September 2020

There is a presumption that in looking for answers and in the development of knowledge that more becomes clear when we look forward in time. On one most important questions about life I do not believe that to be the case. As we already know, Ernest Becker in his Pulitzer Prize-winning book,”The Denial of Death” (1973) sets out the theory that because of consciousness humans have a fear of death and then work to mediate that fear through immortality projects (see https://dispatches.tk/2016/08/15/communique-to-the-public-from-the-fourth-philosophical-council-of-keeferton/). This explains nearly all human activity of importance (religion, philosophy, societal norms, individual decision making, etc.). We know this to be accurate because of the research by Solomon, Greenberg, and Pyszczynski (hereinafter “Solomon, et al.”) in “The Worm at the Core” (2015) (see https://dispatches.tk/2016/04/28/the-worm-at-the-core-why-death-is-the-most-important-thing-in-life/). There has been a gnawing problem with the works of Becker and Solomon, et al. that they all fail to answer: How should we then live?

This is a deeply personal question, of course. Viktor E. Frankl, the famous author of “Man’s Search for Meaning” and survivor of Nazi concentration camps, had extraordinary opportunities to think about life’s big questions. He gave a series of lectures in 1946 that have just been made available in English in “Yes to Life, In Spite of Everything” (2019). When I began this book, I was a bit concerned by the Introduction that claimed Frankl said that people find meaning in “something that outlasts us and continues to have an impact.” In other words, immortality projects. People do, indeed, find meaning in such things but that leads us right to the problem that Becker and Solomon et al. present and fail to answer. But I found that Frankl’s actual point was far more important. It is also why I prefer to read an actual source document as opposed to someone else’s interpretation of it. What he actually says is:

The question life asks us, and in answering which we can realize the meaning of the present moment, does not only change from hour to hour but also changes from person to person: the question is entirely different in each moment for every individual.

Uniqueness. Our response can be our own, and is available to all. It does not require a great work that outlasts us. It surmounts the fear of death by focusing on the present, unique moment that only the unique individual can experience, instead of focusing on the future and a tribal response. Consciousness of who you are as a unique individual in this moment is more important than the consciousness that creates the fear of death. The answer to Becker and Solomon et al. is just that simple. Unique human consciousness is the answer to human consciousness that covers its fear of death with immortality projects. Be yourself unconstrained by immortality projects (unless that is what you choose). Frankl understood this in 1946 after losing his family but surviving the Nazi camps. Answers can indeed be found in the past.