The Denial of Death

Ernest Becker

The premise of this book is that the most fundamental problem of humanity is our fear of death. It will give you a new perspective on what motivates people in life and why they behave in certain ways.

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Making a killing in business or on the battlefield frequently has less to do with economic need or political reality than with the need for assuring ourselves that we have achieved something of lasting worth.

In times such as ours there is a great pressure to come up with concepts that help men understand their dilemma; there is an urge toward vital ideas, toward a simplification of needless intellectual complexity.

One such vital truth that has long been known is the idea of heroism.

The Depth Psychology of Heroism

The Terror of Death

A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

What we will see is that man cuts out for himself a manageable world: he throws himself into action uncritically, unthinkingly. He accepts the cultural programming that turns his nose where he is supposed to look; he doesn’t bite the world off in one piece as a giant would, but in small manageable pieces, as a beaver does.

Human Character as a Vital Lie

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.

By the time we leave childhood we have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.

The human animal is characterised by two great fears that other animals are protected from: the fear of life and the fear of death.

This despair he avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity.

Four Layers of Neurotic Structure (Perls)

  • The first two layers are the everyday layers, the tactics that the child learns to get along in society by the facile use of words to win ready approval and to placate others and move them along with him: these are the glib, empty talk, “cliché,” and role-playing layers. Many people live out their lives never getting underneath them.
  • The third layer is a stiff one to penetrate: it is the “impasse” that covers our feeling of being empty and lost, the very feeling that we try to banish in building up our character defences.
  • The fourth and most baffling one is “death” or fear-of-death layer; it is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart. Only when we explode this fourth layer, says Perls, do we get to the layer of what we might call our “authentic self”: what we really are without sham, without disguise, without defences against fear.

The Failures of Heroism

The Spell Cast by Persons—The Nexus of Unfreedom

Transference (Freud) — the patient transfers the feelings he had towards his parents as a child to the person of the physician.

The masses look to the leaders to give them just the untruth that they need; the leader continues the illusions that triumph over the castration complex and magnifies them into a truly heroic victory.

Redl saw that in some groups there is indeed what he perfectly calls the “infectiousness of the unconflicted person.” There are leaders who seduce us because they do not have the conflicts that we have; we admire their equanimity where we feel shame and humiliation.

We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here, yet we know it must have some meaning.

The Present Outcome of Psychoanalysis

Neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.

Neurosis is, then, something we all share; it is universal.

We call a man “neurotic” when his life lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it—or others seek it for him.

With the truth, one cannot live. To be able to live one needs illusions, not only outer illusions such as art, religion, philosophy, science and love afford, but inner illusions which first condition the outer [i.e., a secure sense of one’s active powers, and of being able to count on the powers of others].

The three aspects of the problem of neurosis: as a result of character-formation, as a problem of reality versus illusion, and as a result of historical circumstances.

We said earlier that the question of human life is: on what level of illusion does one live? This question poses an absolutely new question for the science of mental health, namely: What is the “best” illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness?

The Dilemmas of Heroism

Psychology and Religion: What Is the Heroic Individual?

When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person’s ideas and then another’s, depending on who looms largest on one’s horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this, and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic.

Freud gradually came to see that the evil in the world is not only in the insides of people but on the outside, in nature—which is why he became more realistic and pessimistic in his later work.

I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation, of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything.

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.

The most that any one 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.