On Kelsey Osgood’s essay “The Yahrzeit of Ernest Becker” in Plough’s Summer 2021 issue:
I never found Ernest Becker compelling. Not Ernest Becker the man, of course. He died before I was born. I mean The Denial of Death, the much-touted book for which he won the Pulitzer. I was surprised therefore to find myself doubly intrigued by Kelsey Osgood’s recent characterization in Plough of Becker’s thesis.
His premise is somewhat straightforward. Fear of death animates human survival. Or, as Osgood summarizes, “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 … we will return to the earth.” We do what we do – some combination of striving, building, creating, procreating, and self-anesthetizing – to defend against the knowledge of our mortality. Fear of death, Becker argues, motivates us to steel ourselves against it.
Maybe that’s true for some people. But I’ve never found the prospect of my certain death frightening. This isn’t to say I don’t fear the process of dying. As a medical doctor, I am petrified by the thought of wasting away in an institution, attended to by an anonymous throng of health care professionals who (arguably) couldn’t care less. That sort of dying is terrifying. But death itself, as it is understood by contemporary secular society – the prospect of my nonexistence – does not scare me.
Becker contends that we humans esteem as heroes those who face death well. “We admire most the courage to face death. … When we see a man bravely facing his own extinction we rehearse the greatest victory we can imagine” (11–12). For Becker, there exist two heroic systems by which people principally address their fear of death – the psychoanalytic and the religious.
Osgood says it’s obvious in the end that Becker favors religion – although the preference is more implied than stated. Becker definitely hedges on the assertion, to which Osgood rejoins, “his preference for religion is plastered all over the text.” She continues:
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.
Only religion provides the answers that satisfy. But does any religion suffice? Or must it be a particular religion?
Osgood doesn’t tell us. She goes on to describe her own journey, her own putting on and taking off of various “heroics systems.” Ultimately Osgood becomes, as she puts it, “a religious Jew” – which equips her with the resources to acknowledge and face life’s finitude and frailty.
I suppose I’m in a similar boat to Osgood. Perhaps I’ve never feared death because as the Staple Singers used to sing, “I know I got religion.” Or to state the case more accurately, religion got me.
As a child, the Christian narrative made complete sense to me. I knew I couldn’t be perfect much as I tried. And it was glaringly obvious that no one else had achieved perfection either. We all needed rescuing from ourselves, but a rescuer would require superpower strength to fix our moral brokenness. Only a divinity fit that bill. But why would a holy god be interested in ameliorating the troubles and anxieties of human beings? How could a god possibly relate to how easy it is for us humans not to do what we know we ought to do and to do what we know we ought not?
That’s where the God-Man called Christ enters the story. Christ – whom Christian texts describe as fully God and fully human – bridges the gap between holy God and frail humanity. He is the ultimate Superman.
It’s brilliant really. Who else but God could rescue people from the depths of their brokenness? And who else but a God-Man could understand how easy it is for us humans to mess things up? Trusting the God-Man as rescuer promises an eternity of proximity to God – a proximity known euphemistically as “heaven.”
The heaven of my childish mind was paved with golden bricks, not dissimilar to those in the Technicolor version of the 1939 Wizard of Oz film starring Judy Garland. It was always sunny. Manicured trees withstood the bounty of just-ripe fruit. Best of all, a radiant God was on his throne, and I was invited to draw near in wonder and adoration.
I remember asking my mother one day as she stood washing dishes why, if heaven is so great, we don’t just die and get this life over with. We were in the house of my early childhood, where the kitchen had thin turquoise blue carpet. I must have been only four or five years old since I recall my mother standing high above me. I wanted to know: Why not skip the vegetables and get on with dessert?
My mother, a teacher, did not miss her opportunity. It turns out that a man named Paul, who wrote a lot of the Bible’s New Testament, asked the same question. He said he felt torn between continuing to work in this life for the sake of others and to depart and be with Christ. In Paul’s estimation, “to die is gain.” But as long as he wasn’t dead, he figured he should continue to labor on behalf of others.
I resolved to feel the same way. My young mind reasoned that as long as God kept me living on earth, I should do my best to help others. But I remained convinced that it sure would be nice to get on with dessert – a conviction that only grew stronger as I faced the cruelties of disease and death so quotidian for the medical practitioner. How can a person not wish for death to be no more – neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain?
The Ernest Becker Foundation contends that in Becker’s work “[p]eople across the spectrum of religiosity find support for their existing belief systems.” The website posts essays on how representatives of various world religions engage The Denial of Death, and it calls for still broader religious engagement.
But what of the modern person “liberated” – as it were – from the heroic systems of both religion and psychoanalysis? How are such moderns to manage their existential angst?
In my book on the preparation for death, I have a chapter on fear – a subject most doctor-writers have avoided. I note that it is perfectly natural to feel anxious about a “heretofore unexperienced life-altering event.” But that doesn’t mean we avoid death. Rather, with the accompaniment of those we trust and love, we walk courageously toward our mortality. Facing death squarely over the course of a lifetime helps to mitigate its fright.
The poet Christian Wiman, himself living with an incurable cancer, pushes both believer and nonbeliever to confront their mortality, acknowledge their dread, and incorporate their dying into their living. “[T]o die well, even for the religious,” Wiman says, “is to accept not only our own terror and sadness but the terrible holes we leave in the lives of others; at the same time, to die well, even for the atheist, is to believe that there is some way of dying into life rather than simply away from it, some form of survival that love makes possible.”
In the final analysis, what all of us want is remarkably similar. We want to flourish in our living and in our dying. And we want somehow to transcend it all – “some form of survival,” as Wiman puts it. Maybe that’s through love, as he suggests. Or legacy work. Or family. But maybe it’s through religion. And if so, which one?