Everyone knows on some level that they’re going to die, but very few people really believe it.
I’m talking about the real, emotional, visceral understanding of the fact that one day, you will cease to exist.
It means that all of your future possibilities will remain unrealized, and everything that you have come to know will come to an end. It also means that the moment of death is the last time in eternity that you will be able to feel something; to experience all there is to experience, to love everyone who’s around to be loved.
“For every individual, the whole complex business of living, this whole fascinating, agonizing, thrilling, boring, reassuring and frightening business, with all its moments of simple peace and complex turmoil, will someday, inescapably, end.”
— Ernest Becker
This is an agonizing realization, but it also comprises one of the most powerful appeals to really and truly live.
Personally, I know of no greater reason to be happy now, to attack your goals now, to learn more now, to love more now, than the idea that you will one day die.
It’s now clear that we human beings are actually the only creatures on earth who are aware of the fact that we are going to die one day, and the knowledge of this fact comes with enormous psychological consequences. It turns out that the fear of death motivates more of our behavior than we might believe.
Enter: Ernest Becker
“Man not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now.”
— Ernest Becker
“Man doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.”
— Ernest Becker
In 1973, the cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker published one of the most influential books of the 20th century. The Denial of Death set out to explain why human beings behave the way we do, and his deep-thinking, multidisciplinary approach earned him a Pulitzer Prize in 1974.
Ironically, this fame was conferred upon him after his death two months earlier from colon cancer.
This was a man who was kicked out of almost every university he taught at, despite his students at Berkeley offering to pay his salary when the university declined to renew his contract.
Once, while illustrating a theoretical point on existential human freedom, choice, and its relation to madness, Becker used Shakespeare’s “King Lear”, while coming to class dressed as King Lear, and even using stage lighting and props.
To me, his is an example of a life well lived.
The theme of freedom ran through his entire life, from his experiences in the army while liberating a concentration camp, to his refusal to remain at San Francisco State University during the student riots in 1967. Becker didn’t believe that he could stay and teach freedom with armed police outside the lecture hall.
Now, since reading this introduction brought you even closer to the moment of your death, let’s get into some psychology…
The Denial of Death
Forming the core of Becker’s thought is the idea that the function of society is to help us believe that we can transcend death by participating in something of lasting worth.
So, in a way, societies are cultural hero-systems created to fulfill each individual’s need for cosmic specialness.
Since we’re constantly on the brink of realizing that our existence is precarious, we cling to our culture’s educational, governmental, and religious institutions to fortify our view that human life is uniquely significant and eternal.
Although there is nothing intrinsically “wrong” with this psychological defense mechanism, one of the consequences is that recognizing the validity of other belief systems means unleashing the very terror and dread that our own beliefs serve to suppress.
In turn, there is always lingering death anxiety that’s projected onto other groups of people who are designated as “evil” and must be destroyed.
We protect ourselves from our own subconscious fear of death by denigrating other cultures and their ideas, which strengthens our faith in our own. Violent conflict necessarily ensues.