From The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Often psychotherapy seems to promise the moon: a more constant joy, delight, celebration of life, perfect love, and perfect freedom. It seems these things are easy to come by, once self-knowledge is achieved, that they are things that should characterize one’s whole waking awareness… [But] only angels know unrelieved joy – or are able to stand it… I’ve never seen or heard [anyone] communicate the dangers of the total liberation that they claim to offer, say, to put up a small sign next to the one advertising joy, carrying some inscription like “Danger: real possibility of the awakening of terror and dread…”
Camus said, “The weight of days is dreadful.” What does it mean, then,… to talk fine-sounding phrases like “Being cognition,” “the fully-centered person,” “full humanism,” “the joy of peak experiences,” or whatever, unless we qualify such ideas with the burden and the dread that they also carry?... What joy or comfort can [be given] to fully awakened people?
What is the ‘best’ illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness?... I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides.”
Sometimes, despite a mortal minister’s best efforts, a sermon does wind up sounding an awful lot like a book report. There is just no way to say what I want to say without starting out with a bit of a book report. It won’t stay a book report, but it will start out that way.
One of the books I read this past month was a book that was highly recommended to me by a wise religious leader who I have a lot of respect for. The book is called The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. It was a book that made an impact when it was published. It won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974. And, it is a book that is still somewhat influential today. A few years ago, Bill Clinton included it on his list of favorite books. Say what you will about Bill Clinton, but there is no denying that he is among our most well-read presidents.
Ernest Becker was a cultural anthropologist by training, but his field of study also included psychology, philosophy, theology and the humanities. In The Denial of Death he draws from the theories of Sigmund Freud as well as the work of several disciples of Freud, such as Otto Rank and Erich Fromm, who carried the psychoanalytic project forward. Becker also draws from the theology of Soren Kierkegaard as well as from Albert Camus and other existentialist thinkers. This is to say that it is a weighty, meaty, challenging book.
Becker’s book argues the following: He says that civilization, religion, and culture have been engineered to help us to avoid or to deny the reality of death. Becker says that our psychological formation is not centered on the repression of sexuality, as Freud theorized, but on the repression of the awareness of death.
The problem we face in modern times, Becker argued almost forty years ago, is that the old religious myths about death are no longer fulfilling. The teachings about heaven, the immortality of the soul, the second coming, and the resurrection of the dead don’t satisfy as they once did. Similarly, the old cultural approaches to life are no longer fulfilling. Becker writes that in previous times the vast majority of people could be handed a script for life: here is your job, your culture, your role, your duties. Don’t question any of it. Just do it.
Now that the old religious ideals are less powerful and now that culture is no longer as prescriptive, we’re faced with a much more individualistic challenge. Because death is too scary to face, we have to develop what he calls our own immortality project, or, what we might call our own hero project. The challenge is to find a hero project that is good. Becker writes,
What is the "best" illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness?... I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides.The danger, of course, is that it is possible to choose an immortality project that proves destructive. On the large scale, imperial designs, making war, and the amassing of grotesque sums of wealth all have at their root the conviction that these projects will lead to a kind immortality. But other heroic projects are really worth embracing. Becker writes,
The two… motives of human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality.What Becker is saying is that death is too terrifying to face directly. In the face of the terror and dread, it becomes necessary to create a project of heroism worthy of the gift of our lives.
I might say just two more things. First, at just about the time that The Denial of Death was published, Ernest Becker was diagnosed with an aggressive and painful form of cancer. Just after his book was published, Becker was forced to put his own ideas to the test in the face of death. Sam Keen, then a young writer working at Psychology Today, interviewed Ernest Becker on his deathbed. Keen described him as embodying a kind of courageous heroism and called him a wise physician of the soul. I think that it is really quite admirable that he practiced what he preached.
The other thing I might say is that nearly forty years after his death, there is an organization in the Pacific Northwest that is dedicated to continuing the project of his thought. The Ernest Becker Foundation brings together doctors, psychologists, social scientists, religious leaders, and scholars of the humanities to think together about everything from physician-assisted dying to how the denial of death at the cultural level impacts public policy. For example, the Foundation’s fall conference this year will be on the relationship of the denial of death and climate change denial. But anyways, I mention this foundation because I think its mission statement is a spectacular synopsis of Becker's thought:
The Ernest Becker Foundation seeks to illuminate how the unconscious denial of mortality profoundly influences human behavior, giving rise to acts of hate and violence as well as noble, altruistic striving.I’m not here to convince you of the rightness of Becker, but I do think that his thoughts are interesting. I don’t know if he is right, but I do know that it is common for us to face the existential reality of death with fear and trembling, with horror and dread, with a troubling sense of anxiety. Does the idea of death cause you to experience panic and anxiety? Is it something you go out of your way to deny and avoid? And, if you avoid it, what do you turn to in order to help you avoid it?
I have had some experience with people who are dying, with people who are close to their own deaths. And, I’ve always puzzled over something. I’ve known deeply faithful Christians who have faced death with poise and courage. And, I’ve known deeply faithful Christians with a deep faith who have faced death with panic and existential fear. I’ve known atheists and humanists who have faced death with courage and confidence. And, I’ve known atheists and humanists who have faced death with dread.
What my experience suggests is that even though questions about the meaning of death are theological in nature, how we respond to the knowledge of our mortality is not purely a matter of theology and belief. I’d like to think that theology is a part of it, maybe even a significant part, but I think there are other factors. Those other factors probably include personality style, affect, disposition, and overall psychological well-being. Our relationships and connections probably have a lot to do with it. Our own life story certainly is influential. And, I would also say that another factor would be the illusions by which we live and the hero projects we have taken upon ourselves.
In the time that is remaining to us, I’d like to share two views about death that I find helpful, or maybe even promising.
It would seem to me that one possible answer to the question of death’s meaning would be a kind of radically honest naturalism. And, if that naturalism is honest enough, I’m not sure that one could call it an illusion. What do I mean by radically honest naturalism? Let me say what I mean using the words of a folky song by the group Poi Dog Pondering,
A lifetime of accomplishments of which the dirt knows none,The song continues
only in death can one truly return
Return the carrots, the apples and potatoes,
The chickens, the cows, the fish and tomatoes.
In one glorious swoop, let the deed be done
and bury me deep so that I can be one […]
For the dirt is a blanket, no fiery tomb,These words are at once stark and direct, unembellished and unadorned. There is a plainness to them that is both radically honest and, to me at least, somewhat calming and soothing. It is an image that I find utterly absent of terror and dread.
No punishment, reward, or pearly white room
And you who say that in death we will pay,
The dead they can't hear a word that you say.
Your words are not kind, sober, or giving,
They only put fear in the hearts of the living.
For those of you who might find such radically honest naturalism unsatisfying, I might recommend Forrest Church’s book, Love and Death, which essentially is a Unitarian Universalist minister authoring his own hero project.
In October of 2006 at the age of 58, Forrest Church, the minister of All Souls Church in New York City, was diagnosed with a particularly difficult to treat form of Esophageal Cancer. As he was battling it, he wrote a book about his pastoral theology of death. The cancer went into remission but then returned a few short years later and proved terminal. In a pastoral letter to his congregation announcing his diagnosis he wrote these heroic lines,
I can also happily report that the theology I have hammered out in your good company – religion as our human response to the dual reality of being alive and having to die, and the purpose of life being to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for – offers the same comfort to me during my own time of trial that I pray it has given you in yours. As for my mantra – want what you have, do what you can, and be who you are – I practice it every day, feeling myself blessed beyond measure.Here is how Forrest Church responded to receiving a diagnosis of cancer on a Friday afternoon with the doctor telling him he probably had just months to live,
In retrospect, the most staggering thing about my reaction is that I cut straight through to acceptance. I embraced the diagnosis at its grimmest and began girding myself to die. No disbelief. No anger. No bargaining. In fact, if anything, I walked about in a pink cloud, feeling my death, getting used to it, finding my sea legs in what turned out to be remarkably gentle waters.I couldn’t wander too far into myself, for I had an immediate task at hand: the sermon. I changed my topic, as I always do when the world turns in a different direction than I had been intending to go.
This is striking, isn’t it? He gets a call, telling him he has only months to live. He responds, “Now, let me go rewrite my sermon.” And he thinks, “My diagnosis will be a great story to put in the sermon. Talk about a hero project! There is something inspiring about that willingness to stand in the full presence of death, moved by not shaken.
Doubtlessly there is other good counsel I might offer, but this morning let me reiterate the good counsel offered by Becker and Church: Find your own hero project, a project that creates more freedom, dignity, and hope for more of the world’s people. Embrace that hero project, knowing that the purpose of life, as Forrest Church said, is to live in such a way that our lives will prove worth dying for. And know also what Forrest Church said, “the one thing that can never be taken away from us, even by death, is the love we give away before we die.”