The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Reflection Paper by David Tillman – October 2013
Pastoral Care in Grief and Loss class
United Theological Seminary, taught by Dr. Trina Armstrong

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker 1973
First Free Press paperback edition 1975

Key issues:

  1. The main theme of this book… The idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity – activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny for man.” (p. ix)
  2. “The man of knowledge in our time is bowed down under a burden he never imagined he would ever: the overproduction of truth that cannot be consumed. For centuries man lived in the belief that truth was slim and elusive and once he found it the troubles of mankind would be over. And here we are in the closing decades of the 20th century, choking on truth.” (p. x)
  3. Idea of heroism
    1. “We like to be reminded that are central calling, our main task on this planet, is a heroic.” (p. 1)
    2. “Idea of narcissism… We are hopelessly absorbed with ourselves.” (2)
    3. “Man’s tragic destiny: you must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe, he was stand out, being hero, think the biggest possible contribution to the world life, so that he counts more than anything or anyone else.” (4)
    4. “The urge to heroism is natural, and to admit that on us.… The fact is that this is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism” (4)
    5. “How conscious is he of what is doing to earn his feeling of heroism? (5)
      1. “To be conscious… Is the main self-analytic problem of life. Everything… discovered about man revolves from the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.” (6)
    6. “How empirically true is cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?”
      1. “The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that the culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times.… The crisis of organized religion to: religion is longer valid as a hero system, the youth scorn it.” (6-7)
  4. Part One – The depth psychology of heroism. (9-24)
    1. The terror of death
      1. “Heroism…is a reflex to the terror of death.” (11)
      2. “The healthy minded argument: death is not a natural thing for man, that we are not born with it…[In studies] “the child has no knowledge of death until the age of 3 to 5 focus? It is to affect an idea, too removed from his experience.” (13).
      3. “The morbidly minded argument: the fear of death is natural and is present in everyone…. The fear of death must be present behind all our normal functioning, in order for the organism armed for self-preservation.” (15-16)
      4. “The disappearance of the fear of death… Repression takes care of the complex symbol of death for most people” (20).
    2. “Man’s existential dilemma… Man is literally split into: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness and that he sticks out of nature with the towering majesty, and goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly in template to rock and forever.” (26).
    3. “Everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from reality of his situation that their forms of madness – agreed madness, shared madness, the skies and dignified manners, but man is all the same. (27).
    4. Anality, “represents decay and death…To say that someone is anal means that someone is trying extra-hard to protect himself itself against the accidents of life and danger of death, trying to use the symbols of culture as a sure means of triumph over natural mystery, trying to pass himself off as anything but an animal.” (31-32)
    5. Oedipus complex (Freud), “the boy child that inmate drives of sexuality and even wanted to assess his mother. At the same time, he knew that his father was his first, and he held in check a murder or us aggressiveness towards him.” (34) (Norman O. Brown) the essence of the Oedipal complex is the project of becoming God… By the same token, it plainly exhibits infantile narcissism perverted by the flight from death.” (36)
    6. Castration complex, “comes into being solely in confrontation with mother. It all centers on the fact that the mother monopolizes the child’s world; at first, she is his world…On the one hand mother is a pure source of pleasure and satisfaction, a secure power to lean on…But on the other hand the child has to strain against this very dependency, or he loses the feelings that he has aegis over his own powers. (38)
    7. Penis-envy, “both boys and girls succumb to the desire to flee the sex represented by the mother, they need little coaxing to identify with the father and his world.” (40)
    8. Primal scene, when a child witnessed sexual intercourse between the parents (the primal scene) it left him with a deep-seated trauma because he could not take part in it. (43)
    9. Human character is a vital lie – chapter 4
    10. Abraham Maslow, “we fear our highest possibility. We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments… We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike abilities we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these very same possibilities.”(Jonah Syndrome) (48)
    11. “We might say that the child is a natural power: he cannot strength to support the fear of creation.” (50)
    12. “Freud’s greatest discovery… Is that the great cause of much psychological illness is the fear of knowledge of oneself – one’s emotions, impulse, memories, capacities, potentialities, of one’s destiny. We have discovered that fear of knowledge of oneself is very often isomorphic with, and parallel with, fear of the outside world.” (52)
    13. “Heideggar… argued that the basic anxiety of man is anxiety about being-in- the-world, as well as anxiety of being-in-the-world.” (53)
    14. “The great scientific simplification of psychoanalysis is a concept that the whole of early experience is an attempt by the child to deny the anxiety of his emergence, his fear of losing his support, of standing alone, helpless and afraid.” (54)
  5. The human neurotic defense against despair,” Freud summed it up beautifully when he somewhere remarked that psychoanalysis cured the neurotic misery in order to introduce common misery of life. Neurosis is another word for describing a complicated technique for avoiding misery, but reality is the misery.” (57)
  6. “Perls conceived the neurotic structure is a thick edifice built up of four layers. The first two layers are the everyday layers, the tactics that the child learns to get along in society by the facile use of words to win the approval and placate others and move them along with him… The third layer is a stiff one to penetrate: it is the ‘impasse’ that covers our feelings of being lost, the very feeling that we tried to banish building up our character defenses. Underneath this layer is the fourth and most baffling one: the death or fear-of-death layer; and this, as we have seen, is the layer of our true and basic animal anxieties, the terror that we carry around in our secret heart.” (57)
  7. “What does it mean to be born-again for man? It means for the first time to be subjected to the terrifying paradox of the human condition, since one must be born not as he god, but as a man, or as a god-worm, or a god who shits.” (58).
  8. Maslow talks very convincingly about self-actualization and the act as ecstasy of “peak experiences” wherein a person comes to see the world in all its awe and splendor and senses his own free inner expansion and the miracle of his being.” (59)
  9. “The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.” (66) (Marcia Lee Anderson)
  10. Soren Kierkegaard
    1. “The meaning of the garden of Eden myth and the rediscovery of modern psychology: that death is man’s particular and greatest anxiety” (70)
    2. “As long as man is ambiguous creature he can never banish anxiety; what he can do instead is to use anxiety as an eternal spring for growth into new dimensions of thought and trust. Faith poses a new life task, the adventure in openness to a multi- dimensional reality.” (92)
  11. Sigmund Freud – two great reluctances:
    1. “Freud’s new idea of the ‘death instinct’ was a device that enabled him to keep intact the earlier instinct theory, now by attributing human evil to a deeper organic substratum than merely ego conflict with sexuality.” (98).
    2. “In the second place he refused to move into a yielding posture toward eternal nature; he was unable to give large expression to the mystical, dependent side of himself.” (124)
  12. Part Two – The Failures of Heroism
    1. Freud’s “Mental Contagion” and “Herd Instinct.” Humans working in groups: “They simply became dependent children again, blindly following the inner voice from their parents, which now came to them under the hypnotic spell of the leader. They abandon their egos to his, identified with his power, tried to function with him as an ideal.” (132)
    2. Transference, according to Adler, “is basically a maneuver or tactic by which the patient seeks to perpetuate his familiar mode of existence that depends on a continuing attempt to divest himself of power and place it in the hands of the ‘Other.’” (143)
    3. Transference as fetish control, “child’s attempt to create an environment that will give him safety and satisfaction, he learns to act and to see his environment in such a way that he banishes anxiety from it.’ (142)
    4. Transference is fear of life, “it is a fear of childhood, the fear of emerging into the universe, of realizing one’s own independent individuality, one’s own living and experiencing. [William James] As Rank said, it dealt may have fear of death or fear of sex, the child has a fear of life itself.” (145)
    5. Transparent as fear of death, “as a growing child becomes aware of death, he has a twofold reason for taking shelter in the powers of the transference object. The castration complex makes the body an object of horror, and it is now the transference object to carries the weight of the abandoned causa-sui project. The child uses him to assure his immortality.” (148)
    6. The twin ontological motives, “the paradox takes a form of photos or urges that seem to be part of creative consciousness and it threw off her actions on the one hand the creature is by a powerful desire to identify with the cosmic process, to merge himself with the rest of nature. On the other hand he wants to be unique, to stand out as something different and apart. The first motive – to merge and lose oneself in something larger – comes from man’s horror of isolation, of being thrust back upon his own feeble energies alone; it feels trembling small and impotent in the face of transcend nature… Rank said: for only by living in close union with a god-ideal that has been erected outside one’s own ego is one able to live at all… Individuation means that the human creature has to post itself to the rest of nature. It creates precisely the isolation that one can’t stand – and it needs in order to develop distinctively. It creates the difference that becomes such a burden; it accents the smallness of oneself in the sticking-outness at the same time. This is natural guilt. The person experiences this as ‘unworthiness’ for ‘badness’ and dumb inner dissatisfaction. And the reason is realistic. Compared to the rest of nature man is not a very satisfactory creation. He is riddled with fear and powerlessness.” (153-154)
    7. Transference as the urge to higher heroism, “man needs to infuse his life with value so that can pronounce it ‘good/’ The transference- object is then a natural fetishization for man’s highest yearnings and strivings.” (155)
    8. The romantic solution (Rank), “he fixed his urge to cosmic heroism onto another person in the form of a love object. The self-glorification that he needed in his innermost nature he now looked for in the love partner. The love partner becomes the divine ideal within which to fulfill one’s life. All spiritual and moral needs now become focused in one individual.” (160)
    9. The creative solution, “He wants to know how to earn immortality as a result of his own unique gifts. His creative work is at the same time the expression of his heroism and the justification of it. It is his ‘private religion’ – as Rank put it. This uniqueness gives him personal immortality; it is his ‘beyond’ and not that of others.” (171-172)
    10. Psychoanalysis (per Otto Rank)- the neurotic type, “in order to function normally, man has to achieve from the beginning a serious constriction of the world and of himself. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.” (178) “Can be approached in two ways: as a problem too much narrowness toward the world or of much of.” (186)
    11. The problem of illusion, “the neurotic isolates himself others, cannot engage freely in their partialization of the world, and so cannot live by their deceptions about the human condition. He lifts himself out of the ‘natural therapy’ of everyday life, the active, self-forgetful engagement in it, and so the illusions that others share seem unreal to him.” (188)
    12. Neurosis as historical, “we saw that neurosis could be looked at a basic level as a problem of character and, at another level, as a powerful illusion, of creative cultural play. The historical level is the third level to which these two merge. “All the neurotics found a ready-made drama of self-transcending action heroic identity.” (190) (Pinel’s study)
    13. The merger of sin and neurosis: Rank and Kierkegaard (196)
    14. Health is an ideal, “If neurosis is sin, and not disease, then the only thing which can ‘cure’ it is a world-view, some kind of affirmative collective ideology in which the person can perform the living drama of his acceptance as a creature. Only in this way can the neurotic, come out of his isolation to become part in such a larger and higher wholeness as religion has always represented.” (198-199) (Rank’s devastating Kierkegaardian conclusion)
    15. Mental Illness
      1. Depression (210-217)
      2. Schizophrenia (217-221)
      3. Perversion (221-224)
      4. The hermaphroditic image, “the self finds itself in a strange body casting and cannot understand this dualism… Is striving for wholeness, a striving that is not sexual but ontological. It is the desire of being for a recapture of the (Agape) unity with the rest of nature, as well as for a completeness in oneself. It is a desire for a healing of the ruptures of existence, the dualism of self and body, self and other, self and world.” (224-225)
      5. The problem of personal freedom versus species determinism (230-234)
      6. The fetish object and the dramatization (234-244)
      7. The naturalness of sado-masochism (244-248)
      8. Mental illness is failed heroic (248-252)
  13. Part Three- Retrospect and Conclusion
    1. Psychology and religion, “Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts or their view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.” (255)
      1. The impossible heroism (260-268)
      2. The limits of psychotherapy (268-276)
      3. The limits of human nature (276-281)
      4. The fusion of science and religion (281-285)
      5. “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 them forget.” (284)

Questions for class discussion: With the human pull towards unity with God and at the same time towards creating one’s unique identity in the world, how do we find a balance?

How has the reading affected your understanding of grief and loss? This book has given me a good understanding of the human paradox of being pulled towards God’s wholeness, goodness and happiness, and at the same time being pulled to create a unique identity in the world. I can see that out of  being pulled in two different and natural directions, the huge loss and grief humans experience in the process of living. I can see my relationship with Christianity and my world-view as being my response to that pull of striving for God’s fullness and wholeness and at the same time wanting to have “heroic” status and acknowledgment in the world.

How will you apply what you have learned in your ministry setting: This will give me a greater understanding and context of the two natural pulls, towards God and towards the heroic self, as I minister to people. This will help remind me of my heroic tendencies, “it’s about me” and how I overlay them on people to make me feel the “hero.” Being mindful of my heroic needs will hopefully open up new ways of being with people that will give me a greater level of compassion and empathy of who they are and of their journey that they are sharing with me.   

©2013, rev. 2021, David Tillman, all rights reserved – www.lifejourney.us