living through death

"The only way that you can accept life is if you can accept death.” –Leo Buscaglia

The Problem of Death for Human Maturity: Ernest Becker

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There are very few texts so offensive as Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death. So penetrating and all-embracing is his thesis that once it has been encountered, it is simply not possible to look at one’s life in the same way again. A world of meaning and action that once seemed so perfectly normal, so obvious and natural all at once appears exposed as a farce. What once seemed as as the pinnacle of human virtue and strength appears through Becker’s lens as weakness, dishonesty, and worst of all, motivated by fear.

This fear is so ubiquitous and all-pervading that no single name can capture it, but Becker goes quite a long ways by centering his analysis on the fear of death. Becker, an anthropologist by training, puts himself into conversation with an existential interpretation of psychoanalysis[1] that seeks to uncover the deepest source of what motivates human action. He concludes that, at its root, it is the fear of death that ultimately moves us. Beneath all the appearances that our lives are well organized and relatively calm, there simmers a primal terror. Becker shows how everything we do, say, think, and hope for can be shown to ultimately issue from our attempts to deny death. From our national allegiances and devotion to a political cause, to charismatic people with whom we chose to identify, to the employment we adopt, to the religion we advocate, to our hobbies and passions, to the very person we describe when we answer the question: “tell me, who are you?” all of it is masterfully designed to stave off the cruel fact that we are little animals who get sick, vomit, shit, and die.

Severed Deer Head

As a brief aside, it is worth noting here that the reason profanity is profane stems from the association of these words with our frail creaturely nature. Nearly all profanity is drawn from the realms of defecation, illness, and sex. The intermingling of these terms with religious words pulls the realm of our highest ideals down from heaven. We use these terms to “take others down a notch,” as if to say “You are nothing but a pathetic animal that will soon die and rot.” Such words are therefore offensive because they cut against the grain of our typical death denying self-perception.

We can’t tolerate thinking of ourselves in these terms. Nobody answers a request for a self description by identifying as a little, dying animal. Instead we search for more symbolically lofty means of describing who we are. The reason, Becker will stress, is that we can’t bear to face the true nature of our situation. This is exemplified in all our anal efforts to hide the baseness of our animal nature. And it is this ultimately futile, but always maintained struggle that leads us to giggle Montaigne’s aphorism that even “on the highest throne in the world man sits on his arse.”[2]

Humanity’s Existential Paradox

It is crucial, when coming to terms with Becker, that we understand what he means by “death,” and what it is that he thinks we are so afraid of losing. Becker’s thinking on this point can only be understood once we get in view his reliance on the notion of humanity’s existential paradox, what Erich Fromm put succinctly as the fact that “humanity is half animal and half symbolic.”[3]  This view, introduced by Kierkegaard into modern psychoanalysis, recognizes that death for human-kind is not merely a matter of the cessation of biological functioning, or the process of corpse making. It is that, but what makes death such a problem for humanity is our ability to mentally transcend the merely given nature of our environment. We are able to remember the past and envision the future. We have the ability to create, and participate in, not just particular states of affairs, but in universals, in meanings. And here we have the form of death that is peculiar to our status as humans. We fear the death of our meanings. There is biological death, but more importantly for humanity is this symbolic death, especially as it pertains to our “self-esteem.” After all, history is filled with examples of those who will sacrifice their biological life to preserve their sense of unity with a higher significance.

Along with this ability to move in the realm of of meanings comes the capacity that (of all life that we know) humanity alone possesses. We not only die, but we know that we will die. Death is thus more than an atomized event; it becomes a symbol for us. It carries meaning, namely, the end of our personal meaning. It is this, our greatest capacity, that gives rise to our greatest horror, a horror from which there is no escape. Thus, our typical strategy is an endless array of death denial strategies, most of which lie well below the level of our conscious awareness. In our more honest moments we can, from the standpoint of the present, envision a future that unfolds in which we eventually cease to be a participant. It seems a cruel state of affairs, like being given a brand new bicycle with the caveat that it will be taken from you within the span of an hour and given, forever, to your little brother and his friends. Enjoy.

Our inability to bear such a thought lies behind the drive to keep the thought from ever occurring. The way this is done, Becker identifies as the heroic, for it is the hero that faces death, and yet lives. To this idea I will turn in my next post.

Ultimately my engagement with Becker will be towards explicating the self that must die in the process of human maturation and shedding light on why growth is so difficult for us. In the following posts I will continue describing Becker’s approach. Feel free to click here for a link to the table of contents for all my dissertation free-writing posts.

[1] In contrast to what he sees as Freud’s myopic focus on the sexual and biological.
[2] Becker, 1997, 31.
[3] Becker, 1997, 26.

Written by Alex

November 17, 2014 at 12:53 pm

8 Responses

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  1. Dying last is the worst fate. How does that fit?


    November 17, 2014 at 8:23 pm

    • Hey Keith,
      Thanks for popping in. I’m curious to hear more about where that statement is coming from for you, but as a wild swing, I’d think that dying last entails being forced to see death coming from a long way off. Eventually there’s no one else but you. The sense of isolation and falling into non-being would be especially heightened, I’d think. To the extent that the terror of death has us in its grip, it’s not a pleasant prospect. Thoughts?


      November 18, 2014 at 3:43 pm

      • A lot of people have died around me, so the thought has crossed my mind. I’ve known a few people over the years who had lost everyone and everything and were perfectly happy to die. If it is the case that dying last is the worst fate, then existence isn’t what we value or the loss that we fear. We wish to spend our lives and fear ending with change in our pockets.
        Have you ever resigned yourself to die, I mean, been certain that you were going die? Those are the last thoughts – not fear, but what you’ve left on the table and a little bit of anger about that. If you die last, you have seen it all play out; you know that you will die with a pocket full of change.


        November 18, 2014 at 8:22 pm

        • It’s interesting that you bring up the place where one is resigned to one’s own death as a place without fear. A central part of my argument is that this resignation, or acceptance, can faced long before we find ourselves quickly facing our own extinction. To that extent, the fear that constitutes our own self-limitations would be rendered inoperable. It seems to me that if we were capable of that, then on that day when we take our final breath, there would not be anger, for we would have woken up a long time ago.

          If you have a chance, Keith, take a look at the post I wrote yesterday. I’d be curious to know how that lands with your thoughts here. In particular, I think the distinction I make between merely biological death and characteristically human symbolic death might be related to your notion of “a pocket full of change.”


          November 19, 2014 at 9:24 am

          • Not exactly. Becker’s analysis begs the question, what is fear? Not fear in the mental theatre, as he proposes – that is a philosophical disaster – but lived fear. Fear is assertion of identity, as is anger, as is life. Not identity itself, but assertion of identity.
            Assertion of identity isn’t something we can wake up from; it is operating even as we sleep. It’s where the anger comes from – cool anger, not the petulant, common, cinematic stuff.
            The identity can serve its source self-consciously or not, that’s the only distinction I see.


            November 21, 2014 at 10:51 pm

            • I’m not sure we are really so far apart. Becker’s concept of fear transcends consciousness into the unconscious. And, as is sometimes said in psychoanalytic circles, the unconscious is the body. This is why Becker will stress that life-dynamics of narcissism and the quest for self-esteem are “natural.” He’s also clearly been influenced by ontological accounts of life and fear, such as Tillich. And if that’s right, we are on the same page, or at least the same chapter. For Tillich life is a dialectic of self-identity and self-alteration. Fear is the anxiety of the loss of self in the merely self-identical or, on the other hand, in total alteration. For this reason life is always moving and marked by an essential anxiety (again, not necessarially mental). This notion seems quite near to what you are describing above, yes?

              I will grant that my words are, perhaps, too optimistic with respect to “waking up.” The notion is an ideal. I think there are degrees in which identity can serve its source self-consciously. And I think that has everything to do with becoming ever more alive to our natural narcissism and quests for self esteem. But, as I’ve noted, so much of that goes on beyond the realm of conscious awareness. I’ll be suggesting contemplative practices as a potential way to get at that dimension, but even so, my own experience makes me cautious about to what lasting extent waking up is actually possible.


              November 22, 2014 at 6:03 am

  2. You told me about this book before but I forgot about it. Your blog reminded me so I just ordered this book on Amazon. I am intrigued by the idea that the fear of death shapes us so completely because I feel that young people often know that they are going to die, but don’t believe it in the sense that they view it as some far away abstract event that is too distant to even think about.

    Richard Hovre

    November 17, 2014 at 9:00 pm

    • Hi Richard,
      There are definitely some developmental realities in play when it comes to young people. There’s a certain sense in which they simply don’t have the capacity to reflect on their own death. I touch a bit on some other ways that we push death from our consciousness in the post I wrote today.


      November 18, 2014 at 3:45 pm

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