Ernest Becker was seen as an academic outcast before he won the Pulitzer Prize in 1974.1
Although a cultural anthropologist by trade, the questions he asked were bigger and broader, probing much deeper, than any singular specialization was capable of answering on its own.
He also had a strange way of mixing psychology and philosophy that didn’t sit too well with many of his contemporaries. The ideas that he championed weren’t quite in style at the time.
When his book The Denial of Death won the prize, however, this changed. Unfortunately, by then, Becker had lost his fight with cancer. Fortunately, he left behind a large body of work.
His big idea was that all of human culture is created in response to our persistent fear of death. Due to our ability to think conceptually, we have become the only animal that is self-conscious enough to be fully aware that it ends. As such, we live to defy this destiny.
The result of this is that we exist as much in a symbolic world as we do in a real, tangible physical world. In fact, it is this symbolic world that makes us so different from other animals.
It is why we develop philosophies and ideologies. It is why we build empires, and it is also why we create art. It is the cause of much evil in the world, but it also what inspires us to fight against it and produce meaning. In Becker’s own words:
“The person is both a self and a body, and from the beginning there is the confusion about where “he” really “is”- in the symbolic inner self or in the physical body. Each phenomenological realm is different. The inner self represents the freedom of thought, imagination, and the infinite reach of symbolism. The body represents determinism and boundness.”
The Destruction of Character
One way to think of the symbolic reality is as a dichotomy: there is a shared symbolic world that operates between humans, and there is also an inner symbolic world within each of us.
The inner symbolic world is what we think of as a self or as an identity or as our character.
As humans understood the limitations of the physical body (which they realized can’t endure), they began to create complex conceptions, among them a mental image of themselves.
Much of the evil in the world, according to Becker, is born from our attempt to defy the limitations of the physical body by compensating with this image of self – an image that can technically survive and impact the world long after we die (often referred to as a legacy).
Similarly, much of what we consider heroic and courageous is born from this same impulse.
In either case, what underlies most attempts like these is a belief in our own self-importance. We convince ourselves that what we are doing matters on some grand, cosmic scale.
There is nothing wrong with most of this if it helps us get by. For many, their causes, their careers, and their family give them something to pass on as a representation of themselves.
That said, a lot of what we try to pass on is borrowed from the shared symbolic world. Our characters are a mix of things that have been imposed on us without us questioning them.
A strong, genuine self finds its foundation in the destruction of this initial character – it first removes the influence of the shared symbolic world – so that it can build a new and more robust identity from the ground up, with both self-knowledge and self-awareness.
This self realizes that it is, in fact, not grandly self-important to the universe, but that it’s just here for the brief time that it is. In that time, the best it can do is care for things as they are.
Life as an Immortality Project
The vehicle of choice for our attempt at bypassing the limitations of the body is what Becker referred to as an immortality project – something that endures in the shared symbolic world.
Such a project is ultimately what gives us a sense of meaning and purpose. It’s most often a long-term effort to produce lasting value, whether that be in the form of a book or a business.
Even here, however, there are important distinctions worth making. Many people who hold onto the idea of their own objective self-importance pursue immortality projects more for shallow reasons that have to do with a developed ego than the value of the thing in question.
This has its limitations, but at the same time, it can and does work. That said, to Becker, there was a healthier, more sustainable way to carve our place in the symbolic world: by committing ourselves not to an image of self but to something transcendent beyond that.
Rather than striving to be heroic in identity, you would get there in service of something bigger, something more divine than an individual. To some, this would be in the name of god or science or progress. For others, it would be out of respect for a universal creative force.
The specific definition of the divine is an individual undertaking, and it’s less important than what it helps accomplish: namely, a commitment to the process of meaning-making without falling into the trap of believing you are more important than the universe deems you to be.
Different people, of course, also have different limitations on what they can undertake as an immortality project. Some people are in a better position than others to do things of scale.
But scale isn’t what is important. What is important is that you have something that you commit to over a sustained period of time – a thing that means something in itself.
All You Need to Know
The fear of death that Ernest Becker identified isn’t directly at the top of most people’s mind.
Very few of us walk around aware of the fact that we are going to die, nor do we spend time thinking about nurturing a symbolic self that endures beyond the limits imposed by nature.
Nonetheless, the realization of our mortality is deeply embedded in our psyche, and whether or not we notice it, it does affect how we live in this world. It shapes the decisions we make, it determines how we commit our time, and most importantly, it creates who we become.
For many people, this symbolic self is an amalgamation of the influences found in their surroundings, but for a few – those who can see the limitations of this approach – it is born from the destruction of character. They define themselves after first destroying themselves.
They are okay with acknowledging their lack of self-importance, and instead, they can commit to immortality projects that go beyond mere identity games and personal legacies.
Whatever their representation of the divine or the transcendent is, it ensures that they have a process of meaning-making that carries them through life without getting detached from it.
Becker gave many examples of how we reconcile our physical mortality with the potential for our symbolic immortality, and he believed that a solution of some kind was necessary.
Religions, ideologies, and cultural myths all provide some part of the answer, but ultimately, it comes down to the individual and how they see their role in the world around them.
Something is going to shape your symbolic self one way or another. It may as well be you.
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