The Denial of Death?

20 05 2013

1895Ernest Becker wrote in his Pulitzer Price winning book, The Denial of Death, many profound things about how man copes with the fact of death. In Christian circles, idolatry (making anything else but God one’s ultimate significance) is often seen in illegal or immoral categories, but Becker’s interpretation is insightful, idolatry is a coping mechanism, to intoxicate oneself by indulgence to forget the fact that the moment we are born, we are all dying:

Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. In the mysterious way in which life is given to us in evolution on this planet, it pushes in the direction of its own expansion. We don’t understand it simply because we don’t know the purpose of creation; we only feel life straining in ourselves and see it thrashing others about as they devour each other. Life seeks to expand in an unknown direction for unknown reasons…..

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that’s something else.

It seems he was picking up on a fact that was given to us even in Ecclesiastes 9:

It is the same for all, since the same event happens to the righteous and the wicked, to the good and the evil, to the clean and the unclean, to him who sacrifices and him who does not sacrifice. As the good one is, so is the sinner, and he who swears is as he who shuns an oath. This is an evil in all that is done under the su, that the same event happens to all. Also, the hearts of the children of man are full of evil, and madness is in their hearts while they live, and after that they go to the dead.

D.A. Carson, the NT scholar, said once in a talk that the last taboo in our current culture is the subject of death, that we can openly talk about sexually explicit content without a blink, yet when you mention that someone is dying, everyone begins to squirm and silence feels heavy in the air. This may be because we are creatures of hope, we don’t realize that hope is something that cannot last in things that are seen. Even people who think they place hope in unseen things, many times don’t believe it, they don’t live it. And as Becker observed, we start to indulge ourselves, whether with alcohol or shopping, to forget our finitude. Hope is an interesting thing; it is only as strong as what you place it in, and lasts as long as its object. 

Though Becker’s description was correct, I do not think he gives a proper prescription for the problem of death. He says that we often are in denial of it, yes, but, I think, the solution is not so distant, which is, we deny death. Of course, not of our own accord or power because, again, we all die. But we deny death through one where death could not consume, where death was left impotent, where death was only a marker in time. Hope in such changes death from the end of all things to the beginning of the rest of everything.

Here is a story (from SOULPANCAKE) of a man who died today, of Zach Sobiech, who I want to believe, had this kind of hope. No, more importantly, I want to believe, he placed his hope in someone that is greater. But regardless, we can affirm that he left something respectable, something great behind for the rest of us, who will all sometime, somewhere, somehow face our death.

(seen first on “Upworthy“)




2 responses

26 05 2013

The Becker passage is great. Thanks for sharing it.

17 06 2015
MERS, Fear, and Selfish Faith | Paul's Mental Meanderings

[…] is real, unpredictable, and most prominently uncontrollable. Couple years back, I wrote a post on Ernest Becker’s Pulizer Prize winning book The Denial of Death. We are reminded again how Becker was right in how humanity uses everything and anything to drown […]

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