I was twenty-six years old when my grad-school mentor suggested I read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. I no longer remember exactly what the impetus was – I think it had something to do with a manuscript I was writing, part of which dealt with the urge to pre-memorialize our lives in writing, but it’s just as likely she thought it might be helpful to me in my personal life. At the time, I was the sole employee of a true-crime writer who was dying of amyotrophic lateral sclerosis. What had started as a part-time gig taking dictation on subjects like the inner workings of Mafia families had morphed into a situation something between full-time job and enmeshed pseudo-family. I adjusted my boss’s pacemaker when it wiggled out of place, fired his visiting nurses for him (their offenses were numerous, and usually cosmetic), sliced his food, operated his ventilator, and when he and his wife picked up and moved to Miami every November, packed my bags and relocated right along with them.
Though I know he treasured me in his own way, my boss was also more than a bit narcissistic – he often described me as an “extension” of himself – and prone to fits of rage that had, in his pre-wheelchair days, regularly turned violent. It is one thing to watch a person die, and another entirely to watch someone so spiritually unsettled, whose ego rests so squarely on an almost parodic machismo, face the end. He seethed and fumed and lashed out at anyone in close range, which meant mostly his wife and, less frequently, me. Young, bereft of colleagues, and guilt-ridden – I was young and he wasn’t; I was healthy and he wasn’t; I often hated him, despite his agony – I craved a way to process the terrible existential drama that was playing out before me.
Enter Becker. Where Freud saw sex at the heart of human suffering, Becker saw fear of death. Put more broadly, he argues that human consciousness of death – the thing that, he believed, separates us from animals – incites a pervasive, inevitable terror that develops early in childhood. The threat of extinction for creatures so convinced of the vitality of their inner lives is so frightening that we seek to flee from it in all manner of ways, beginning with the development of “character armor,” a phrase Becker borrowed from Wilhelm Reich, which essentially translates to personality or lifestyle. As children grow, more options for grappling with this essential knowledge and its attendant fear become available. Some go the comparatively easy route and become “culturally normal,” living unexamined lives of low-grade consumerism, social striving, and conformity. Others anesthetize themselves with drugs or alcohol or thoughtless copulation. Some are unable to look away and succumb to madness – I think often of the scene in Ingmar Bergman’s Persona, when Liv Ullmann’s doctor levels with her about her elective mutism: “You think I don’t understand? The impossible dream. Not of seeming, but of being.”
The paradox is not solvable, of course: preexisting knowledge of our own death is an inevitable part of being human. The trick is to find a way to live without completely ignoring death (that would be a cowardly swim in the shallow end) while also keeping the fear of it at bay for the sake of functionality. Those of us who try to reconcile the dilemma attach ourselves to some “system of heroics” – by aligning ourselves with a seemingly powerful transference object, like a celebrity, demagogue, or strict worldview, we trick ourselves into believing we are impervious to death, in an echo of a child’s naïve belief that his parents are immortal and because he is bound to them, he must be too. The cultural scaffolding that accompanies such choices frames useful diversions from the constant terror of extinction, as well: witness the ease with which most humans goosestep when ordered, the vigor with which they wave flags, the care with which they construct their superfan websites – the glee, in other words, they feel when given a mission from a higher source.
There are nobler, more productive, “life-enhancing” illusions, like becoming an artist or having a family, but those too can become frantic, self-defeating bulwarks against extinction if one isn’t careful: parents can all too easily view childrearing as a vanity project, while artists have to contend with more isolation and self-doubt than the average person. In fact, Becker posits that nearly the whole enterprise of society is a stage upon which humans play out elaborate, mostly meaningless dramas, all designed to distract from the fact that despite our intellects, our emotions, our quirks of personality, our egos – our bodies, our very personhoods – will give out, our flesh will decompose, and we will return to the earth.
Though Becker lingers on all these “immortality projects” he’s primarily interested in two systems of heroics: the psychoanalytic and the religious. The fear of death has always existed, but in ancient times religion acted as a near panacea. It accomplished this in a number of ways. First, it acknowledged mystery. Second, it spoke openly of death – even, ingeniously, turning it into a positive in some belief systems, by providing an image of an idyllic afterlife or, in the case of Buddhism, by rebranding it as simply a mode of transport to another life. Religion placed man firmly in the center of the cosmic drama, simultaneously offering him identification with a group. It gave him a vocabulary of symbols and a blueprint for moral behavior, and, lastly and crucially, gave him a higher entity – God – to devote himself to. In short, it was a heroic system that addressed nearly all the enormous and insoluble problems presented by the fact of death.
But by the time The Denial of Death was published in 1973, religion had been largely ousted by psychoanalysis, which sought to make men knowable to themselves by means of cold, clinical observation and codification, and which all but guaranteed self-mastery for those who submitted to its ethos.
The promise of psychology, like all of modern science, was that it would usher in the era of the happiness of man, by showing him how things worked, how one thing caused another. Then, when man knew the causes of things, all he had to do was to take possession of the domain of nature, including his own nature, and his happiness would be assured.
One glance at our world today should prove that this didn’t exactly pan out. The problem, Becker said, was that even if man did conquer himself, it would prove a toothless victory, because man’s dilemma was centered around the self’s inherent destructibility. So while psychoanalysis might be able to treat behavioral symptoms, or to help a person grapple with earthly traumas like the wounds incurred from poor parenting, it could never give people what they really need – a means of reaching outside themselves, toward something profound and inextinguishable, from which they could draw power. Within the boundaries of analysis, man could be a creature, wrestling with his sexual dysfunctions and his behavioral tics, but never a soul whose life has enduring meaning, because psychoanalysis, hell-bent on being a science, refused to couch the human condition in such terms, and had robbed itself of the language required to adequately address it, replacing it instead with jargon. (Of course, this was a conscious choice on the part of Freud, who saw himself as a brave warrior against the forces of “occultism” and all religion generally.)
By the end of the book, it’s patently clear to the reader which system wins the battle of the Weltanschauungen, even though Becker tries to walk the perimeter around his conclusion instead of straight to its center. He offers some caveats, as well as a few digs: “In some ways [religion] is much worse [than psychoanalysis] because it usually reinforces the parental and social authorities and makes the bind of circumstantial guilt even stronger and more crippling.” He tries to hedge by suggesting that different paths should be available, because different people have different needs. (Considering he just spent the entire book arguing with such poetic force against myriad “failed heroics” and substitute balms, this falls flat.) He tries further to conclude that a whole new heroics system should be created, though he doesn’t suggest what it might look like, nor how humans could circumvent the fact that it would be manmade and thus inherently unreliable. Despite these protests, his preference for religion is plastered all over the text. All the thinkers he lauds and quotes liberally – Kierkegaard, William James, Otto Rank – extoll its value. One by one, Becker shoots down various ways humans alleviate their dilemma as too paltry, too cowardly, too self-destructive. At one point, he suggests that psychology could possibly work if it became more of a “lived experience,” developed a spiritual vocabulary, or if the therapist acted more as a guru than a scientist. In other words, it could work, but only if it were structured more like religion. (Indeed, Becker writes in numerous places that his work as a whole is about a fusion of science with religion, although curiously one almost always seems to be paramount.) Over and over, Becker says that people need something beyond themselves, that exists completely independently, some entity that gives credence to both the body that will decay and the spirit that will endure. There is only one thing that fits that description, and that is religion.
One by one, Becker shoots down various ways humans alleviate their dilemma as too paltry, too cowardly, too self-destructive.
It’s fair to say that what Becker is really getting at is not that religion is the best system for processing our relationship to mortality, but that the divine reality religion points to is the only answer that satisfies. He wasn’t wrong when he said that religion can become a calcified, self-satisfying loop just as readily as manmade ideologies, and that religious people can latch on to heroics just as thoughtlessly as an average man fashions himself in the image of the masses or the private follows the orders of his sergeant. Religion can fan the flames of xenophobia and incite war, something Becker found repugnant. Without faith in God underpinning them, certain religious practices just mimic neurotic behaviors and encourage alienation from the body, serving to do little more than torture the believer. But a belief grounded in expansiveness, love, and reverence, that fosters both humility and self-respect, that fixes man’s eyes on the stars and his heart – his poor, fragile, doomed human heart – that can never fail. “Men should wait [for redemption, or understanding] while using their best intelligence and effort to secure their adaptation and survival,” Becker summarizes. “Ideally they would wait in a condition of openness toward miracle and mystery, in the lived truth of creation, which would make it easier both to survive and to be redeemed because men would be less driven to undo themselves and would be more like the image that pleases their Creator: awe-filled creatures trying to live in harmony with the rest of creation.” Certainly in our era there is no means to discuss, let alone experience, the “miracle and mystery” of life, death, and faith other than religion, imperfect vehicle for these sacred concepts that it can be.
The Denial of Death came at exactly the right moment in my life, not only because of the circumstances of my employment, but also because by my mid-twenties, I had already tried a number of “heroics systems” – rational atheism, nihilism, mental illness, analysis as “lived experience,” writing – and, having failed to find the succor I so craved, was rather sheepishly tiptoeing towards faith. (“Sheepishly” because I had argued so vociferously against it in my youth, and because it wasn’t exactly a popular choice for an overeducated young person from a secular background.) When I placed my existential depression within the context of universal creation and destruction, as Becker pushed me to do, it became painfully clear that the tools I had been operating with previously were way too small for the job – I was trying to fix a burst pipe with a pair of tweezers. This was still years before I became a religious Jew and encountered the texts my tradition reveres, which insist that man meditate on the fate of his body.
When I placed my existential depression within the context of universal creation and destruction, it became painfully clear that the tools I had been operating with previously were way too small for the job.
“Akavya ben Mahalalel said: ‘Reflect on three things and you will avoid transgression: Know where you came from, where you are going, and before whom you will have to give an account and reckoning,’” reads a portion of Pirkei Avot, a compendium of rabbinic ethical teachings. “‘Where you came from’ – from a putrid drop. ‘Where you are going’... to a place of dust, worms, and maggots.” Though I am not Hasidic, I discovered one of my favorite teachings on the human condition in that mystical tradition: It was said of Reb Simcha Bunem that he carried two slips of paper, one in each pocket. On one he wrote: Bishvili nivra ha-olam – “for my sake the world was created.” On the other he wrote: V’anokhi afar v’efer – “I am but dust and ashes.” He would take out each slip of paper as necessary, as a reminder to himself. I found this anecdote so moving that my husband had a necklace made out of a small disc for me, each side engraved with one of Reb Bunem’s dicta (Hebrew speakers are sometimes surprised to read it when the “dust and ashes” side faces outward).
My first encounter with Becker was also around the time when the zeitgeist was filled with new calls for public attention to death. The mid-aughts began an age of talking about the “good death,” which continues. It’s a diffuse movement marked by hipster morticians and cafés mortels, themed Instagram accounts that churn out endless content for the grief-stricken, the proliferation of death doulas and end-of-life activists, and books by Atul Gawande, Lydia Dugdale, and others who call for greater awareness and acceptance of death. Some of these efforts Becker would undoubtedly have admired; others I suspect he would have thought counterproductive, in that they propagate the idea that death can be controlled and sanitized, made cheerful, memeable, or painless, both for the dying and the grieving parties. Surely we haven’t matured that much as a species – we still mostly relegate our dying to hospitals and institutions. Perhaps not coincidentally, this was also when technocrats supercharged their quest to eliminate death by designing experimental treatments reminiscent of the wildest plot points in science fiction. There were new and refreshed ventures toward physical perfection, distorting our faces and bodies to look shinier and younger against the reality of bodily decay. Becker would undoubtedly decry these practices. Fearing death is natural and inevitable; attempting to outrun or hack it is spineless.
In the years after I read The Denial of Death, I occasionally sought out biographical information on Becker, and was perplexed to find that none of it addressed his religious life. His Wikipedia page simply states that he was born into a Jewish family; the biography on the website of an eponymous foundation, established by an acolyte after Becker’s death, primarily covers his life in academia, and mostly focuses on the ways in which religion can be its own failed heroics system, a possibility that comes up quite rarely in the actual book. How could the person who wrote the sentence “the urge to cosmic heroism … is sacred and mysterious and not to be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism” not have had a relationship with the divine?
Becker felt the only valuable conversation man can have is a “vertical” one.
But finally, after years of searching, I tracked down the interview philosopher Sam Keen conducted with Becker on his deathbed – he succumbed to colon cancer at forty-nine. In it, Becker speaks through what must be enormous pain about the vicissitudes of his faith. He tells Keen that although he was an atheist for many years, the birth of his first child jolted him into belief in God – “seeing something pop in from the void and seeing how magnificent it was, unexpected, how much beyond our powers and our ken” – and that he felt the only valuable conversation man can have is a “vertical” one: “I think a person must address himself to God rather than to the future of mankind.” Though death hadn’t made him more religious (he insisted this was a result of shedding his character armor), his words are those of a man at peace with the idea of returning to a place of dust, worms, and maggots.
I would say that the most important thing is to know that beyond the absurdity of one’s life, beyond the human viewpoint, beyond what is happening to us, there is the fact of the tremendous creative energies of the cosmos that are using us for some purposes we don’t know. To be used for divine purposes, however we may be misused, this is the thing that consoles …I think one does, or should try to, just hand over one’s life, the meaning of it, the value of it, the end of it.
It is one of the loveliest and most articulate expressions of faith I’ve ever encountered.
This past summer, my father-in-law died unexpectedly, while biking on a public trail near his home in Utah. My husband and I forced face shields onto our two toddlers and raced through the airport to make it in time for the funeral, where, according to Jewish custom, we shoveled the dirt directly onto the coffin ourselves. Then we sat in my mother-in-law’s home and cried and prayed together, with the help of shiva visitors over Zoom. Our nonreligious friends and relatives seemed tense, often shying away from mentioning the loss. But our faith community jumped into gear immediately, bringing us food, helping us ensure my husband could say kaddish with the necessary quorum, sharing memories of my father-in-law even if they’d only met him briefly and years ago. Nobody told us he had transcended to a better place, or that we should feel anything other than sad, or even angry with God, as arguing with him is a time-honored Jewish tradition and right. (“Baruch Dayan Ha’emet,” we Jews say when we first hear someone has passed away. “Blessed is the True Judge,” whose judgment we must accept, but are not obliged to enjoy.) The death was shocking and somewhat premature – he wasn’t a young man, but he was in good health – and not what proponents of an ideal death might call “dignified”: he died alone, of undetermined causes, without someone massaging his feet, or his family flanking his bedside, or his signed and notarized health directives laid out on the bedside table. But if you asked me, then or now, whether I thought he would have passed in anger, I would say no. He was a man of tremendous self-awareness and independence, a father of three, a tireless philanthropist who founded an initiative to help refugees settle in Utah, a proud and committed Jew, a romantic who liked to say that even after forty years of marriage, he still dreamed of his bride. Though I still deeply mourn, I know he was a man who knew where he had come from, and where he was going.
Every year since my conversion, I’ve thought of Ernest Becker on March 6, the day of his death. For Jews, this is called a Yahrzeit, and it’s marked by lighting a candle and saying a prayer for the deceased, both things I’ve considered doing for him, a person I never met but who profoundly altered my view of human nature, the world, and myself. Sometimes I wonder if Becker would think me foolish to want to commemorate him in this way. Surely the person truly liberated from the fear of death would have no need to be remembered or to have little altars erected. But Becker didn’t expect us to be pure spirit, just as he didn’t think we were only animals. No: he knew very well that we are both.
Hear Kelsey Osgood discuss this article on the Faith and Imagination Podcast.