A Response to Ernest Becker’s “Denial of Death” & A Short Essay On The Many Vehicles for Meaning, Transference, and the Transcendence of the Ephemeral in a Highly Ephemeral World
Source: WIRED

People create the reality they need in order to discover themselves.

—Ernest Becker, Denial of Death, Pp. 158

Let me begin this piece with a definition, because the word “god” in the title is a very loaded one.

When I use it, I simply mean a higher power, sometimes manifested as a deity or being, but mostly a thing we measure as greater than ourselves or humanity at large. A god is an object or pursuit we perceive as our subjective version of perfection, something infinite, and immortal or absolute. We all define our “god” or “gods” in different ways.

I would hypothesize that this human pluralism — the modern ‘pantheon of gods’ — has never been more readily visible than it is today in the information age, even if it is only seen in a simplistic, reductive, and self-curated way.

Ideological Pluralism and the Ephemeral nature of [Post-Post?] Modernity

“Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man”

Ibid, Pp. 190.

Christoph Niemann

The ephemeral dominates our culture. Events occur so quickly and in such multitudes that it seems difficult to catch up. I feel this viscerally as someone both working in Social Media (and exposed to this rushing cascade of information) and living in New York City (sometimes it really feels like it doesn’t sleep — Brooklyn especially).

Being attached physically and mentally to this nexus of the fleeting, it often feels that even being a substantive dilettante isinsufficient. It is simply impossible for the human brain to keep up with all of the information we’re being bombarded with on a day to day basis.

Thinkers on all sides of the ideological spectrum have mourned the death offacts-based thinking, substance, and reasonableness both on- and offline. But are we really in a crisis of deep thinking? Or, is social media merely shining light on how we’ve always operated? Do we truly lack substance, depth, and reason, or are the alarmists just not looking in the right place? Perception may be trumping reality in this case (or even feeding it), but I would suggest that the real answer is probably somewhere in the middle.

Online, ideological pluralism is becoming very apparent, if you manage to thwart the algorithmic lenses given to us by social networking and search sites.

There are so many things happening simultaneously that even the best multi-taskers would struggle to grapple with them all at once in a way that is truly substantive. My job forces me to attempt to do this on a regular basis, and I find myself feeling like I always fail. This has me consistently anxious about the next thing, the next big idea, the next cultural moment or phenomenon, and it has been impossible to avoid the underlying question: what does this all mean, if it means anything at all?

The Role of Fear (of Death):

GIF via bleakface

Ernest Becker hypothesized that human beings are united by a singular underlying fear: we do not wish to die. He is not the first to believe this, nor will he believe the last.

He suggests that many of us are consumed by this death-anxiety, even if it is only present as root of other anxieties. We are all, directly or indirectly, trying to reckon with our own mortality.

Some of us, myself included, reconcile ourselves with this simple truth about our mortality by creating statements like:

“I will be satisfied in life if….”

“I could die happy if…”

Followed by a list of things we’d like to accomplish.

Even if we do not do this exactly, many of us still create goals and set expectations for ourselves that stem from the things we believe are valuable or worthy of our time.

Alternatively, we distract ourselves and deny our own mortality (subtly or overtly) through words or our actions.

We fill in the blank space with something that would make us feel happy in the moment, or comfortable in the long run — like we’ve lived a full and complete life — one we would be okay with having end today because we pursued what we see as a greater purpose or reason for being. These can be as simple as our own day to day survival.

In Becker’s view — one I agree with — we’re all coping with our mortality in some way. The stories we tell ourselves all resemble one another because of this single unifying fact. Whether we worship at the metaphorical altar of Einstein, Jill Stein, Elizabeth Warren, Yahweh, Allah, God, Michael Jordan, Pele, Muhammad Ali, Isaac Newton, Jesus, Mohammed, Shakespeare, Picasso, Robert Frost, Ronald Reagan, Malcolm X, MLK, Tupac, Biggie, Superman, Wonder Woman, Shinji Ikari (get in your f****** robot), or any of other flawed human or human-invented hero/heroine, we are all fleeing from death, chasing meaning, and building our own “immortality projects.”

We are able to transcend the problem of mortality by focusing our attention mainly on self-oriented heroism. Becker says this symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual’s “immortality project” (orcausa sui). By successfully living out the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and part of something eternal; something that will never die (unlike their physical body). This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.

I will now discuss a range of these so-called ‘projects’.

Examining The Many Gods:

Science, Religion, Love, Art/Beauty, Money, Power, Prestige

Image from Mirai Nikki

Science:

The pursuit of science can be an explicit pursuit of immortality — a literal immortality project. But it can also be work that brings fame and prestige, and the sense that one is uncovering the ‘truth’ and becoming part of something much greater than themselves.

The most obvious examples of scientific “immortality projects” work toward advancements in technology that could extend an individual life indefinitely, or those that seek to help us understand the mysteries of the universe and life itself. This endless search for wisdom reflects our fear of death very completely, and Becker says this about the possibility of immortality (something scientists might achieve sooner that we think) and the search for extension of human life:

“…Choron offers a caution on this vision that gets right to heart of it and demolishes it: that the ‘postponement of death is not a solution to the problem of the fear of death….there still will remain the fear of dying prematurely.’ The smallest virus or the stupidest accident would deprive a man not of 90 years but of 900 — and would be then 10 times more absurd.”

Ibid, Pp. 267

Science is a project that creates a sense of true achievement for many. It may one day inform us of where we came from exactly, and where we are headed in the future. Describing it as an immortality project is not to say that it does not hold philosophical value or deep interest and even necessity. Death anxiety makes us seek out truth and understanding, and despite Becker’s concerns about immortality, it is clear that he valued scientific inquiry for its own sake.

I would additionally posit that because truth-seeking seems to be a human coping mechanism for the traumatic state of our reality, science is doubly valuable.

It may, one day soon, save us from ourselves — or not.

Religion:

Religion is also a way that people seek truth and understanding. It is easy to see how a religion and devotion to religious principles makes us feel that we are part of something larger, something necessary, and something that gives us implicit or explicit comfort about our own physical mortality.

Becker was fascinated by Otto Rank, and discussed him with respect to religion and the idea that we use religion as a coping mechanism. Becker juxtaposed this with Nietzsche’s famous critique of Judaeo-Christian morality and his desire to dismantle it:

“Nietzsche railed at the Judaeo-Christian renunciatory morality; but as Rank said, he “Overlooked the deep need in the human being for just that kind of morality..” Rank goes so far as to say that “the need for a truly religious ideology..is inherent in human nature and its fulfillment.””

Ibid, Pp. 174

I actually disagree with Becker’s take on Nietzsche slightly. I think Nietzsche saw that innate human need for religion (or at least a belief system), but believed the existing morality to be inherently warped and at odds with his own or at least what he saw as the proper way to reckon with our own mortality. Thus, he critiques and deconstructs it, and offers something new in its place. Nietzsche’s work in Thus Spoke Zarathustra shows him creating a new, secular belief system, based around Zarathustra — arguably a kind of Christ-figure.

Nietzsche saw that he couldn’t just deconstruct Christianity and leave us with nothing to believe in. He left us with his own form of doctrine — which seems, in some ways, hypocritical given his critique of religion, but it also shows that he felt the same pull as the rest of us do — to reconcile with our own mortality and ascribe to a belief system that can help us do that.

Some would likely argue that religion (particularly organized religion) is harmful, or does not seek truth in the same way as science. However, even science itself is a form of religion. It is often equally guilty of dogma and can also lead us towards harm. Just because religion and religious extremism has some groups and practices that must be condemned does not mean that there are parts of it that are just as necessary as the greatest scientific discovery.

Those who do not ascribe to a religion should be treated with respect. Those who do are equally deserving of respect. I will discuss conflicting ideologies and immortality projects in a later section, in which I hope to go further in bridging these deep ideological divides.

Art and Artistry:

Artists pursue their own immortality in a very visceral way. Their projects are direct manifestations of their intent to leave a mark on this world, and it could be said that art is a deep form of self-worship, transferring the “god” into the self and manifesting it in the creation of pieces that reflect the artist’s deeper self in order to gain recognition, and affirm their life, ideology and their way of being.

As a poet, I can see and understand this in my own work. In some ways, art is therapeutic. In others, it is an endless exercise in narcissism and the excavation of the self in service of something higher. It is both selfish and selfless. But it also can connect us with others, and that deeply human connection and the affirmation we derive from those bonds as artists is enough to keep us creating, surviving, and reconciling ourselves with our deepest fears.

Human Relationships & Love:

What about your classmates that got married instead of pursuing a career? People in serious relationships? Inseparable best friends? Young mothers? Couples with children? This is another form of reconciliation with the physical realities of life that is rooted in the fear of death and mortality. The creation of a child is also the continuation of your self and your family line into the future.

Some also push this kind of love and meaning onto their relationships and partners in life. I find Becker’s meditation on relationships very poignant:

“How can a human being be a god-like ‘everything’ to another? No human relationship can bear the burden of godhood, and the attempt has to take its toll in some way on both parties. The reasons are not far to seek. The thing that makes got the perfect spiritual object is precisely that he is abstract — as Hegel saw. He is not a concrete individuality, and so He does not limit our development by His own personal will and needs. When we look for the ‘perfect’ human object we are looking for someone who allows us to express our will completely, without and frustration or false notes. We want an object that reflects a truly ideal image of ourselves. But no human object can do this; humans have wills and counter wills of their own, in a thousand ways they can move against us, their very appetites offend us. God’s greatness and power is something that we can nourish ourselves in, without its being compromised in anyway by the happenings of this world. No human partner can offer this assurance because the partner is real. However much we may idealize and idolize him, he inevitably reflects earthly decay and imperfection. And as he is our ideal measure of value, this imperfection falls back upon us. If your partner is your ‘all’ then any shortcoming in him becomes a major threat to you. If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did, or loses her intellectual sharpness, or falls short of our own peculiar needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it — death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. “She lessens” = “I die.” this is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings….

…In this sense, the deflation of the over invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it.

Ibid, Pp. 167.

Creating a “god” from another person is a survival strategy born from necessity. But sometimes it does not work, and it cannot truly complete us. It can be fulfilling, but is ultimately not the solution to our reconciliation with death. We will all (likely) die some day, and investing in someone to share that life with is a constant source of comfort and a way to cope with death’s inevitability.

If calling it a survival strategy seems a little reductive — it is. But this is not meant in a negative way. All of these ‘gods’ are flawed in some way, but this does not mean that we should stop pursuing them — but we should ask ourselves why we do so, and how they impact us and others around us.

Money, Power, & Prestige

Many are also caught up by these three pursuits. These are also “gods” of sorts. We seek them both out of distraction and a way to leave our mark upon the world — to gain immortality for ourselves through our deeds and through the recognition of them. However, the pursuit of our immortality projects, particularly these three, often leads us to prey upon others and trample upon their lives in the pursuit of greatness. This is, Becker warned, the root of conflict, and is an unacceptable form of violence against other human beings.

[Social] Justice:

or “Reconciling My Chosen Gods with Others, & Wrongness”

I understand that this part of the essay represents a manifesto for my own form of ‘immortality project’, my own form of dogma, if you will. That being said, I must be prepared to be completely wrong about all of this. We all must be prepared for wrongness, and be understanding that this is merely a part of learning — not an inherently good or bad thing. This being said, I would like do delve into my own beliefs a little here — particularly regarding human rights and where I believe there are some definite positions to be taken on right and wrong.

There are ideologies and “gods” mentioned above that trample upon others and their basic human rights. These are the kind that must be fiercely condemned, though properly and thoroughly understood and taught, and hopefully eradicated from practice (though not from discourse entirely) and from becoming anyone’s causa-sui. This might include Nazism or other forms of fascism, racism, oppression, or other ideas that attack fundamental human rights.

These are also among those laced with a distinct lack of empathy for those less fortunate or those we can easily ‘other’. It is imperative that we all work to dismantle our biases that reinforce this ideology because it lacks proper concern for others’ beliefs, principles, and lives. Some are more complex than the few I listed above, but all of these are something to be understood and changed, not hated and eradicated entirely from discourse thoughtlessly. We cannot forget that there is always something worse for the oppressed that could take their place.

Justice — my personal ‘god’ — is tied to the fact that at the most fundamental level, we must recognize that each person has a right to life — and by extension to their own personal ‘gods’.

This thesis stems from Amatrya Sen and Martha Nussbaum’s capabilities approach, which sets forth that: we are born, by simple virtue of growth in our mother’s womb, into a system of rights and duties — a human society that knows no borders — and we have an obligation to care for one another. We can shirk this obligation or violate it in deep ways (murder, slavery, exploitation of others), but these violations must be condemned and argued against. Insofar as we have the ability and means to provide it, a just and fair society will support everyone’s basic rights.

This is my personal ideology — one I believe is built on empathy and understanding each other person as a discrete individual and as part of a collective. It is inherently inconsistent with some other ideologies, but it is also one that attempts to accept them as part of a diverse world and necessary to properly understand what real empathy and respect are.

Despite condemning ideologies that lack this, I cannot do this not without empathy and care for those who firmly hold these beliefs, but I will argue against them fiercely. This, to myself and others who hold this ideology dear, is fundamentally a fight for the very core of humanity and the human spirit. A fight to help us reconcile ourselves with the fear of death that plagues all of us and unites us on the deepest level.

“If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor.”

-Desmond Tutu

The Empathy Condition, Education and How to Deal with Our Ideological Pluralism

Animation by The Gif Connoisseur

Ideological pluralism is a given in a world full of people from diverse backgrounds. The altars at which we worship in order to fill our lives with meaning are very dear to us, and one must be able to understand how deeply tied to each individual’s reason for being their personal beliefs and ideologies are.

Empathy can help us understand one another to a greater degree. We must teach it, because it can absolutely be learned. Many people have an inherent sensitivity to others, but somehave more difficulty fostering this sensitivity.

Empathy is often misunderstood. Real empathy has substance, depth, and true consideration for other ideologies. It is useful, efficient, and can help bring meaning into our lives through care for others.

The practice of empathy is not about protecting feelings alone, but protecting the things that give our lives meaning. Feelings will get hurt, and disagreements will be had. Even very strong ones. But we cannot sit idly by and watch the world continue on a destructive path. This is necessary and vital as we seek to understand one another and have difficult conversations about our values and why we hold them.

Social media and advances in communication seem to have made the world more contentious — but I think that it has always been this way, we just have shone a light into the darkest places. We have revealed monsters in our midst, but that does not mean we cannot beat them, tame them, and understand them so that we do not create more.

So, my proposal is: let us not be our own worst enemies.

Let us learn real, substantive empathy for the sake of our friends, family, and every single other human being on this planet. We must use it to own up to our failures, the worst things that we have done to ourselves and to others. Learn it for both selfish and selfless reasons. We need to seek to understand each other deeply in order to push ourselves into the future, because we are all de-facto stakeholders in that future, with the ability to shape it into something better for us all. If we cannot do this, we may destroy ourselves and our planet through a failure to tackle the problems that we have created for ourselves — we may simply survive, or fizzle out, and our entire species will be just a small speck in the grand scheme of the universe. Even if my time here is finite, I would like to think that I tried hard to make us all matter more to one another, and through this, to make the most of our fantastic human potential, regardless of what we believe to be true.

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