What makes people act the way they do? This is the question two social scientists, first Ernest Becker and then a couple of decades later, Sheldon Solomon asked themselves. Subsequently, they spent their entire careers trying to answer this thrilling question, and the answer they gave was equally interesting: death.
More specifically, the awareness of death and the denial of it. They both argue that the basic motivation behind most human activity is not sexuality like Freud thought but is related to mortality and the desire for immortality. Both in theory and practice, they showed us that they are on the right track to solving this age-old puzzle.
Ernest Becker started out his academic carreer as a cultural antropologist in 1960 in New York. But to answer this big question, one field of study didn’t prove to be enough, so he took on a multi-disciplinary approach, integrating psychiatry, psychology, sociology and even literature and theology into his work.
This way, a radically new view of human psychology, culture and history was born, along with a masterpiece that summarized his theories. Its title is the Denial of Death, and this book is so important that I shot a separate episode about it. Like the title says, he explains how denying human mortality defines and controls so many aspects of life, and even tells us how this tendency evolved throughout history.
What he speaks about is not the immediate threat of death, mitigated by the fight or flight response. Instead, it’s about the existential dread, the basic underlying death anxiety all so unique for the human animal. By having self-awareness we know that we are alive thus we also know that we will die.
This terror is so huge that if we didn’t manage it somehow, we would be crippled, demotivated and depressed. On a personal level, we manage it by constructing the ego, the armor of character, the vital lie as he put it. We try to boost our self-esteem so that we can see ourselves as valuable and special human beings, not just defecating pieces of meat destined to rot one day into oblivion.
On a social level, we construct peculiar fantasies, commonly shared belief-systems and imbue mundane and finite things with special and infinite meanings. The other-wordly invisible worlds are called religions, while to the more concrete and visible illusions we refer to as cultures.
According to Becker, both religions and cultures are mental constructions meant to shield us from the terror of death, by offering us either literal or symbolic immortality. However, the lies we tell ourselves about futile hopes often makes our lives worse on this very Earth. If my culture, religion and self-esteem protect me from death, then threatening these is equal to threatening my life itself.
As you are starting to see now, the denial of death has many repercussions, but most of this remains subconscious and thus invisible. In many of my videos, I explain in detail the various psychological, cultural, social, and ecological effects and also what to do about them. I think terror management theory is the most significant yet almost unknown idea of our times.
If you want to know more about death from a spiritual but down to earth perspective, you should read my book: The Power of Death. Click on the link below, and get it now! I’m deadly serious.