In his important work The Denial of Death (1973), Ernest Becker made a case for seeing much of Western culture as a series of “immortality projects,” where we have worked collectively to hide from ourselves (deny) the bald fact that one day we will die.
Great and small people alike have invested themselves in projects they hope and believe will outlive them; and, as in the case of religion, in the project of gaining everlasting life in heaven after they “die.”
Some believers prefer to speak of “transitioning” rather than dying, as it permits them to talk around death instead of facing its inevitable reality – as the period at the end of our life sentence.
The problem with our immortality projects, one that Karl Marx saw clearly more than a century earlier, lies in how they divert our focus of attention and care from the way life is, to life as we imagine it could (or even should) be. 2,300 years before Marx, Siddhārtha Gautama (the Buddha) had the same insight. The “immortality project” of Hindu religion held forth the promise of an individual’s elevation through numerous lifetimes of proper piety to a final liberation (moksha) of their undying self.
All of this concern over abstract metaphysics and progressive reincarnations, in Siddhārtha’s opinion, distracted devotees from the real existential task at hand, of finding liberation in this life from the wheel of suffering.
Although I’m not intending this post as a study of Buddhist teaching, one critical distinction is worth carrying forward here, which is that, according to the Buddha’s “life is suffering” doctrine (his first Noble Truth), there are certain facts about life as it is that cannot be ignored without consequence. Indeed, our attempts at ignoring them are what turn these facts into suffering – into devastating assaults on our nervous state, emotional composure, mental equanimity, and the very meaning of life itself.
It’s our refusal (or willful ignórance) to face, work with, and accept life as it is that makes us suffer.
Life as it is includes pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death – ending in our own. It was his observations of such facts that drove Siddhārtha from his palace home in search of liberation. His royal lifestyle had been one immortality project that apparently could not protect him from the facts of life, despite his father’s best efforts at keeping him inside the palace compound. From there he joined another immortality project, this one not of self-indulgent luxury but self-denying austerity, with monks who believed that by starving and punishing the body they could free their true self.
After some time, he left their company and came to the revelation of his “middle way” while meditating under the canopy of a Bo tree.
Although we should certainly herald the rise of individual self-consciousness as an evolutionary watershed in human history, it must be said that a lot of suffering came in its wake. Being conscious of ourselves means that we are also (or will be very soon) aware of the pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death that are unavoidable. Life as it is brings along all kinds of experiences that may tempt us at times to jump onboard with one immortality project or another, with some guarantee that things don’t have to be this way, that we can have life without these problems – if only in a life after this one.
Let’s admit it: We don’t want to suffer. We would rather have a life where pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death are simply sponged away and we can go on living problem-free forever.
And if our immortality project grants us assurance by the conviction that life’s final period is only a comma leading to the better life we imagine, then what’s the harm in that? Doesn’t our belief regarding a perfect life in heaven after we die help us bear our suffering in the meantime? If we really believe that death is merely a “transition” to something infinitely better, then our inevitable “end” is no big deal, therapeutically speaking, right?
Before we answer that question, let’s identify the various ways we “deny death,” in Becker’s terms, or otherwise refuse to engage with life as it is. We can flat-out deny what we find unacceptable and simply refuse to acknowledge its reality. We can also try to defend ourselves against it happening to us. Beyond that, we can work hard to avoid or dodge life as it is. Another tactic is to defer such problems to a later time – just not now, maybe tomorrow, and hopefully never. And finally, we can plan our escape from life as it is on the departure narrative of some heaven-bound religion.
Going deeper still, we should also inquire into what motivates all these maneuvers away from life as it is and hopefully closer to life as we imagine it should be.
Obviously, our creative imagination makes it all possible, and in some cases the life we imagine does help us to see and appreciate the longer views, larger contexts, and more nuanced textures of our experience, guiding our way through life as it is with wisdom, faith, and compassion. Holding such ideals in our imagination can keep us from falling hopelessly into our pain, illness, loss, decrepitude and death.
Still, beneath our creative imagination and serving as a principal “energy inlet” of its inspiration is our nervous system. Becker believed that one thing all human nervous systems have in common is at least a chronic twinge of insecurity, following very naturally in the wake of our emerging self-consciousness.
Stepping into our own center entails a separation from what is “not me,” and it’s here that we become aware of our exposure and vulnerability. We are all, in some degree, insecure, both in fact and feeling; and to pacify our feeling of insecurity we attach ourselves emotionally to whatever (or whomever) we hope will make us feel better – if not blissfully calm, then at least a little less anxious.
This is where Becker’s immortality projects come into play: By denying death and transferring our focus of attention and care to an imagined everlasting life somewhere else, or by identifying ourselves with something that will outlast us, our insecurity over life as it is can be assuaged – simply because death doesn’t really matter, it isn’t real. And if death doesn’t matter (because it isn’t real; it’s only a “transition”), then maybe we don’t have to face our pain, illness, loss, and decrepitude either, since the locus of value and concern has been projected out and away from life as it is.
But in our ambition to have less of life as it is – and we should make the point that this life is also our arena for experiencing inner peace, abundant joy, genuine love, and amazing grace – then we will end up losing our chance at a full life, of being fully alive.
To paraphrase Jesus: If we seek to save our life (from pain, illness, loss, decrepitude, and death) we will lose (miss out on) what makes life most precious and worth-the-while.