I’ve had my share of angst. Perhaps more than others. I always knew that there wasn’t much a human could do to get peace. Self knowledge seems to be an ever deepening pit of bad news. When I picked up The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker, I was searching for answers. Hoping to be wrong and looking for some way to cushion the terrifying realization that I’m going to die, that everything is meaningless, that my life has the same value as that of a grasshopper and that in the end I might as well have never been born. Instead of answers, I merely got a confirmation of my deepest fears. There is no salvation. No solution. Mankind is screwed.
I did however, understand a lot more. I think it’s only now at the age of 31 that I can begin to get a real understanding of Ernest Becker’s masterpiece. Doubtless my self knowledge will grow with time. Because if there’s one thing I value more than my happiness, it’s the truth. I would not be happy if ignorance is the price. Even thinkers like Freud and Otto Rank commented that they were sometimes torn about whether or not they should help a patient overcome their neurosis, because these problems were shielding their patients from the more terrifying truth about life.
I was even able to diagnose myself and find a minor neurosis of my own – my obsession with retirement and my hatred of work. It turns out that it’s a problem I’ve created myself in order to get distracted from the very real terror of the human condition. I no longer worry about work. I also got a few other valuable insights into myself. The explanatory power of this book is very potent.
That said, this is not for everyone. I’m coming to realize that our illusions are necessary to maintain our sanity. Our world views, our character, our devotions and attachments…they’re all defenses against the overpowering fear of both life as well as death. Becker explains in painful clarity the issues of transference, fetishization and the perversions and demonstrates that we all display these propensities. They become clinical only when the patient is unable to function normally in “society”. So called “society” is itself a shared illusion. Madmen create their own religions – a religion with just one follower.
I make it a point to never re read books. But this one I’m going to keep close to myself on my Nook. I’m already going over some of the sections to get a deeper understanding of myself. Fascinating stuff. But beware – there be dragons in these pages! I don’t mean this sarcastically or as a means to entice you into reading it. There are no solutions here, no hope of transcendence, no “feel good” answers, no brilliant way out of life’s (and death’s) problems. This is not a book to live by. It’s only a book to understand. If you (like me) value self knowledge above all else, above your own happiness, then this is for you. If not, it’s no shame to maintain your illusions and be happy in them.
There’s no moral superiority here. We’re all just shuffling along to our graves as best we can.