Denial of Death Gets Us Nowhere

January 17, 2014

Ernest Becker wrote a Pulitzer Prize winning book call The Denial of Death in 1973. I was required to read it in seminary, and its basic message has stuck with me all these years. I am re-reading it now, and finding it more accessible than ever, given my current lung cancer situation. His basic thesis is that all humans have in common a fear of death, and that controlling this anxiety is one of the most powerful motivators of human behavior. This fear is so terrifying that people “conspire to keep it unconscious,” and replace it with conscious, persistent efforts to make themselves immortal or “heroic,” as a way of transcending death.

It’s time to own up to some things that have been niggling at me for a few years. Becker helps me name the trouble:  In my heart of hearts, I don’t want to die until I have made my mark on the world, and I don’t think I’ve done that yet. That “mark” is recorded in my bucket list of tasks and projects that are yet undone, especially the writing of three, maybe four, books, all of which are outlined and just waiting for the discipline and quiet to get them done. The clue that there is an underlying cause for my procrastination is that I have the peace and quiet any writer would wish for! What Becker is helping me to realize is that these projects are not completed because I am getting in touch with something far deeper and motivating even than anxiety about death. In light of the gospel of Jesus Christ, I am struggling with the basic premise that personal heroism based on my own self-worth is even valid.

I have been aware for some time that I want to be remembered and respected for something, to leave a legacy for the next generation that rises up to call me blessed. [At least my goal is not to conquer the world or resort to violence to make my power absolute. This, Becker reveals, is the dark side to the human quest for heroism.] But it seems I am more ready to face the music accompanying this drive for glory, which, according to Becker and his intellectual mentor Otto Rank, is a deep question: How true is it that I must conform to a cultural definition of heroism and insist on self-worth, and is it enough to actually sustain me for the long haul?

As a person of Christian faith, I am invited to think about myself in an entirely different way that may in fact help me face my death with more joy and courage than a finished book could ever provide. The apostle Paul, who had invested a lot in being the perfect Jew, a zealous Pharisee out to obliterate the early Christian movement, instead discovered that any strength (or heroism) he had was nothing compared to knowing and promoting the primacy of Jesus Christ the Lord (Philippians 3:4-11). To live for Christ is to serve him and his purposes, to lift up his memory and abide as God’s child, empowered by the Holy Spirit to represent him in the world. This is a very strong antidote to a fear of death, and it carried Paul through deep troubles:

For we do not preach ourselves, but Jesus Christ as Lord, and ourselves as your servants for Jesus’ sake. For God, who said, “Let light shine out of darkness,” made his light shine in our hearts to give us the light of the knowledge of the glory of God in the face of Christ.

But we have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us. We are hard pressed on every side, but not crushed; perplexed, but not in despair; persecuted, but not abandoned; struck down, but not destroyed. We always carry around in our body the death of Jesus, so that the life of Jesus may also be revealed in our body. For we who are alive are always being given over to death for Jesus’ sake, so that his life may be revealed in our mortal body. (2 Corinthians 4:5-11)

In light of the five stages of grief, one invests a significant effort to deny death (denial), is likely to get angry at something that thwarts one’s invincibility (anger), and tries to work out an alternative in which one prevails as hero (bargaining). Since Adam and Eve’s fall and this side of heaven, we discover no bargaining will work ultimately. We are all going to die. Denying this gets us nowhere. That is why we must investigate the matter and talk directly about the pill that is so hard to swallow. Tomorrow.





5 Responses to “Denial of Death Gets Us Nowhere”

  1. emd5542 Says:

    While steering us to face the reality of the 5 stages of death alongside you, my take is that you’re grandslamming the first 4 out of the ball park. Isn’t that where Christian faith beckons us?

    Several years ago when I was soaking up everything Alzheimer’s and other dementia I sensed a drive to share that learning. Result was an invitation to write a column for the church newsletter within the context of Scripture. Ten issues later I was done.

    Isn’t your call to draw your readers deeper into relationship with Christ, The God With Us, showing us what trust and obedience in the One who conquered death is all about?

    Right on and write on, RevMary. The Good News is never old and The Great Commission is ours to disciple until Christ returns.


  2. Rev. Bruce W.H. Urich Phd Says:

    You have left out the third letter (d for depression in Elizabeth Kubler-Ross’s classic DADBA); however with my Parkinson’s I am very interested in your work.

  3. Rev. Bruce W.H. Urich Phd Says:

    Bah–it is denial, anger, bargaining, depression and then acceptance. Sorry

  4. emd5542 Says:

    Having read NT Wright’s New Testament for Everyone [much lighter than his tomes], I’m now reading John Goldingay’s Old Testament for Everyone for morning devotional. While waiting for Psalms 73-150 to be published I’ve gone back to Chronicles, not one of my favorite OT books, but today’s commentary on 1Chronicles 22:2-23:1 connects to this blog. Dr. Goldingay writes:

    “In the way Chronicles tells David’s story, the legacy that interests David is the building of the temple….The temple is thus the most important thing about David. (The 2 Samuel version of his story rather suggests he could have done with being a bit more concerned about his sons growing up to be good men.)The irony is that he himself cannot complete the task of building it. In this he resembles other leaders in the Bible. Abraham and Sarah do not enter into possession of the country of Canaan. Moses, Miriam, and Aaron die before they reach the promised land. Joshua dies before the occupation of the country is really complete. Jesus leaves to his disciples the task of discipling the world. People don’t complete what they might have hoped would be their legacy; they have to leave its completion to other people. The Bible story thus subverts our focus on leaving a legacy, on achieving things that the world will remember us for.” p. 61

    RevMary, don’t you just love how God writes you in?

  5. Casey Jones Says:

    Speaking of heroes and of the heroic, my visiting seminary professor, Paul Lehman, used to quote someone (Nietzsche? – if so that ‘s a bit hard to believe) in a way that as a first-year & trial- year seminary student I found very helpful: “Around the hero–tragedy—around the demi-god, a satyr dance, and around God-what?….perhaps a world.”

    Mary, I bless you in Jesus’ name, Casey Jones

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s