The Denial of Death and the Knight of Faith

(I started this post about two years ago but left it unfinished. Recently, when I rediscovered it, I decided it's time to finish...)

You take the blue pill, the story ends. You wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill, you stay in wonderland, and I show you how deep the rabbit hole goes.
— Morpheus to Neo, "The Matrix"

This famous movie quote depicts the choice for the main character Neo of either staying in his normal life inside the faked matrix or waking up to the bitter reality where mankind is enslaved to machines. A hard choice between comfort and truth.

When I read the book "The Denial of Death", by Earnest Becker, it felt a little bit like swallowing the red pill.

A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned – finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy […]: That it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying.
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

It is a brilliant illustration of the absurdity of life: We are able to the highest deeds, we can shape nature according to our imagination, we are equipped with a mind of nearly boundless capabilities but we are still trapped in an animals body. This is the ultimate tragedy of man's dualism: Neither animal, nor god.

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever.
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
On the highest throne in the world, man sits on his arse. Usually this epigram makes people laugh because it seems to reclaim the world from artificial pride and snobbery and to bring things back to egalitarian values. But if we push the observation even further and say men sit not only on their arse, but over a warm and fuming pile of their own excrement - the joke is no longer funny. The tragedy of man’s dualism, his ludicrous situation, becomes too real.
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Building on this, the core idea of the book is that human civilization in all its varieties is ultimately nothing more than an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the acknowledgement of our own mortality. To escape from his insurmountable position in life, man is creating so called hero-systems that allow him to transcend into something larger and thereby to overcome his own mortality. From this perspective, all those religious dogmas and beliefs of afterlife, paradise or destiny that people turn to are nothing more than escape mechanisms from the reality of death.

The cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a skyscraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count.
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Everyone holds his/her personal dimension of holiness, if not the bible or some other religious construct, then maybe freedom, Marxism, nature or a football club. Here one finds transcendence and immortality and in these personal systems of meaning, one's higher nature and godlike dimension can be celebrated.

I am nothing and should be everything.
— Karl Marx

Personally, yes, I want to leave a legacy that gives my life a meaning, I want to change the world and become part of something bigger. But after reading the book, the question that haunted me, was if this was really the truth? Or is it all just my personal hero-system, an elaborate defense mechanism against the acknowledgement of my own mortality and the meaninglessness of my life? What if my deepest motivations come not from a sense of idealism and noble motives but rather the fear of death?
At least I remember a few encounters where, usually confronted with the possibility of irreversible damage to my body, I have felt a surprisingly deep sense of fear.

It might seem like an absurd accusation at first, too simple and too mad, but Becker argues with a persuasiveness and relentlessness that is hard to reject. Every objection can be fought off by simply pointing to the ingenuity of the mind to invent arguments and "proofs" to protect our belief system. At the very latest since the insights of Freud, we all know that there is a deep unconscious inside of us with its own agenda.

Of course it might all just be intellectual bullshit. Hopefully there is more to our deepest callings and spiritual undertakings than subconscious denial of death. Maybe immortal souls, an afterlife and some kind of god exist. Personally, I currently feel like hanging between the worlds of rational science and spirituality and I am still not sure what to think of the book's core message. Ultimately,  I guess it all comes down to belief.

But at least it can’t be denied that Western culture tries to hide all signs of our animal origin, of death and decay. We shave away our hair, we show an absurd degree of body hygiene and we try to hide any sign of our own aging. The higher ones "cultivation" or "socialization", the more sterile is the environment, the more successfully hidden are peoples creatureliness and primitive drives. And do not most of peoples traumas and personality disorders eventually go back to the (sometimes irrational) fear of extinction and death?

But where to go from here?

How does a man create from all his living energies a system of thought, as Freud did, a system directed wholly to the problems of this world and then just give it up to the invisible one? How, in other words, can one be a saint and still organize scientific movements of world-historical importance? How does one lean on God and give over everything to Him and still stand on his own feet as a passionate human being? These are not rhetorical questions, they are real ones that go right to the heart of the problem - how to be a man?
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

Maybe the solution is to give in to our fate and to fully accept that we are merely more than some dirt in a clever arrangement.
I have always been fascinated by those that laughed into the face of death like Tom Lehrer singing "We Will All Go Together When We Go" or Monthy Pythons "Always Look On The Bright Side Of Life". After the death of Graham Chapman, Monthy Python even used to put an urn on stage claiming this to contain his remains and included it in some of their jokes.

This bold acceptance and playfulness seems much more powerful to me than most peoples denial and ignorance. In this regard, Becker puts forward the beautiful ideal of the “Knight of Faith”:

He accepts whatever happens in this visible dimension without complaint, lives his life as a duty, faces his death without a qualm. No pettiness is too petty that it threatens his meanings; no task is too frightening to be beyond his courage. He is fully in the world on its terms and wholly beyond the world in his trust in the invisible dimension.
— Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death

With this ideal in mind, why not take the red pill and go all in? Let's not forget, we might have anuses, but regarding the creation of our lifes here, we are still gods.
So no matter if Becker is right or wrong, his conclusion sounds good:

Those that are consumed with the most relentlessness, and burn with the brightest flame, seem to serve the purpose of nature best.