Opinion psychology

The Denial of Death (Week 19 of Wisdom)

“The man of knowledge of our time is bowed down under a burden he never imaged he would ever have: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed.”

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker is a great book that set the foundation for terror management theory. Becker’s controversial premise is that man’s original repression is the fear of death. 

The Root Cause

The root of death anxiety is found during man’s early years, when as a child, he realizes that he is not immortal – a realization that contradicts his natural urge to master the world around him. Becker argues that it is not sexual repression that is primary, as Freud insisted, but the fear of death.

And to make things worse, the evolutionary advantage belonged to those who were excessively anxious, and not those who were not anxious enough. 

“early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyper-anxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none.”

The Predicament

Thus man find himself in a predicament, that is unique to his species – to be half-god and half-beast – and plagued by anxiety by his natural condition.It is a contradiction that is never properly resolved in his lifetime, because the best solutions he has are imperfect. 

As a child, he knows that he will die one day but he represses this knowledge, and as an adult, he plays a hero role in society. Whereas ancient mythology has ceased to be a source of truth for man, mythology itself has been an unyielding guide.

Without a fiction, it is impossible for him to live. For his own benefit and survival, his culture has contrived many social fictions for him to take part in, and these give his life transcendent meaning, and most importantly, they relax his anxiety of death. 

Social Fictions

“It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper.”

Social fictions have changed throughout time. Religion was once the central myth that provided an answer to man’s metaphysical conundrums, but modern man has discarded ancient myths as a source of truth and meaning.

“Most men spare themselves this trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives, just as their society maps these problems out for them…They “tranquilize themselves with the trivial” and so they can lead normal lives.”

These trivial problems form a grand illusion that drives man away from self-knowledge and self-reflection.

Modern man does not experience awe and wonder, he does not freeze in the face of the mystery of life, but he plunges forward, restless and confident, in search of the only practical solution he knows of to his anxiety – the one provided to him by his society: financial security, a two week yearly vacation, and a family.

“He is driven away from himself, from self-knowledge, self-reflection. He is driven toward things that support the lie of his character, his automatic equanimity. But he is also drawn precisely toward those things that make him anxious, as a way of skirting them masterfully, testing himself against them, controlling them by defying them.”

But these solutions do not satisfy his innate desire for a heroic role to play, so he drugs or drinks himself out of awareness – or he goes shopping. Society has designed the means for him to forget about its metaphysical failure. Those who have accepted to be an “automatic cultural man” have immortalized society’s ideals.

There would be nothing wrong with doing this if it were not psychologically doomed to failure. Because modern man defies accident, evil, and death – he mass produces consumer and military goods. The demonic extreme of this defiance is seen in genocidal dictators.

The Psychologist

“The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.”

If man rejects this pitiful state of unawareness, he may do the opposite – to become completely aware. He buries himself in psychology in the hope that awareness, by itself, will be the magical cure to his problems.

The man that refuses to live outside his mind, outside of endless analysis, who shrinks from the difficulties of life, will naturally feel more incompetent, and will lose self-esteem.

“If one’s life has been a series of “silent retreats,” one ends up firmly wedged into a corner and has nowhere else to retreat. This state is the bogging-down of depression. Fear of life leads to excessive fear of death…”

There is no shortcut in the form of an intellectual solution to the problem of living. Excessive thought will lead to an anxiety that consumes him and leads to depression.

Kierkegaard described this well. For him, the person that goes too extreme in exploring without limitations becomes schizophrenic, whereas the person that is chained by what is possible and avoids exploring becomes depressed. Since the depressed person cannot act or do anything, they appear dumb.

The ideal man for Kierkegaard was the one who acted from a unified center, that acknowledged their dualism, understood their limitations, and combined it with possibility.

On The Terms of the Experience Itself

“To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety.”

There is no way to know how things will turn out, but the neurotic demands these guarantees. He refuses to risk his self-image. He tries to cheat nature by ideating experience rather than living it.

The cautionary tale, then, takes two forms. On the one hand, an unthinking life, where man is ignorant of his individual needs, and is completely devoted to a social fiction, is an insufficient solution to death anxiety, because it can lead to calamities in real life. On the other hand, a purely intellectual life is a cowardly shortcut, that will ultimately backfire because it will inevitably lead to extreme death anxiety.

“Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection, or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers.”

The solution is a modified form of awareness, where one is both engaged in life, and distant from it. This solution is the same as embracing order and chaos simultaneously. Nothing embodies this concept better than a great work of art. And that is what Becker recommends as the only acceptable solution to man’s unsolvable dilemma.

“Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching. The most that any of us can seem to do is to fashion something—an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.”

The problem with Becker’s thesis is that he gives too much importance to man’s psychology and not enough to reality. The material circumstances that man finds himself, in addition to his competence, will define to what extent he is depressed or manic, and to what extent he sees possibilities.

Depression is biochemical and based in reality. This is particularly true if they someone has a stronger biological disposition towards depression.

But this is does not nullify Becker’s argument, because there are those who, despite exceptional material circumstances and personal ability, are paralyzed by either a refusal to explore life, or are burdened with a social lie that has driven them away from themselves.

For these people, a creative solution is necessary.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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