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 and ethnicity—and the all-too-frequent twisting of those affiliations into in-group/out-group resentments and hatreds that are hugely responsible for much of the evil humans perpetrate on one another in the world.
Becker’s was a brilliant, far-reaching work that continues to reverberate nearly a half-century after its publication. I’ve returned to it probably hundreds of times over the years.
Listen up, you kiddos in your ’30s and ‘40s: Life really does—or at least can—get sweeter, better and more beautiful as the years still ahead of one shrink in length and volume.
But as I’ve aged I have also found myself coming to relate to it a bit differently than I did earlier in my life. It seems to have begotten a more personal perspective for me as I search more through the experience of my own life and thoughts of my death, rather than using Becker’s work to formulate general though incisive truths about the nature of life and the human condition.
Asking myself why this might be, the following thought occurred: Becker was 49 years old when he died, just a year after the release of “The Denial of Death” and sadly, before he got the news of his Pulitzer. I have now lived 18 years longer than Ernest Becker did, and I have to say—ironically—that the death denial project he claimed as the core of most all human activity isn’t going so well at this stage of my own life.
What I mean by this is simply that the denial one is afforded in their 20s, 30s, 40s, even 50s, when chances for a still long and productive life stretch out before one with seemingly endless possibility, becomes almost absurdly more problematic once retirement age looms. Not only is the bulk of one’s productive life and sheer prolific energy mostly behind one in the late ‘60s and beyond, but one also can’t avoid noticing that people in one’s age cohort are dying with increasing frequency, indiscriminately, like soldiers in an ever more intensifying firefight.
And if they’re not outright dying, they’re being felled with diseases that disrupt their lives and limit the range, scope and perhaps enjoyment of the life they still have left.
So a question occurs: Is it possible that Becker, still in his mid-40s as he embarked on “The Denial of Death,” simply didn’t quite see, because he had not experienced, how denial, at least on a personal level, becomes ever less tenable with old age? That while his denial thesis may well hold up when applied to youth and middle age, or to culture at large in the thousand ways that humans fetishize youth and pursue their immortality projects, old age brings with it enough wisdom and evidence (in the mirror at the very least) to face death square in the eye without squinting or averting one’s gaze?
Even, perhaps, with a certain level of joy?
Lest anyone misunderstand those words, let me state unequivocally that if scientists tomorrow announced they have conquered cell aging and death and developed a veritable Fountain of Youth, I’d be all on board with wanting to live forever (or at least for some kind of biblical 7 times 70). I love people and nature and fun times (even in this dismal political age) too much to think about forsaking them any earlier than necessary.
That said, it is the very death about which Becker lays out such a powerful case for our denial that most inspires me to embrace life, to immerse fully and revel in it, to love and laugh with the people who cross my path and jump with me into these foxholes of engagement from which we emit such joyful noise.
Staring down the barrel of 70, with yet another friend who had been the picture of health as I officiated his wedding just months ago dying last week at age 65, it doesn’t feel like there’s much room to hide.
If denial is not a river in Egypt, neither is it a shelter from the storms of loss that keep roiling one’s life with age.
But as much as those storms beget grief and mourning, so too do they deepen one’s capacity for all-embracing joy, for devil-may-care mirth, for honoring both life’s fragility and its boundless depths.
Listen up, you kiddos in your ’30s and ‘40s: Life really does—or at least can—get sweeter, better and more beautiful as the years still ahead of one shrink in length and volume. This statement must include many contingencies, of course. Illness, pain and physical debility can stunt and ultimately crush even the most buoyant spirits, and the end of life is often not pretty.
But knowledge and acceptance of these bare facts in old age also act as an accelerant to enjoy and exult in everything one can, as deeply as one can, for as long as one can, because tomorrow is not promised and a promise of many tomorrows is completely off the table. This is the very opposite of denial; it instead faces and uses the fact of mortality to maximum effect in shaping one’s approach to living fully.
So: was Ernest Becker right in holding up mortality and its denial as a driving force for much of what bedevils and challenges human beings trying to make sense of their lives and their fellow humans in this mysterious universe? I think so, and legions of scholars agree. He built a powerful, often spellbinding case for that perspective in both “The Denial of Death” and the posthumously published “Escape from Evil” (1975).
But his challenging theses do not negate human beings on an individual level using death, rather than denying it, to live fuller, more engaged and joyous lives. Becker wasn’t addressing individuals, and certainly not individuals fortunate enough to live to old age and draw near the end of their lives. His concerns were the tribal and societal implications of the death denial that permeates the human psyche from an early age and its very first intimations of mortality.
Meanwhile, for those no longer driven by denial, this excerpt from the poet Theodore Roethke in his elegiac final poem, “The Far Field” (1964), stands as an eloquent call for acceptance, engagement, and full, immersive love of the world.
I am renewed by death, thought of my death,
The dry scent of a dying garden in September,
The wind fanning the ash of a low fire.
What I love is near at hand,
Always, in earth and air.
The writer-philosopher Sam Keen conducted a death bed interview with Ernest Becker which appeared in his fine book of conversations with leading intellectual lights, “Voices and Visions” (1974). In this four-minute interview of him, he relates how deeply Becker affected him, both in his works and comportment in the face of his impending death.
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