Death is a party and we’re all invited

Human beings are fragile creatures. Our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are short, brutish affairs. And the sooner we recognize our mortality, the healthier we will be.

Human beings are fragile creatures. Our lives, in the grand scheme of things, are short, brutish affairs. And the sooner we recognize our mortality, the healthier we will be.

Cognition is the human being’s greatest asset. The ability to think and theorize about our lives and the world we live in is what sets us apart from every other organism on our planet. But this presents us with a unique problem: We know we are going to die. And the way we respond to the problem of our own mortality affects every aspect of our lives, often in ways we don’t even realize.

In his 1974 Pulitzer Prize winning book, The Denial of Death, the best resource about death-denial, cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker outlined this idea thusly: “Human civilization is an elaborate, symbolic defense against our knowledge of death, an extension of hard-wired survival mechanism.”

Humans can transcend this dilemma of the mind through various acts, most boiling down some form of “heroism,” or creating the symbolic self. Becker called this process “the immortality project.” He theorized that every single human is constantly and subconsciously working on their own project, which, in turn, encompasses all aspects of their life.

So maybe you’re thinking, “Well, yeah, of course some intellectual old guy has an all-encompassing theory. But it doesn’t mean anything. I’m just living my life the way I want.” And all I have to say to that is: exactly.

Think about it. A lot of people have kids, and while they love those children and get various benefits out of having those kids, doesn’t it all boil down to continuing your genetic heritage? And more than that, don’t most parents try to make their children in their image? Yes they do, and if their child lives after the parent dies, a part of them literally lives on both genetically and emotionally. Hence: immortality.

Religion too serves the purposes of death-denial, and really, religion just plain is death denial. That’s because religious institutions are based around solving the afterlife dilemma. Whether it’s the belief in “heaven,” as in Christianity, or the belief in reincarnation, religion gives a solution to the question “What happens when we die?”

Religion also works as a form of death-denial on a different level: it’s an institution. Institutions, whether they are racial, national or political, work as part of our immortality projects because they advance the subconscious image of ourselves. If we are part of an organization that lives on past our lives, part of us lives on with it–or so we like to think. And everything in our lives is associated with a larger system. Our jobs, our marriages, our country, the activist groups we belong to, the books we read, the things we write (and the newspapers we work for)–literally everything we connect ourselves to is an extension of our consciousness. And that consciousness is dealing with our innate knowledge of our impending doom. Depressing, you say? Not really. Most of those things I listed are good.

The problem, the troubling aspect of death-denial and humanity, is that we aren’t all living along the same path. There are 6.6 billion people on Earth, and we’re all making our own immortality projects. And all of those projects are different and often in conflict with one another. So if my connection to a religion or government is contradicted by your connection to a religion or government, we have a problem. We’re challenging each other’s concept of life and death–and subconsciously this destroys us.

That is why most wars are between huge power structures like religions (think the Crusades of the Middle Ages) or nations (think any war, ever). Huge groups have their perception of death wrapped up in large institutions, and those large institutions will always clash. And if we are reminded of death, we are more likely to cling to our institutions.

Religion is especially problematic because it so exactly defines death that it is necessarily in conflict with many, many other things.

So how should we live our lives? And how does accepting death help us?

Well, as I said before, we all understand death on some level, but we need to put it at the forefront of our intellectual minds. That way we can be sure our pursuits of immortality are positive, not negative. If we understand this, we can recognize that institutions are often in conflict with one another–but we, as people, don’t have to be.

And that is why accepting death is the healthiest thing you can do. It helps us live our lives more peacefully.