living through death

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

Posts Tagged ‘death of self

Thomas Merton: The Basic Sin of Christianity

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Being a Christian has never been easy for me. There have been numerous seasons where I’ve wanted to simply ditch the whole program. Yet, over the years, I eventually came to see that I had good Christian reasons for my dissatisfaction. This morning I came across a wonderful passage by Thomas Merton that helps illuminate what I mean by that. He suggests that Christianity is tempted with a single basic sin. He says that,

The basic sin, for Christianity, is rejecting others in order to choose oneself, deciding against others and deciding for oneself. (Conjectures of a Guilty Bystander, 172.)

It is a simple statement with powerful depth. With that single sentence Merton essentially captures all the various elements of my religion that made it nearly impossible for me to remain. From the stubborn defense of cherished readings of the Bible against other truth-seeking discourses (such as the empirical sciences) to the exclusivist theology in which only those who believed the right things would attain true humanity and avoid everlasting torment. All of these things amounted to the choosing and defense of oneself and one’s ideas over against the destabilizing possibilities that others represent.

Merton and the Dali Lama

During my own religious crisis, I would often say that what I wanted more than anything was truth. If my religion, and therefore the meaning of my life, was not in fact truth, I wanted to know that. While I was in seminary I encountered some who seemed much more keen on preserving the meaning of their life in the form of their religion. I was always unsettled and aggravated by such encounters. At the time, I interpreted it as a conflict between truth and Christianity, and as such I felt a growing pressure to leave Christianity. It would be some time yet before I came to see the conflict as having much more to do with the sin of self-justification.

Merton drives the point home powerfully:

Why is this sin so basic? Because the idea that you can choose yourself, approve yourself, and then offer yourself (fully “chosen” and “approved”) to God, applies the assertion of yourself over against God. From this root of error comes all the sour leafage and fruitage of a life of self-examination, interminable problems and unending decisions, always making right choices, walking on the razor edge of an impossibly subtle ethic (with an equally subtle psychology to take care of the unconscious). All this implies the frenzied conviction that one can be [one’s] own light and [one’s] own justification, and that God is there for a purpose: to issue the stamp of confirmation upon my own rightness. In such a religion the Cross becomes meaningless except as the (blasphemous) certification that because you suffer, because you are misunderstood, you are justified twice over—you are a martyr. Martyr means witness. You are then a witness? To what? To your own infallible light and your own justice, which you have chosen.
This is the exact opposite of everything Jesus ever did or taught. (Conjectures, 172.)

In contrast to much of what passes as Christianity in our day, Merton helps us see that the true mark of Christian faithfulness lies not in vigorous demonstrations of certainty, or in a zeal to defend the purity of the faith against the contamination of others (be they political, religious, or otherwise). Such are the machinations of self-preservation. True Christianity is just the opposite. True Christianity, like Christ, exposes our self-preserving tendencies. True Christianity cares little about whether or not it is true Christianity, for its eyes are no longer anxiously searching itself for its own justification. In the power of grace, one’s “self” is allowed to pass away, and others cease to be a threat. A posture of defense turns to a posture of hospitality.

This is not a form of Christianity that I have any temptation to leave. It is not open to my critique, but rather I find myself always exposed in its presence. But not only exposed, also accepted, and called by its beauty. It has been a long road, but I am deeply grateful for thinkers like Merton who have helped me see that what seemed like unfaithfulness was in reality the movement of a deeper stirring. I pray that we all might find such light to live by, beyond pretension, defensiveness, and fear.

Written by Alex

August 11, 2015 at 9:19 am

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

Driving Ourselves Mad

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For those of us who live lives characterized by the luxury of modest self-awareness it seems we are plagued by a persistent sense of dissatisfaction. We know enough about life to realize that under slightly different circumstances we could have it much better. We could have more free time, more resources, live in a nicer climate, etc. Knowing that such things are possible, that others grasp them, and that we, for wholly prudential reasons, don’t, gnaws on us. We want to really live, but for reasons not altogether within our control, we can’t, don’t, or won’t.

This is a toxic script that I am convinced is false in some very important ways. The counter examples of those who live lives with much less “free” time and with much fewer resources and yet who are somehow able to live free from the persistent dissatisfaction I’ve mentioned demonstrates that satisfaction with life does not necessarily correlate with one’s ability to do what one wants. Not to mention those with tremendous resources who end up killing themselves in despair. Yet, if being prevented from doing what one wants is not the root of dissatisfaction, what is it? That answer, I think, is that we are trying too hard to do what we want.

Consider the following metaphors of “structure” and “depth.” Your “self” can be thought of as being constituted by both structure and depth dimensions. The structural self is your conscious, rational, desiring, fearing, embodied self. It’s what most of us, most of the time, mean by “me.” When someone says “Tell me a bit about yourself” we respond with a structural account. “I like to do x, I work for y, my parents are z & a, I’m concerned about b, etc…”

Your deselfep self, on the other hand, is beyond your conscious awareness. It is essentially mysterious. You can’t name it. You can’t even claim it, for the moment you attempt to lay claim to it, it becomes structure, a determinate thing, and no longer the mystery of depth. And yet it is here that all of your dynamic potential resides. In traditional language, this is the self that is “hidden in God.” To live out of this self is to live in the ever-evolving fullness of your own being.

The trouble is that in order to live out of your true, that is, deep self, one needs to in effect “die” to the structural self. This release must become the fundamental posture of one’s entire life. To the extent that we live out of what we can grasp of ourselves rationally, we live only out of our occurrent desires and fears, and these desires and fears are largely constructed via the accidents of our developmental history. They are limited scripts for a play that that has been over for a long time.

As such, to live merely in the structural dimension is to live in a world of illusion. We chase after, and dream about, what we think we want. We allow ourselves to be saturated with the various fears that threaten to steal the illusion we have embraced. And the result, sadly, is failure to be present to the potential of both our deep self and the world which is right in front of us. Rather than being present to the inexhaustible gift of the moment, we fight against reality on the basis of our own illusory world of hopes and fears. We thus drive ourselves (and those around us) nuts warring against this persistent sense of dissatisfaction. We all have a deep desire for life, but the paradox is that it is only through this death that we can enter into it. And once we are there, we need to continually let go of it in order to keep it.

Merton has a great line about living a joyful life that I will close with. He says,

…the only way to enter into…joy is to dwindle down to the vanishing point and become absorbed in God through the center of your own nothingness. The only way to possess His greatness is to pass through the needle’s eye of your own absolute insufficiency. (New Seeds of Contemplation, 182.)

Read through the metaphors of structure and depth, Merton’s words help us see how the inexhaustible  wealth of life is gained only in exposing the poverty of the self we always through we were. Who can say were we would go thus freed from the little dreams and fears that have heretofore motivated our lives?

Written by Alex

August 23, 2013 at 10:24 am