Security or insecurity, that is the question. Whether it is nobler, or more functional, in the long run, to secure oneself against the many dangers we face in this world, or to face our essential, our existential insecurity, to face it head on, and arm ourselves instead with a knowledge that we CAN face it, and survive, even if we die.
I've been reading The Denial of Death, by Ernest Becker. Becker is
a great fan of Kierkegaard, an unhappy soul if ever there was one.
And he had a great deal of rational support for his unhappiness,
reasons that Becker also embraces. The greatest of these is an
assessment of our external reality, most importantly the
inevitability of death.
Oooo, why would anyone want to spend a lot of time thinking about
THAT! I mean, it's so MORBID!
Well, sure, but it is also inevitable, right?
Well, if it is so damn inevitable, there's no point in thinking
about it. Is there!
The problem, as Becker sees it, is that we actually spend a lot of
our time and energy AVOIDING thinking about it, that, in fact,
almost the whole of our character, all the "I'm the kind of person
who..." ideas we have about ourselves, is designed to deny, to
ourselves, the inevitably of death.
Well, isn't that better than moping around going "Woe is me, woe is
me, I'm gonna die, I'm gonna die..."?
And Becker argues that even this, even depression, neurosis,
psychosis are defenses against fully accepting the inevitability of
our deaths, the understanding that when our bodies cease to
function, our selves, our "immortal souls," will simply cease, the
way a light bulb ceases to glow when you shut off the
It really is a terrible fate, and one that humanity has spent
countless hours working to deny. Immortal souls, reincarnation,
higher powers...any means by which some part or essence of
ourselves will pass beyond the cessation of our bodily functioning
into some PERMANENT, if vastly different state of existence. It is
a great comfort, I'm sure.
At least it is a comfort to ourselves. Of course, when another
person challenges our chosen system of belief, or worse, tells us
we are WRONG, we are likely to get a bit upset. And not
surprisingly. After all, if I am WRONG, then maybe I don't actually
HAVE an immortal soul, and I'm going to have to face the reality of
my death. Well fuck you, bub, how do you like looking down the
barrel of my gun? At least I know that when YOU die, your immortal
soul is going straight to hell. And everyone knows that even an
eternity in hell is better than simply ceasing to exist.
But how can you really do it? How could you ever let go of all your
stuff, all the material goods that secure you, all the things that
you do to secure the stuff that secures you, all the ideas about
who you are and what you are like, to stand naked in the face of
death? It is, as Kierkegaard and Becker agree, our greatest
anxiety, the one that can't be alleviated by any amount of money,
or stuff, or therapy. You would simply have to live with it, know
it, be it, all the time. Even Jesus didn't ask that much when he
said "give up all your worldly goods and follow me."
I wish I had some answers.
I do know that no one ever learned to face fear by denying it. I
have let go of a lot of my stuff, let go of "home," of a regular
job and income. I do get scared sometimes, get anxious about
whether I'll have a place to go next, whether I'll have something
to do with my time. Small fears, to be sure, and easily resolved if
I would only "get a job!"
But I have a job: I'm learning to live with anxiety. I still can't
do it for very long. I still need rest periods, weeks and months at
some organic farm where I've never been before.
And is it going to work? Will I ever learn enough to be able to
face death without denial? Damned if I know. Probably better if I
just settle down, get a job, a nice income, some consumer goods, do
my part to expliot the third world and contribute to global
warming...yeah, that would be better.