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