The Denial of Death

What if you were deceiving yourself about the reasons why you get up for work every day like time is a guarantee? Why do you spend time with friends or care for house plants or read books or buy new clothes or vote or even care about politics at all? Why do you set goals and strive and set more goals and strive more? Stir gently and bring the existential angst to a boil over medium-high heat.

To do nothing, to lay in a field of spring grass, goal-less, possessionless, without relationships or career to tangle ourselves with, it’s tempting to imagine a hippie paradise where our repressed but natural animal state floods out of us and harmonizes us with our world. This scenario is just that though — imagination. The substance that gushes out of us in stark freedom is our natural existential anxiety; we would sit in that flowered field with no callings to entwine us and remember how painfully mortal we are — the fear of death would pour into every empty space.

All of society, all commerce, all governments, all our pursuits and connections are nothing but extravagant distractions to keep us out of that empty field where we are freed to find our own death. Society is one massive coping mechanism; it is the biggest Google Doc by which we collaborate to deny the reality of impending death. This concept is argued by Ernest Becker in his book, The Denial of Death. These orchestrations of society and our individual efforts — politics, commerce, careers, even religion — are all immortality projects. These projects do exactly what it sounds like — allow us to soften the pain of mortality by wrapping ourselves in the reassurance of seemingly immortal things that will last beyond our ever-decaying bodies like art, religious belief, or a good reputation.

What’s wrong with using society to strengthen ourselves under the weight of existing for a speck in time and ceasing to exist just as quickly? As society tends toward, our immortality projects don’t always cooperate with each other. Becker reasoned that war and even racism are the results of conflicting immortality projects. If the way you tell yourself you matter more than your tiny time on earth suggests is suddenly smashed by my own immortality project…it’s on. There’s nothing humans hate more than feeling like insignificant monkeys. Reminded of our mortality, we lash out: religious conflict, arguments with strangers in parking lots, school shootings, suicide. The depressed suffer hopelessness in the face of a failing immortality project; the schizophrenic loses touch with reality as their internal project becomes divorced from society, existing only within them. We cannot hold the weight of feeling our lives are nothing more than our finite lives.

Immortality projects are the meaning we give ourselves in a world that feels indifferent to our existence. The concept echoes Kierkegaard’s call to live as if meaning were already given but also draws on the theories of Freud to pathologize society itself as a rescue mission for meaning in an age of reason that has maimed our once secure religious belief in an existence beyond our lives and instead traded us science in its place. Understanding the way our world works has come at the high price of guaranteed meaning in the face of death.

Becker sounds the alarm but offers no aid (existentialism: meaning sold separately). Instead, the beauty in the terror of living a worldwide charade meant to obscure our fragile mortality is choice. You choose your immortality project, you choose the way you will quell the anxiety found in the open field that is aware-freedom. Some will choose religion, but this can conflict with the chosen religion of others and in leaks the fear again. Some will choose career and reputation but this allows for the parasite of doubt to remind you of all that was not chosen. Some will choose others, but others must make their own choices and the living make unreliable immortality projects.

Becker is right — there is no paved path to peace with our mortality. Still, you must choose. The one path that always leads to combustion is no path, the path of nihilism. The salvation from our existential suffering lies in the choice itself. Choose.