Ernest Becker

The Denial of Death

" is not enough to change the structure of society in order to bring a new world into being; the psychology of man also has to be changed."

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Why is human existence marked with such anxiety, stress, and the search for meaning? Why do we have religion? What consequence does the idea of death have on the average person and the society? Why do we seem to have more anxiety and fear in the modern age, than centuries ago?

According to Ernest Becker's incredible (truly) exploration of the human psyche, it all stems from our fundamental inability to reconcile ourselves to the idea of death. How can we at the same time compose symphonies, discuss eternity, and fall in love but also have to deal with ulcers, cancer, and the deterioration of the body? Our minds pull us upwards, while our bodies cling stubbornly to the dirt. We fear death and almost all we do is an attempt to deny it.

The rich man sponsors children's foundation that bears his name. A rich woman sponsors a library and has her name carved above the entrance. The anxiety teenager carves the words "I was here" into a tree. Each of these is an attempt to get away from the fact that we live, we die, and are eventually forgotten.

From this basic conflict arise the many human neuroses and mental conditions. Neuroses are our response to the terrible reality of existence. Because reality is constant decay and renewal, we find no stability in it and so we form different defense mechanisms to cope - different neuroses, some of which are more normal than others. “Normalcy” simply means that most people have a certain kind of neurosis. Madness, then, is comprised of all the neuroses that are not widely held.

Now we can see how the problem of neurosis can be laid out along the lines of the twin ontological motives: on the one hand, one merges with the world around him and becomes too much a part of it and so loses his own claim to life. On the other hand, one cuts oneself off from the world in order to make one's own complete, claim and so loses the ability to live and act in the world on its terms. As Rank put it, some individuals are unable to separate and others are unable to unite. The ideal of course is to find some balance between the two motives, such as characterize the better adjusted person; he is at ease with both, The neurotic represents precisely "an extreme at one end or the other": he feels that one or the other is a burden.

Neuroses arise when the human animal tries to either shut off completely from the world that it loses all sense of it, or becomes so involved in it that it loses all sense of itself. The way out is - as is often the case - a balancing act between opening and closing ot the world, without succumbing to despair.

The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more "knowing," but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.

In the past, the society one was born in provided structures of meaning, or collective drama. Religion, nation, military values, tribal pride...they provided a structure within which to live and feel valuable, purposeful...meaningful. With these gone or weakened, the modern man or woman flails about, unsure where to find meaning any longer. People need a heroic story, an overarching narrative that gives life a direction.

Where do we go from here?

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