- Jason McCarty
Denial of Death
I am currently reading Ernest Becker’s revolutionary book, The Denial of Death. It has me thinking about many things: my own personal life, the life of my clients and my practice in general, and my future studies. Becker’s treatment of our denial of death is powerful and hauntingly accurate. Because we live with the reality that we are going to die, we tend to find ways to quell the terror of this reality. Anxiety is the result of this reality and can manifest itself in looking more like the fear of one’s own potential; or future possibilities; or the fear of what others might think (self-annihilation); or pain and difficulty in general. Why be afraid of our own potential? Because we are moving in one direction and time isn’t standing still. How is fear of pain a fear of death? Because things like pain and confusion bring us closer to a reality that life is temporal and the fear is that we don’t feel like “this” forever.
It may sound morose for me to be focusing on this reality, but the more I have studied death (Irvin Yalom’s Starting at the Sun is another good book about death anxiety) the more I have realized and experienced a greater sense of meaning in my life. This also seems to be what others who have had near death experiences say as well — it gives them a renewed appreciation for life and many of their decisions change to what really matters to them as opposed to what was expected of them.
In looking at one’s mental and emotional health, psychology and psychiatry can often stay too narrow within their own vision of pathology and the world. The problem with this is something like anxiety gets labeled as a “problem” or an “illness” or a “disorder” when much of the time it is an overall coping system with the reality of death, or lost possibilities. Sometimes anxiety shows up to tell us something. It is a part of our Being that is trying to get our attention, not just something to be medicated. The medical community needs to get back to its roots of being a healing medicine, and this most definitely incorporates philosophy, not just ‘modern’ science.
If you took a step back today and looked at your life, you would be able to see some of the things you are doing to play it safe and deny your own death reality. And ‘dying’ is not just about an actual death, but a dying of the ‘self’ and lost possibilities for this life. The more we face this truth in our lives, the more we can begin taking deeper breaths (short breaths are a signifier of anxiety) and the more we can move into life with a greater reckless abandon.
Death is a reflector, the more one stares at it truthfully the more it reflects back the nature of life, the richness in front of you. Anxiety has you looking ten steps ahead, in fear, in denial of death, and therefore doesn’t allow you to see and feel the richness right here, right in front of you.
I would encourage you to read Becker’s book or even Yalom’s. Both are great in their own ways. Yalom’s is more accessible, while Becker’s can be more complicated depending on your understanding of psychology, especially Freud.