Death is the one aspect of reality nobody faces without somehow masking it out of fear. That is the premise of one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Reading Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, is a little like suffering from acrophobia and climbing Mt. Everest or having claustrophobia and locking oneself in a car trunk. But facing the fears in this book is far more daunting because in those scenarios just mentioned hope is still left in tact; you may eventually come down from the mountain or emerge from the trunk, or even perhaps triumphantly overcome these phobias.
But death, as this book relentlessly explains, affords no such hope. You can build foundations with your name on them, or start a prestigious family lineage, but such crass attempts at immortality, which every eternal soul encased in decaying flesh yearns, are only grasping of wind. In the end we only become worm food, a gigantic clump of what we regularly flush down the toilet. We can play more games, watch more movies, get high on more drugs, get more drunk on social status, in order to forget our mortality. But death does not forget us nor does it let us forget reality for very long.
We get our periodic reminders of our appointment with death through news of natural disasters, genocides, and lumps in breasts. Such painful reminders cannot be ignored. We saw this with the death of Princess Diana. The reason millions of strangers mourned her death was not so much out of sympathy for her but rather from the traumatic realization that it provoked; that even the most privileged of our kind is vulnerable to awful tragedy. News of her death ripped off that fairy tale veil so many had used to cover their own creatureliness. For the same reason we cannot comfortably watch on television a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Superman who disturbingly reminds us of our own fragility and powerlessness.
As my own struggle to finish reading this book testifies (as perhaps your own struggle to finish reading this essay may also confirm), thinking of death without trying to ignore or disguise it is hard. Indeed doing so leads to neurosis (for people who confront the precariousness and vulnerability of life all too realistically) or schizophrenia (for people who face their weaknesses eyes wide open and must deal with them unrealistically).
Thus most of us try to be “normal” (in Kierkegaard’s words, “philistine”) and live in between these two extreme reactions to reality. We must tell ourselves white lies in order to pass each day without going through excessive handwashing on the one hand or hearing haunting voices on the other. In what forms average people creatively delude themselves makes up some of the most provocative and insightful portions of the book, and is thus worth going over in brief before concluding with why people should even bother with confronting their fear of death.
Synthesizing the works of Freud, Kierkegaard, and other noted psychologists, Becker utilizes concepts like “transference,” “causa sui project,” and “fetish” to help explain how people avoid the terrors of reality. How, for example, masturbation, homosexuality, and primal scene responses are all explained by a person’s struggle to reconcile his mortal body, his immortal spirit, and a chaotic world.
In another example, Becker shows how people deify their parents, mates, and leaders to help allay their fears of a hostile world out of their control. How these pseudo-gods are used to affirm their own significance in a universe in which everything and everyone is treated merely as shifting matter. Becker points out that even atheists who mock the superstition of religious people ignore the plank in their own eye. Renowned atheist Freud fainted twice in his life, both times as a result of perceived threats to his own deity project, his legacy as the father of modern psychology.
With penetrating analysis, Becker reveals how even culture itself encourages a person’s denial of his or her finite creatureliness. Culture idolizes celebrities, sex goddesses, moguls, psychologists, and nationalism. It induces a person to identify with these higher states of existence in order to gain vicariously a sense of divinity through their fame, beauty, power, perception, and pride.
I have read several good books and very few great ones in my life so far. The good ones can be analyzed and studied without much confusion or waste of time. The great books, however, analyze and study you. They compel deep introspection and reflection and ultimately liberation which truth always brings. The Denial of Death is a great book.
It has given me an invaluable paradigm through which to examine my own experiences from childhood to the present in an honest, understanding way. My fear of heights, planes, rollercoasters, and public speaking have been put into perspective. My lapses into thirst for familial and societal approval, my incessant desire for more options, and my susceptibility to panic attacks after 9-11 have all come into focus through Becker’s microscope. Not coincidentally the book is also one of the best, though unintended, commentaries on the Bible I have ever read. It is gratifying as a Christian to read the best of psychological clinical research bolster and almost catch up with the Bible’s teachings on idolatry, original sin, and existence.
Nevertheless, there is one fault in the book worth mentioning. That is, Becker does not give much incentive to live in the truth of reality. He writes in his concluding chapter:
“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. Otherwise it is false.”
But this begs the question, “What is wrong with living a false life?” Or perhaps more to the point, “Why live courageously?” Why should a person choose a sober life with its realization that the planet “is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer” over a life in which the pains of reality is numbed by being drunk on work, fun, and relationships?
Christianity provides an obvious incentive to living a true life even if that means more melancholy and less fun. That is, eternal life in heaven. If the amount of rewards in heaven is proportionate to the amount of suffering one is willing to endure for Christ’s sake (Matt 5:11f), then of course one might be willing to forsake the world’s anesthesia for greater, longer lasting rewards. Indeed Becker in his exposition of Kierkegaard’s works acknowledges the unparalleled brilliance of the Christian method in confronting death honestly.
But Becker himself seems unwilling to endorse such an incentive, apparently in order to maintain his credibility as a serious scholar in pagan academia. Thus his achievement is limited (though it is worth reemphasizing that it is an astounding achievement nonetheless) to exposing people’s hypocrisy, of showing how and why people act like they will live forever even if they say they know that they will not.
By making people self-conscious of their lies, perhaps they will then begin to see the futility of “making a name for themselves” and thus look to alternatives to what their culture offers. It is this search, instigated by the book’s exposé of man’s illusions, that is the main contribution of Becker’s work to Christianity in our time.