Once you’ve read about Ernest Becker’s quest for immortality theory, you can’t un-read it. It’s like that picture that was circulating on the internet for a while with the little girl eating a giant tarantula. Once you’ve seen it, you can never un-see it. These things resonate in a deep place within us. The quest for immorality makes a lot of sense. It’s why you went out night after night in your twenties and endured the torture of dating. It’s why you want to accomplish something great, and leave your name behind. Our repression of the fear of mortality is tied into the sports we play, the adventures we seek, our children, our life’s work, the way we dress, the food we eat, and everything else about our lives.
Putting my son on the bus in the morning each school day for the past four years has never lost its emotion, or its sweetness. I’ve repressed the emotion, to some extent. Seeing his little face in the window as he gets carted off to the distant world of school has always sent an arrow through my heart. Even now, when he is a big boy in third grade, it still strikes me that it’s such a precious thing, this child’s life. I smile and wave and slip back inside and get busy with other things. In this case, “other things” is often taking care of my second child, an eleven month-old daughter.
This particular morning I found myself thinking of some other people in my life. I thought about one man in particular, father to one of my oldest friends, who has led a fine and very interesting life. I imagined writing a biography about him. Or making a documentary that tells his story. I realized there are so many people whose stories I would like to tell, if I had all the time in the world. I want to make us all immortal. For now, though, I’m just working on my own immortality.
I’m sure that why I write, or do anything creative, has something to do with my fear of death. This isn’t to put a negative spin on it; creativity is a gift and it’s not just about chasing away the shadows. We don’t know where creativity comes from, or why some people are haunted by the need to make up stories or paint pictures more than someone else, but chances are that repression of mortality is in there somewhere. It may be genetic, it may be environmental, it may be both. Why are some people depressed and others not so much? Are some people more aware of their mortality than others? Certainly some people seem to have learned to cope better. The Dalai Lama appears to have a good handle on things.
It’s a mysterious thing, the quest for immortality. It is more often cleverly concealed than readily apparent. Not only does our ego fear the idea of its non-existence, but it also has convincing wiles and stratagems to camouflage its attempts at life everlasting. Some methods of coping with mortality are rather obvious. Religions depicting a wondrous afterlife are tied into our deepest fears of dying. Competitions, like in team sports, are all about a winner – and even when a team wins there is a Most Valuable Player. Team Sports are about males competing with each other for genetic superiority and procreative rights. The winning males have proven that they can “score” more often by being physically superior – faster, and stronger. They evade their competitors like eluding predators, and they score goals and touchdowns and baskets with little objects that are very much like seeds, or sperm.
Less obvious, maybe, is the quest for immortality found in war. Or, more specifically, in a soldier’s idea of “serving his country” or, most pointedly, “dying with honor.” There is a degree of anonymity in being a soldier, and nobility in serving a cause one believes in. I’m not coming down on anyone willing to give their life to what they believe in, but observing that it is this very cause, be it patriotic or otherwise, that lends the immortality to their lives. They fight and possibly die for something “bigger than themselves.” Their names may be inscribed on a monument. They will be “remembered” for their service. More than anything, most people just want to be remembered.
When someone observes “your baby looks just like you,” we may beam with pride. We are living on through our child. We may create a legacy of children, or we may set out to amass a great fortune. Of course, the saying is, “you can’t take it with you,” but we still proceed as if we could, as if our children, our wealth, our fame were enough to keep us from that inevitable door.
Greed, or hoarding, is a perversion of a basic instinct to acquire survival skills and items to protect us against the elements, or enemies. Fundamentalism is another perversion of a natural instinct – the instinct to affiliate oneself with a larger group for protection and comfort. This “herd instinct” is a part of our social make-up. We see it when we observe someone wearing a jacket with their favorite sports team, or expressing their allegiance to a particular cultural affectation, like a band, or a style of clothing. It is certainly part of our sense of nationalism. We “in-group” ourselves and “out-group” all those not in our immediate herd. We compete with that other herd for resources in order to survive. That herd may be formed by religious dogma, by the borders of a country, the color of skin, or the location of a sports team. We then create an inferior persona for those in the out-group. We de-humanize them so that we can feel other from them in order to kill them, subjugate them, or simply not consider them struggling for the same immortality we are. There is only so much room on the path to heaven, we may jealously think in our subconscious. We are relentlessly pursing that which gives us identity and assuages our fear of mortality, and often this means by excluding others, and taking all we can get for ourselves.
It’s a bit out of control. It used to be, and still is, in certain cultures, a part of the experience of living to discuss the prospect of dying and to cope with it. That is, in a direct way; not in the sneaky, indirect ways of greed, war, and all forms of competition.
In some ways, yes, we are up front about it. We say capitalism is about “survival of the fittest.” But do we really understand the gravity of that? When someone is talking about survival of the fittest in regards to capitalism, on the surface they are talking about someone who isn’t as adept at getting his ideas into the market place than other, or maybe one person who is better with investing their money. The person with the greater skill – or maybe even luck – gets ahead, and the other person does not. Law of the jungle in an economic sense.
Beneath this, though, is what each individual involved is really experiencing. That job he gets and the other guy doesn’t, that’s his key to survival. And not surviving just until he dies – none of us in Western Civilization think about having what we need just until we pass away and screw the rest. No. We have life insurance policies. We plan to leave our spouse, or our children, or others what we aggregated during our lives. It’s tied in to living on beyond our mortal selves, getting that job. The guy who doesn’t, his immortality had been threatened. This kind of survival of the fittest in capitalism is no different at its core than the kind of fear people experience when their religious beliefs are threatened. Fundamentalism occurs after significant threats to a spiritual outlook have occurred. Greed or abject poverty occur after significant threats to a person’s fiscal stability have occurred. We react in extreme ways because these things are tied into such a deep fear we have, repressed since childhood, in most cases, about dying.
And this repression and the reactions to threats on the ways we have gone about our lives in this repressed state, these accrue to form the world we experience around us. The world is composed of individuals. Altogether, giving certain communicable tendencies like the repression of fear, this accumulates into corporate greed, into war, into poverty, into religious infighting and fundamentalism.
At the heart of all of our worldly, modern problems, is the individual’s struggle to come to terms with his own demise. If we were to live with a greater awareness of this primer in our lives, perhaps some of the false “reality” would be removed from the illusory world, and we could move towards greater enlightenment and peace.