Revisiting Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, A Contemplative Review

I had a dream, in my twenties, that I was in a white room, a very bright one, and it felt okay, even curious. Then suddenly, a shadow began to slowly envelop the room. As the darkness increased, I became more and more terrified. The darkness, almost at its very darkest, gave me more terror than I ever experienced in my life, even up to this moment, and then, as everything grew pitch black, a feeling of immense relief and happiness, of total bliss, flooded through me. I awoke crying. Now, nearly 25 years later, this dream has clearer meaning to me.

I came upon Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death after listening to Mark Manson’s The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*uk, on my long drives home. Manson often refers to Becker as a way to accept the inevitable in order to be happy. I realized that the terror of death has always haunted me. It did when my father killed the family dog. It did when I turned up the music to drown out the final gasps of my other childhood dog. I ran from it when my brother had a tractor-trailer tire explode in his face and almost died, when my childhood friend was killed in a school bus accident, and when I was a no-show at my mother’s and father’s funeral. Yet as a lead Alter Boy for the Catholic Church, I served 8 funerals while an adolescent, two of them would be for little girls. I avoided death, the death terror. I knew now as a social work student that I needed to engage my own terror more directly.

After finishing Becker’s book, I thought about that dream again, Becker’s concept of faith, and even of Becker’s subtle but persistent dislike for some “perversions” and came to this understanding. In order to absorb one’s own symbolic and literal self in death and to absorb death itself, one must trust in the dark, the unknown completely, as if the universe, its black holes, is the mother by which we were born.  If birth was traumatic, then ideally death should be bliss. This act of dying and total release into the unknown is not only the acceptance of death but an acceptance and grounding in faith. We are not separate from what is great an infinite, even if we are small and finite in life because the grand is made of small detail, while smallness is what Becker would write, what’s just in front of our noses.

This act of letting go is not only mandatory, it is something we all will and must do. Sometimes it is imposed on us from others, or such dying is an impulsive happenstance of nature, and often it takes us by surprise, with no time to reflect or act. Whether willingly or forcefully, we will be released from ourselves.

What may be troubling, even for Becker, is that my fuller understanding of this connection of trusting the terror came from Chapter 10 while he addresses “Perversions.” As one that has my fuller share of neurotic tendencies and trauma, I wondered. It is here that more sound development is needed. Becker notes that there is a sadomasochistic quality to life and to sex, and this is true not only in sex but also in the food chain. Fish eat smaller fish, and the mother Cheetah gives a baby Gisselle to her babies for practice. As Becker and Freud note, “perversions” or what I would call sexual differences are very common, but I think such is a rather hasty assumption on Becker’s part, and he should have stuck more closely to Otto Rank’s understanding of perversions: that such can be strengths within a proper context.

Becker accurately deconstructs the problems with psychology and psychoanalysis and notes Freud’s own obsession with sex and his reluctance, even fear, of Rome or what really seems to be the father and of death. Becker also accurately underscores psychology’s flaw: It is too specific. It may help to give a current example. Do to my own life circumstances, I became very interested in sexual fetishes and paraphilia. I wanted to understand why so many men have fetishes, the common forms of paraphilia, such as pedophilia, exhibitionism, voyeurism, and even frotteurism. I became very interested in pedophilia because the concept of it is rather new and it is often misused in media. I began working with sex offenders and worked voluntarily with a group of “minor-attracted” people, helping them develop a conference for clinicians and researchers.

It is here that Becker’s criticism of psychology and academics, more generally, became clearer to me. It may help to refer to one of the co-founders of positive psychology, Dr. Martin Seligman. During an admissions seminar a few years back, Dr. Seligman noted that the very foundation of psychology is fundamentally wrong. Much of psychology was built after World War II, so the result was that all the funding for psychology research went into negative behavior. It occurred to me then that we look for what is wrong with people, but as Seligman notes, we don’t look at how others overcome their own struggles or “fetishes” or mental illnesses to become successful in life. I realized that when we look a sexual outlier, we do so because we think it falls outside of human nature. Here lies a confusion.

Fetishes or paraphilia have been around as long as humans. It is no secret that the very concept of Adam and Eve, the modesty demanded in religion, comes from our fear of the body, of our own creatureliness. Is not psychology’s own historical disgust with homosexuality (as seen with Becker’s limited and hateful view of it and all “perversions”), and later paraphilia, a means by which to separate humans from their creatureliness? Is not western psychology founded on Puritan and Calvinistic ideas, a simplified black and white reality? Do we not cover our bad smells with artificial good smells?

In my work with pedophilia or more accurately with minor attraction (no this is NOT justifying abuse of children), I realized that such attraction is persistent throughout human time, and such is very common now with social media, so are foot fetishes (or actual bare feet, to Becker’s horror), and incest fantasy alone ranks, according to my own therapist, as one of the top fantasies for men. Maybe some sexual perversion is not weak at all, just like some neuroses and sadomasochistic behavior is necessary, just like some immortal projects are? Is not that very darkest of spaces a blending and balance between what eats and devours us but what also makes us one with the universe?

In my understanding of Becker when he is most brilliant is that we must accept our true selves, and if we accept our creatureliness, we submit to death when it comes to us, but what makes man unique is how much pain were are willing to take in pursuit of our immortality project, something Mark Manson suggests in his work, when such a project is done more out of the greater good than of harm to others.

We cannot escape death, nor can we remove ourselves from craziness or even our sexual secrets and perversions, but for most, we can learn to navigate them. As one therapist told a combat veteran that asked her if his PTSD would ever go away, she said, “Just because you have a shadow doesn’t mean you always have to look at it.” 

Written and published by Earl Yarington @2019 all rights reserved

Published by EarlY

I have a PhD in literature and criticism and have taught literature, technical, and research writing for over 16 years. I am also a graduate student in social work in my final year. My focus area is with men that suffered past abuse, sex offending against children and with paraphilia. I will also complete my sex therapist certification by next year as well.

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