to the final truth that, “Yes, you are naked, alone, vulnerable. Soon you’ll rot into the earth, and there’s nothing you can do about it. Well, I’m glad we cleared that up.”

You can’t leave a person in that state and expect them to lead a healthy, fulfilling life.

Becker says that the ultimate failing of psychoanalysis, and of science in general, is that it doesn’t point to anything larger, anything outside itself that’s more durable, powerful, and permanent. Science offers no satisfying answer to death, nothing to assuage its terror in an impermanent world. The only answer, the only meaning that can possibly overcome death’s terror, must come from a world beyond death, from a world that is permanent and beyond death’s reach.

This is why virtually every society that has ever existed has created a cosmology to explain man’s place in the universe. All of these cosmologies transcend death. Christianity and Islam have heaven. Buddhism and Hinduism have reincarnation. Many ancient tribal religions revere ancestral spirits, the immortal remnants of once living beings.

Becker says that a healthy belief system must incorporate at least as much of human experience as a person is likely to encounter personally, in their own lives. Because the sensitive among us perceive and process more from every experience, they especially need a robust framework for making sense of the world.

Anxiety and mental illness are rampant in modern society because we’ve abandoned the broader view of existence that religion once offered. The scientific belief system tells us we live in a world of matter and energy and facts. If you can’t see it, weigh it, or measure it, it doesn’t exist.

Our capitalist-consumer culture tells us that fulfillment comes from earning more, acquiring more, having a big home, luxurious vacations, and all the right goods. Both are essentially materialist. They describe an entirely material world, how it works, and how we should relate to it.

After demanding enormous energy, both leave us empty. The “neurotic” sees through this more quickly than the person who is content to accept the world as society presents it. The “neurotic” is a seer and a seeker, in touch early on with the end game of death and unable to deceive himself with pat and shallow answers. In the absence of religion, this person is forced to seek out on their own the meaning of a life that will end in nothingness.

That’s simply too big a task for most people. This is why every society in the world developed a religion that put the answers to our unanswerable questions into a larger beyond, telling us to do what we need to do while we’re here, and to trust that when the time comes to surrender everything, we’ll be taken care of.

Becker emphasizes again and again that personal and cultural belief systems must be large enough for the spirit to expand into. Any culture whose belief system ends in meaningless death simply will not assuage the most fundamental and pervasive of human fears, and the people living in that culture will always be anxious, always guilt-ridden, always tending toward mental illness because, consciously or not, they understand that they’re living above an abyss, that beyond the distractions of daily life is a bottomless pit of nothingness.

The “neurotic,” says Becker, is not really neurotic at all. They’re simply aware, and they haven’t yet found an understanding that will let them live in peace. Nor will they, until they are willing to expand into the kind of world view that religion offers. And there is no “knowing” in that world view. There is only faith and acceptance, an acknowledgment that you do not and cannot know, and that it’s okay to proceed anyway.