Death, My Unhelpful Obsession

Here is a passage that resonates deeply with me:

The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since man has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, man is able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, a concept involving his symbolic half. By embarking on what Becker refers to as an “immortality project” (or causa sui), in which he creates or becomes part of something which he feels will last forever, man feels he has “become” heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die, compared to his physical body that will die one day. This, in turn, gives man the feeling that his life
has meaning; a purpose; significance in the grand scheme of things.

From this premise, mental illness is most insightfully extrapolated as a bogging down in one’s hero system(s). When someone is experiencing depression, their causa sui (or heroism project) is failing, and they are being consistently reminded of their mortality and insignificance as a result. Schizophrenia is a step further than depression in which one’s causa sui is falling apart, making it impossible to engender sufficient defense mechanisms against their mortality; henceforth, the schizophrenic has to create their own reality or “world” in which they are better heroes. Becker argues that the conflict between immortality projects which contradict each other (particularly in religion) is the wellspring for the destruction and misery in our world caused by wars, bigotry, genocide, racism, nationalism, and so forth, since an immortality project which contradicts others indirectly suggests that the others are wrong.

Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity’s traditional “hero-systems” i.e. religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason; science is attempting to solve the problem of man, something that Becker feels it can never do. The book states that we need new convincing “illusions” that enable us to feel heroic in the grand scheme of things, i.e. immortal. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of man’s innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.

– Wikipedia.

As a work of nonfiction I find that I want to distance myself from this. There are very real practical implications of this worldview that I vehemently disagree with.

And it is far too simple.

But in quiet moments – as a thought experiment – these ideas resonate with me. I am susceptible to the idea that the whole world is motivated by a fear of death, because I see the world through the lens of my own ego.

Death has stalked my biography, often in ways I am not proud of. The specter of the inevitable obliteration of my existence has threatened to overwhelm me. Modern pop psychology and deductive logic suggest I search my memories for the source of this anxiety in some early trauma.

So far, no luck. I lived a very long time before anything or anyone important to me was taken away.

As a young child, I lay in bed, staring at a handcrafted wall-hanging of a prayer, written in colorful yarn:

Now I lay me down to sleep,
I pray the Lord my soul to keep
If I shall die before I wake,
I pray the Lord my soul to take

I feared uncontrollable and unexpected doom. Fear was the coping mechanism to avoid  thinking about the reality.

Unlike a world that would someday exist without me, cancer was something I could potentially avoid. By staring into that void, I averted my eyes from the worst of it. So I feared cancer.

Defensively I mention that in college, I majored in religious studies. Through which I encountered a series of philosophies about how to understand the universe and our (my) place in it. I also took courses in psychology, sociology, astronomy, evolution, particle physics, death and dying, philosophy… a true liberal arts education.

Each of these perspectives gave me insight, and made me a better person. But they resulted in very little relief from the core problem.

Years later, I turned to Roger Ebert. At the time, I approached his statements with awe and reverence. A wise essayist posing as a film critic, I worshiped him as a hero. And being a pop critic and not a religious master, his peace with death seemed more attainable.

A false dichotomy to be sure.

He wrote, in part: “I know it is coming, and I do not fear it, because I believe there is nothing on the other side of death to fear. I hope to be spared as much pain as possible on the approach path. I was perfectly content before I was born, and I think of death as the same state. What I am grateful for is the gift of intelligence, and for life, love, wonder, and laughter. You can’t say it wasn’t interesting.”

I recoiled in horror.

But lately, I find this more palatable. Perhaps all my Buddhist readings have paid off. My brain cells are dieing as I age.

I still lie awake at night. Sometimes I catch a glimpse of death, and I’m paralyzed by it. But on good days, I can at least see what feeling at peace with being just a blip of life against the background of vast nothingness might be like.

I exist. Someday I may not. But that is ok. I … no, I can’t find the words. When I stare at it directly the peace flutters away.

Still, it’s progress. Death to the ego!

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