In 1974, Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his work The Denial of Death, where he argued that “the idea of death, the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the 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 destination for man.” Denial at xvii (emphasis added). Becker’s book hit with an initial splash and has been cited by a number of notable people as one of the most important books they have ever read. Since then, however, there has been a paucity of research or extrapolation on Becker’s theory. A possible reason for this could be that when one plumbs to the depths of the idea, it can lead to some troubling questions about nearly everything we think and do as human beings. In 2015, however, the authors Sheldon Solomon, Jeff Greenberg, and Tom Pyszczynski published The Worm at the Core: On the Role of Death in Life. It is a highly readable result of 25 years of research into human conscious and subconscious decision-making looking at Becker’s theory. Daniel Gilbert, the Edgar Pierce Professor of Psychology at Harvard University had this to say about it:
Deep, important, and beautifully written. The Worm at the Core describes a brilliant and utterly original program of scientific research on a force so powerful that it drives our lives, but so frightening that we cannot think clearly about it. This book asks us to, compels us to, and then shows us how—by shining the light of reason on the heart of human darkness.
You and I are born into a certain time and place with all of the programming that entails. We also are born with a myriad of inherited, ingrained traits that include a consciousness that begins with a drive to survive that then grasps the concept that death is real. Our various human desires, cultures, moralities, religions, politics, art, and every other human endeavor are infused from the very beginning with the concept of coping with the terror that we and those around us will die. The research has demonstrated that reminders of death magnify our decision making in favor of our tribe or the order that we rely upon to manage life. What is striking is that much of that which we have constructed beyond meeting our material needs to live are, in fact, coping mechanisms. It is indeed “so frightening that we cannot think clearly about it” because, if Becker and Solomon et al. are correct, all of our human endeavors and beliefs are open to question as to motivation and whether they are simply “beautiful lies” that we tell ourselves.
This is not to say that beautiful lies are harmful. On the contrary, they may be necessary. Difficulty arises, however, when we transform them from story, myth, or perspective, into Truth claims that become –isms (Fundamentalism, Communism, Nazism, Manifest Destiny, etc.). Here, to satisfy our discomfort with our consciousness of death, we are seeking the sure foundation of a belief system that we insist is Truth that also answers the question of human existence. If we can step back for a moment, we can see that this is remarkably arrogant. We are limited creatures, even if we are learning more over time. Yet, our physical and mental abilities exist to accomplish certain tasks, which means that a great deal about this world is hidden from us. There are aspects about this existence that are ineffable. Truth claims and –isms often fail to account for the grand ineffable nature of life. Solomon et al. do not venture enough into this realm, and it is my only criticism of them. As with Becker, once they come to terms with the terrifying aspect of what they have confirmed, they have difficulty in knowing how to address it. Here, for example is what is said on the last page of the book:
Come to terms with death. Really grasp that being mortal, while terrifying, can also make our lives sublime by infusing us with courage, compassion, and concern for future generations. Seek enduring significance through your own combination of meanings and values, social connections, spirituality, personal accomplishments, identification with nature, and momentary experiences of transcendence. Promote cultural worldviews that provide such paths while encouraging tolerance of uncertainty and others who harbor different beliefs.
Ancient wisdom fortified by contemporary science. ….
Are you acting out of fear, or being manipulated to do so by others? Are you driven by rigid defenses, or are you pursuing the goals you really hold dear in your life? In dealing with other people, are you considering how their efforts to manage the terror of death are affecting their actions and how your own defenses are influencing your reactions to them? By asking and answering these questions, we can perhaps enhance our own enjoyment of life, enrich the lives of those around us, and have a beneficial impact beyond it.
This is beautiful, wonderful, and well taken. My concern with it, however, is two-fold. First, it seems to only go so far as to provide additional coping mechanisms to the fundamental problem of the consciousness of death (which is a wonderful thing). Wrapped up in their final thoughts on finality is, in fact, the terror of death – it is somewhat circular. One could say that it is a further evolved approach than relying on Truth claims and –isms. It is valuable for that. Second, while their comments do touch on the concept of the perspective of the individual, perhaps it could have gone further in championing the individual communing with the whole – on one’s own or as part of a group – because of the legitimacy of the broad ineffability of existence. Just saying.
For those looking for further confirmation – finally – of Becker’s critically important theory on human life, look here. But this is not the end of the story. It may be only the beginning.