Scared to Death of Death?
Updated: Jan 6
Death Anxiety is anxiety caused by thoughts of death, Also referred to as Thanatophobia (fear of death).
In Buddhism, the view is that each living being has a continuity or stream of consciousness moving from one life to the next, & by understanding the death process, and familiarising oneself with it, one can remove fear at the time of death, ensuring a good rebirth, this is in alignment with Existentialist views; as in, to deny death is as equally destructive as to live in constant fear of it. Existentialist belief is that to live a truly authentic and genuine life, one must face the reality of death and limitation, and the individual's journey through death issues allows for life and love to be experienced more completely; Buddhism and Existentialism agree that it is only by recognising how precious and short life is, we are most likely to make it meaningful and to live it fully. Drawing on the theories of Buddhism, Existentialism, and Attachment theories, it is our experiences of love attachments and loss attachments, as well as our life choices as we seek out the meaning of life on a path to enlightenment which shapes our personalities.
Jewish-American Culturist and Anthropologist Ernest Becker (1924-1974), born in 1924 to Jewish Immigrant parents, during military service he helped to liberate a Nazi concentration camp. As an academic outcast, it was only after winning the ‘Pulitzer Prize’ award for his book ‘The Denial of Death’, that he gained wider recognition, this was awarded two months after Becker’s death in 1974.
It is widely accepted that human beings are the only species aware of their own mortality. In Becker’s book ‘The Denial of Death’, it is his belief that human civilisation is a symbolic defence mechanism against the knowledge of our own mortality. This in turn acts as the emotional an intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. He suggests that if we were to understand the full significance of our impending death, we would be overwhelmed by the anxiety, and so to protect ourselves we require a psychological antidote which keeps the fear of death hidden in our unconscious. These antidotes can be found by convincing ourselves that our lives are of paramount importance. Becker’s view is that there is a duality that exists in human life between a physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning (Becker, 1973).
Because of this dualistic nature in humanity we are able to transcend the dilemma, by the concept of what Becker refers to as ‘heroism’. Becker believed ‘heroism’ is a reflex to the terror of death. He states ‘heroism’ is unachievable, as not one person is greater than another, so in order to feel our lives have meaning and significance within human civilisation, we embark of what Becker refers to as ‘immortality projects’, this is so that we can become part of something that we feel will last forever. The immortality project then makes us feel as though we are heroic as we have become part of something eternal. These immortality projects are what Becker refers to as ‘The Three Solutions to Death’; Religious Heroism, Cultural Heroism and Personal Heroism.
Religious Heroism; most religions will tell its followers that despite our true insignificance and weakness, we have meaning to a creator, that we were brought about, created or maintained by some sort of creative force. As we celebrate our Chocolate Eggs this Easter, we are reminded of the resurrection of 'Jesus', confirming unconscious desires that we may be 'reborn'. Cultural Heroism; some of us become hero’s by becoming celebrities, or by having a family, within a job, or joining a political party, the point is, we feel we are contributing to something that will live on after we die. Personal Heroism; by using your own talent, such as by creating a piece of art or writing a book (or blog), by using it as your own self-worth, it will never die, unlike our own physical body (Becker, 1973).
Becker argues that when immortality projects fail this can be a great source for the destruction and misery in our world. Especially in the case of religious heroism, the conflicts which exist with war, racism, genocide or nationalism, as one immortality project contradicts another, suggests that the others must be wrong. He suggests if our immortality or heroism projects are failing, we are being consistently reminded of our mortality and insignificance, which may cause us to suffer from depression. If we feel that our immortality project is falling apart, it may make it impossible for us to enforce sufficient defence mechanisms, leading us to create our own reality in which we can become better hero’s, perhaps in the case of Schizophrenia. Becker felt that in order that we feel heroic or immortal to combat the anxiety of our impending death, as religious heroism is no longer a possibility in our ‘age of reason’, cultural heroism converts us into blind conformists and personal heroism is doomed to failure, we need new convincing ‘illusions’.
Finally; Becker provides no definitive answer to the Denial of Death; this is because he believes that there is no perfect solution. It was his hope that the realisation of humanity’s own mortality could help to bring about a better world (Becker, 1973).
This blog was inspired by the article 'Meet the Doulas Helping the Terminally Ill Face Death With a Smile' (H.Hanra,The Times, 07/05/2019).
Psychotherapy helps you to work through your feelings around death, fear of your own death, or of loved ones.
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Eve Houseman MBACP