Ernest Becker: The Denial of Death and the Illusions We Live By
Death is a challenge facing all of us. Humans have this strange comprehension — unlike other animals — of the finite nature of our existence. Maybe other animals comprehend their finite nature, yet we seem to be the most fixated upon it.
I remember the first time really coming face to face with my finite nature. I was a young boy attending the wake and funeral of my Grandpa. I remember listening to the stories people would tell of my Grandpa, their memories, during the wake. I remember going to see my Grandpa in the coffin…and the thought that wouldn’t leave my mind, “that will be me, that will be me, that will be me.” Death had inserted itself into my mind.
Following the wake, my thoughts about death lingered, and the funeral where more memories were told put this in perspective, we are the keepers of those who reach their end. And something distinct in my mind was the sermon presented by the priest, fixating on the Kingdom of Heaven, our paradise for when our time quickly fades into black.
I remember sitting down, vaguely listening to the priest’s words, while my eyes fixated upon the gothic art placed upon the stained glass windows. The moment came where the priest talked about my Grandpa enjoying himself in the Kingdom of Heaven and all of us would join him one day to share our experiences again, rejoice!
But something didn’t sit right with me, much like Catholicism itself never moved me, it all seemed off—and convenient. That was the moment…hearing the priest praise the Kingdom of Heaven, express how we will one day rejoice in the heavenly paradise, but thinking one distinct word, “convenient.” However, I was a young boy, my thoughts also held on hope that it was true. I trusted those older than me to have something figured out that I didn’t, but I could not comprehend everyone’s sadness around death if one day we would all join together in this blissful paradise.
What were we supposed to be scared of?
Looking back, I realize it was my first conscious experience of this simultaneous denial and acceptance of death. I was witnessing the adults, family, and friends around me sit with an understanding that we will die and those we love around us will die too.
And what happens after, we really don’t know.
It’s the contemplation of our finite nature that can shake the foundations we choose to live by. Calling into doubt our sense of meaning and purpose.
But why do we do this? What does it all mean?!
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My lingering thoughts on death have never really gone by the wayside. It was like a switch, once it’s one, it’s on, and the only choice you have to make is trying to understand that change of the switch.
So maybe in our pursuit of understanding death, we should look to understand ourselves.
The Pulitzer Prize-winning cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, wrote The Deinal of Death that put forward the idea that human’s foundational method for formulating belief is our conscious awareness of death.
“Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.” — Ernest Becker
You see, Becker believes the existential dread that overcomes humans is too much. Our understanding that we will die and those we love around us will die too.
Thus, faced with death, humans deny it. A uniting cultural trait across the world is the denial of death through the formulation of narratives to create meaning for our lives.
But we must understand the mental realm we’ve reached that has brought upon our problem with death. Our conscious ability to be self-aware of the cosmos, plan complex ideas, and the creation of beautiful art have all been used to understand the universe while simultaneously bringing us face to face with our finite nature.
The biological mind allows us to think endlessly into the future. Yet, the natural world we live in, surrounding us everywhere we turn, and hurtling reminders at us from sky and earth constantly reminds us the end is coming.
We see death, we fear death, and have a problem with death. So we deny death.
Becker contends that this understanding of the universe is something we cannot overcome.
We are left asking ourselves if death is the end, what is the purpose of all this? So it’s not the fear of death that is truly hard for us, it’s the fear of the insignificance of everything we do.
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As our biological makeup has granted us access to a unique mental realm, we use this realm to create our own reality to live in. We create grand illusions to operate through life with. We use these human-created illusions to bring our lives a sense of meaning and purpose.
We come face to face with these illusions every day, from our politics, religions, philosophy, and the arts — all used to bring us a feeling of significance and deny death another day.
“People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.” — Ernest Becker
At this point, you might be feeling the doom and gloom of this reality we face. But we should use this understanding as an opportunity to recognize the illusions each of us as individuals choose to live by.
As many of these illusions are just that—a choice.
Lessons from our Illusions
For one, we should acknowledge how we formulate our identity, the self, the ego, and the illusion we create.
So within this illusion we create, you have a set of values, ideals, perspectives, and experiences. Now, many want to take these illusions as objectively true. For many individuals, the illusions have become their identity, self, and ego. They become their own unique means to cope with death and ultimately — deny it.
The problem with these perceived attacks on our illusions becomes a personal attack on the identity we identify with.
As a society, we’ve made it a trend to oppose other values and ideals that don’t fit the narrative of our own illusions. Instead of criticizing the illusions, we oppose. We say x is wrong because y is right.
Now, the distinction between opposing and criticizing is this, when you oppose something it means you have a position, an interest of your own you’re trying to protect. Acting as though you must protect your illusions justifications for beliefs, values, and ideas. Believing you must defend your chosen narrative of denying death.
I’m proposing that we consider these values we hold so dear as an illusion; an illusion that blocks us from freeing ourselves. It’s as though we create a belief system around ourselves as a security blanket — something to identify ourselves with. Something we create while proclaiming to be certain of. Maybe this is the reaction to our coming death, our values and ideals become a part of us that lives on. The values we want to protect become an illusion to give us a little immortality.
The myths that make us become the legacy for us.
The illusions give us hope in defeating death.
The values we then follow become a power structure we live by. It acts as a prison around us to feel a sense of security. Because think about this, when you face the illusion of your values, ideals, or your religion — your mind leaps into a state of uncertainty. And when uncertainty is peeking right around the corner, our date with death comes along for the ride.
These illusions are influenced by your environment — from society, to where you grow up, the family that raised you, and the group of friends you associate with. These create the “I” that you identify with. But the beauty in this is that “I” is changeable. If you don’t find purpose or meaning in it, you can seek a new grand illusion to live by.
Find illusions that are better equipped to deal with our biological reality. Illusions that truly bring you a sense of meaning and purpose in the face of death.
All it takes is that moment in time where you become aware of your finite existence, the switch turns on, and you can choose to deny it or embrace it, the choice is yours.
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