Outliving Ernest Becker and “The Denial of Death”

In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning work “The Denial of Death,” cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker wove together major threads of psychology, philosophy, anthropology and religion in positing that the central motivating force of human life is the fear of death, which compels us to live in its denial. We do so by not thinking or talking about it much, by drinking and drugging too much, sleepwalking through life as if it were giving us all the time in the world, embracing eternal life doctrines of religion, and by pursuing any number of immortality-seeking “hero” projects in our jobs, sports, the military, hobbies, and private obsessions. (Climbing Everest, making beautiful pots, writing a book, getting rich, becoming a philanthropist with buildings named after us…)

Becker also placed great importance on our embrace of culture—our affiliations with family, community, nation, race, tribe an...

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Beauty and Banality in Jane Kenyon’s “Chrysanthemums”

With a first line stating “The doctor averted his eyes,” we sense that whatever the title suggests in this crystalline Jane Kenyon poem, it will not be a rapturous ode to flowers. Then comes the second line containing the word “diagnosis,” and we know we will likely be traversing some troubling ground, ultimately revealed as a series of snapshots coalescing around her husband and fellow poet Donald Hall’s colon cancer in 1989.

Nevertheless, chrysanthemums do play a role.

Hall, 24 years older than Kenyon and her professor at the University of Michigan before marrying her in 1972, survived his first bout with the illness that Kenyon chronicled in this poem, then fought off its return three years later when it had metastasized to his liver and doctors gave him slim odds for recovery.

Four months ago, he died at the ripe age of 89, a former poet laureate of the United States and a well-respected professor, ...

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Loss in the Tribe

A Saturday night of edenic silence in the early dark of fall, the season’s first halting, feathery rain seeming to muffle every sound save for the second-by-second tick of the clock hand on the kitchen wall, reminding that this quietude, so reminiscent of the timeless heavens, is itself bound and must stake its own claim for whatever eternity it can muster. I can hear neither car nor cricket nor neighbor near or far; even the refrigerator is joined in the solemnity of this hour, its motor soundless and bowed. Dog to the left of me, cat to the right, our threesome forming an obtuse triangle punctuated only by the silent rising and falling of torsos, accepting without rancor the insistent, intrusive breath that moves the world...

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He Who Roared…and Advanced Toward a Supreme Court Seat

Another imaginary exercise: Imagine if Christine Blasey Ford would have come out yesterday not only trembling as she was, but yelling, her forehead in an angry furrow, her neck cords straining:

“This hearing is a SHAM! None of you Republican senators are interested in the truth!! You’re just going through the motions here so you can get to vote your man in and say you’ve given me a fair hearing. The behavior of several of you on this committee who have already made clear how you will vote is an embarrassment. But at least it was just a good old-fashioned attempt at keeping women down. We all know about that; it has a long and dismal history in this country. But I reject this entire charade, this revenge of the Trumps, fueled by millions of dollars in money from outside right-wing opposition groups. It is a national disgrace, but you won’t silence me. You may defeat me in the final vote, but y...

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Dear Senate Judiciary Committee:

Dear Senate Judiciary Committee: I come before you as a survivor of sexual assault when I was a 15-year-old girl. It is a memory of such deep and abiding pain that I have spent a good portion of my life since then attempting to bury it, forget it, put it behind me. None of these attempts have been successful.

As adults we tell stories of our childhood injuries. Falls from bikes leading to broken arms. Bites by dogs. Badly sprained ankles from encountering a gopher hole. All of these stick in our memory. While we may not remember the date or exactly who was there, other details remain crystalline: the furrow on the brow of our father as he leaned over and beheld our ghastly crooked arm; the way the sun glinted off the dog’s back as it came running toward us growling; the squiggled, colorful notes our classmates wrote on our walking casts.

We all know that human memory is imperfect and full of gaps, but ...

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