Book Notes: The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker
Title: The Denial of Death
Author: Ernest Becker
One Sentence Summary:
We want to live our best lives, but we're too afraid to do so.
We live our lives in a heroic fashion, meaning that we tend to put ourselves at the story's center. We think primarily of ourselves and feel that we will never die in some sense. This, of course, is the vital lie-the one that is the source of all anxiety. We try to fill our lives with people, things, acquisitions, status, title, etc., to ignore the most common truth: we will die.
All rivalry stems from the fact that man feels the need to prove that his life meant something, that he was valuable.
We show that value in our own unique hero systems. It might be our church system, our family, our work, or our hobbies. We use these systems to fit in and feel valuable and build ourselves up to be more than we are -- a mere decaying body that one day will be extinct.
We suffer from The Jonah Syndrome coined by Abraham Maslow, in which we run from our greatness out of fear that it will destroy us. Ultimately, we are too afraid to experience life for fear that we may get hurt or even die.
The Hero of Your Own Story
We are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves. Our thoughts are consumed with the way we look, what our future will be, and what we will eat for dinner.
One of Sigmund Freud's most significant findings was that we are like the mythical greek Narcissus - a man who turned down all romantical advances because he was so in love with himself. Narcissus spent his days lying next to a pool of water to gaze upon his reflection.
In the book, Becker points out that one of the meaner aspects of narcissism is that, at our core, we feel practically everyone else is expendable except for ourselves. We may not feel that way about our closest loved ones, but the rest of the world isn't as important as us.
Man's tragedy gets an interesting definition here. It is that man feels the constant need to validate himself and prove his worth. He does this through what is called a "Hero-System."
We all have a hero-system. It is how we prove that our lives mean something. For some, it's their community involvement or church activities, and for others, it's employing hundreds of people and creating jobs. Some people become heroes through their art, while others save a species of animal on the brink of extinction.
Once we have become a hero in our own way, our ultimate goal is to leave something physical behind as proof. Pharaohs made the pyramids, writers leave their books, and loving mothers create good children. The problem is that nothing physical remains and will turn to dust with time.
That is the human tragedy.
The Castration Complex
Our mothers pose an interesting challenge in our lives. Sigmund Freud tried to explain this relationship but got it wrong. He theorized that man had a sexual attraction to his mother and that the only thing getting in the way was the father.
Modern psychoanalysts have overtaken this theory. From the moment we are born, we are entirely dependent on our mothers. They provide life, love, and a sense of connection. We need them in every way if we are to survive.
As we grow up, this connection starts to cause conflict. We realize that we will never discover our true potential under our mother's wing. We strain against her, frustrated that we need her support, but knowing that we have to let it go if we are going to survive and succeed.
This conflict causes us to see our mothers as a threat, even a biological one. Once we feel this conflict, we experience the beginning of The Castration Complex.
Our Lack of Courage
We have a fear of standing alone. The famous psychologist Abraham Maslow wanted to understand why we feel such a strong draw to actualizing our potential while at the same time being too afraid to do so.
He called this fear the Jonah Syndrome. It's the idea that our fear stems from getting hurt. If we put ourselves out there, we could face pain, emotionally or even physically. If the experience is strong enough, we might even die.
For example, If I go sky-diving, my parachute may not open, so I'd rather watch from below where I'm safely rooted to the ground.
The same idea can be applied to setting goals. Many avoid the concept because setting goals can be painful. What if I fail? What if everyone laughs at me? The pain is too unbearable, so we watch from the sidelines while others strive for greatness.
Sigmund Freud understood that the most significant cause of our psychological illnesses stems from a fear of ourselves. I think this is an exciting concept. If we weren't afraid of failure and understood what we were capable of, would it eradicate anxiety and even depression in our lives?
In other words, if we found the courage to go sky diving or to set and achieve that goal, despite what others thought, would we be able to sidestep psychological challenges in life?
We use fear as a defensive tactic to protect ourselves from the knowledge of our weaknesses. After all, we don't want to know about things that make us look bad or weak. We want to be the hero of the story without flaw.
Soren Kierkegaard, the Danish Philosopher (1813 - 1855), saw that we drew our courage, not from ourselves but from outside sources. For some, the possibility of money or sexual conquest gives them the courage to be brave; for others, it may be the flag or a promotion at work. Regardless, our courage does not stem from our desire to realize our potential, as it should. Instead, when we find it, we draw on outside sources.
This understanding that we turn away from self-knowledge and self-realization is the basis for forming our character.
The Formation of Our Character
We are on a quest to protect ourselves. Rather than self-reflect and expose our weaknesses, we do all we can to cover them up. Again, we don't like what makes us look bad or could potentially hurt us. We would rather live a lie.
And so, we construct a false character, a facade for the public, that becomes our image. This false character is our grand illusion.
This character becomes our armor in a world full of anxiety and chaos. Even though it's false, it protects us, and we protect it with all our energies. To lose this armor would mean embarrassment and possibly death.
This armor covers up our feelings that we are empty and lost. It also helps us face the fear of death, the ultimate cause of our daily anxiety.
The Irony of Man's Condition
I loved this concept in the book.
Man wants his world to be safe. He wants to blame others for his problems and avoid anything that will hurt him. He is full of anxiety.
The irony is that his most profound need in life is to shed that anxiety. It's horrible having it hang over your head daily. The problem is that to be free, you must go out and live your life and realize your power, and in doing so, you expose and potentially harm yourself.
It's an impossible solution to solve. Do I stay put and watch from the sidelines to be safe? (A strategy that causes anxiety because I know I'm not living my best life). Or do I step out into the world and give it my best? (A strategy that causes anxiety because it's dangerous).
This is the answer all psychologists try to answer: What are the strategies a person uses to avoid anxiety?
Anxiety and the "Culturally Normal" Man
Kierkegaard understood that man's character was a structure created to protect himself from danger.
And so, men have found it's much safer to go with the crowd than to be an individual. He becomes the "culturally normal" man. This person is too afraid to stand up for his purpose and meaning because of how dangerous he feels that can be. Instead, he blends into the crowd and embeds himself into a group's protection, obligation, and duties.
Becoming a "culturally normal" man causes depression. It stems from the idea that we have given up our individualism and actual power to protect ourselves -- to fit in.
Kierkegaard pointed out that men tranquilize themselves with the trivial. This was my favorite quote from the book. He was adamant about the definition of an unhealthy life. To Kierkegaard, it was harmful to try and fit in, to become the "culturally normal" man.
To discover actual mental health, man must realize the truth of his situation, break down the lie of his character, and let his spirit out of prison.
The Meaning of Our Existence
Kierkegaard pointed out that although we are insignificant, weak, full of death, and fear -- we are still a part of a greater creation. A universal power has brought all of this together and has made everything possible. We're a part of that creation, no matter how small, and because of that, our lives do have meaning.
I took from this to mean that we're like a single piece of a million-piece jig-saw puzzle. On our own, we are small, but we do offer something to the bigger picture.
Our Primary Repression
According to the author and other theorists like Adler and Jung, this is where Sigmund Freud went wrong.
Freud believed that sexual drive was our great repression, but in reality, it is a fear of death.
Social Groups and Their Effects
We are social beings in need of a group for our survival. We love being hypnotized by the group, especially the leader because it reminds us of the protective feeling we had with our parents.
We are obsessed with authority. When a leader embodies this power, we are drawn to it.
Groups also give us a sense of not being alone in our helplessness. When you join a group, you get to draw on the powers of the hero-leader.
I loved the following point: people use the group leader as an excuse for their actions. When they give in to the leader's commands, we can blame the leader and not take personal responsibility even if they are morally unjust. Consider the Germans who dumped gas into the extermination chambers filled with Jewish people. The men doing so could disassociate themselves from the act, in essence, excusing themselves with the idea that Hitler was the one doing it. In that way, they could give in to their prejudicial thoughts without feeling shame or grief.
Creativity and the Work of Art
We seek out creativity as a way of trying to explain our existence. When we take time to make something, our goal is to create a form of immortality for ourselves. We hope that our essence will live on through what we have done after we are gone.
Our creation becomes our personal religion. It's fascinating because it makes us unique in a world where everyone is blending in to become the "culturally natural" man. Creativity allows us, once again, to become the hero in our lives. It is a hero-system to which we can devote ourselves entirely.
On a higher level, man seeks to create because it makes him feel a slight sense of divinity. It is his opportunity to feel like God, the creator of all things. The problem is that, as we create, we feel a sense of guilt. Who are we to act like God?
Kierkegaard concluded that the only way to solve the issue of guilt was to renounce everything and give your life to the higher power.
We Can't Handle the Truth
All of the conflicts described above are hard to bear. We want to be the hero of our own story, yet we're afraid to live. We face a lack of courage and, in doing so, build up false characters. We turn to groups for protection but can never become unique under their thumb. And we live creative lives to experience a form of immortality, but we know that nothing truly lasts, and we feel guilty for trying to do as God does.
These conflicts are a constant in our lives, and we can't handle them. To live, we need illusions to help us cope. The author defines these illusions as art, religion, philosophy, science, and love.
Kierkegaard felt that Christianity was the best tool for helping us cope with these conflicts because it asks you to have trust and hope for the human condition.
Depression & Silent Retreats
We experience depression when we lack the courage to be our unique selves and find our true powers. It develops in people who are afraid of life. They have lived lives of "systemic self-restriction," meaning they have always sat on the sidelines while others have tasted and experienced.
I liked this statement in the book: the less you do, the less you can do. The more you shy away from life's challenges, the more inept you become at handling them.
Another great quote, "If one's life has been a series of "self-retreats," one ends up firmly wedged into a corner and has nowhere else to go, creating the state of depression.
Another interesting discussion is that as we fear life more, we begin to fear death even more. When we get into this state, we often find it hard to do even the most basic things like clean the house or make dinner. Instead, we would rather lie in bed and hide from the world. When we get like this, we become dependent on everyone else to take care of us, creating a sense of relationship debt and even more guilt.
On Becoming Ourselves
We must repay the debts we incur from depending on others. The best way to do this is to become our true selves. We must become the hero of our story, even if it means mastering the pinball machine.
It takes courage to be yourself and face these contradictions on your own, but you must do it. We must face the anxiety of our conflicts.