MY RECYCLE bin is overflowing with good intentions unaddressed this week. So many interruptions. I haven’t even laid down the scratch track for October’s Song of the Month. Well, I did choose a song, so I suppose that’s a start. Yet I’m still a day late getting this blog out.
Meanwhile, it appears saving the constitution (or not) has trumped saving the planet this week. We only have so much bandwidth for crisis, don’t we? And only so much psychic resolve to face extinction in any form, which is what this posting will be about: the denial of death and how it literally drives us to distraction.
So close yet so far away
ERNEST BECKER was teaching at San Francisco State University, a third-rate intellectual backwater still recovering from the infamous student strikes, when I attended in the early ’70s. He died in 1974, the year I graduated. I had no idea I was so near genius—at the same place at the same time!—until I discovered his book in the ’80s, much to my eternal regret. Woulda, shoulda, coulda…
His (posthumous) Pulitzer Prize winning thesis was as simple as it was deeply disturbing: that, figuratively speaking, the foundation of the basement of the human subconscious is a concrete slab of death denial, placed there to keep that terrifying subterranean awareness out of sight and out of mind. Consequently, according to Becker, virtually all human actions are subconsciously motivated by avoiding any contact with that foundation and if any cracks appear, by getting as far away from them as possible with a frenzy of distraction that overwhelms any awareness of the underlying terror.
Dazzled by delusion, stoned on the drug of distraction…*
His ideas were both honored and ridiculed at the time, the most common criticism being, “This can’t be true; I never think about death,” inadvertently demonstrating the potential power of his thesis. But it was just a theory, so the deniers of denial held sway for some time.
Testing the hypothesis
THREE OF his students went on to create a series of ingenious experiments that convincingly validated Becker’s thesis. They demonstrated how the power of death denial drives the creation of cultural ideas, symbols and practices to be held as absolutes and then clung to with increasing fervor when threatened by outside forces, as this video explains.
When everything is on fire
FEAR IS everywhere these days: terrorism, mass gun violence, endless war abroad, endless cultural war at home, intractable polarization, increasing racial intolerance and ever expanding fires of rage and resentment that all appear to be tearing our civilization apart.
Are these the causes of moral decay or symptoms of something more profound and universal? I suspect they are symptoms, and while there are many forces in play (overpopulation, extreme economic inequality, shifting demographics, climate dislocation, etc.), underneath those is the denial of the mass extinction—soon to include our own offspring—that we are causing with our insatiable consumption (of fossil fuels and everything else), yet feel helpless to stop. Climate crisis evidence is now all around us as we slog through our lives and yet the denial is manifesting exactly as Becker and his followers predicted—on a global scale: hyper-nationalism; hyper-militarism; doubling down on reckless, irresponsible behaviors; normalizing cruelty against “others”; succumbing to endless, empty distractions; and a parade of additional horrors assaulting us daily that were inconceivable only a few years ago.
Is there hope?
YES AND NO. Changing the whole world is beyond anyone’s reach, although I encourage everyone to try anyway. Life on earth is worth fighting for. But if we don’t know what we’re fighting against, we aren’t likely to succeed. That goes for me in spades, I constantly get it wrong. But, if I were that highly evolved, I could charge a lot more for this blog than nothing!
What we can do is find ways to face our own mortality. That’s not exactly unmapped terrain. In fact, it’s at the root of every major religion, although most end up supporting the denial of death instead, with absurd notions of salvation on the cheap.
Die before you die, and you’re free to live. — Sufi saying
Just dig deeper. Find the teachers, find the teachings, do the practices, bring yourself face to face with death. It is the greatest teacher if you’re willing to lose yourself in the teachings. Otherwise, I don’t think there’s much hope—for you, for me, or for the planet.