Reading The Slavery of Death (Part 4: The Denial of Death)

Okay, it’s time to take all the stuff that Beck’s been explaining about Eastern Orthodox theology up to this point and put it in brackets while he gets on with discussing the psychological theory behind his premise.

In this chapter Beck begins by explaining that death anxiety gets expressed in two basic forms.  The first form, which we’ve already been thinking about a little bit, is called (rather simply) “basic anxiety.”  This is the kind of anxiety that’s typical in Hobbesian or Darwinian scenarios where there’s a scarcity of resources and the threat of failure to survive is imminent.  It’s a pretty straightforward model, and one that we’ve already touched on a bit in previous posts (I think at some point I concluded that combating this kind of anxiety relies on building communal relationships where we’re all looking out for each other’s needs).

The second form (this is the one that most of this chapter is concerned with) is “neurotic anxiety.”  It’s the death anxiety that appears in affluent societies that don’t have to deal with scarcity on a regular basis.  Beck lays out some causal factors that he thinks point towards how neurotic anxiety has become the primary form of death anxiety that is dealt with in modern, industrialized countries.  The three major changes that Beck notes relate to how we access food, how we interact with the diseased, debilitated, and dying, and where we place the dead in relation to us.  Essentially, because the supply chains for these various goods and services have been compartmentalized so that most people don’t see the direct connection between killing something and eating it, or facing mortality up close and personal in the home instead of in removed locations like hospitals and funeral homes, we’ve become inured to the reality of death.  Besides those factors that distance us spatially from death, Beck also notes that medical advances have also distanced us from it temporally; where two hundred years ago a person was fortunate to live into old age, it’s now expected that most people will make it into their 60s and beyond.

We’ve engineered a society where death is not something we’re forced to think about until it is right upon us.

The problem with this system, at least as I understand it, is that we’ve created a system where we’re deluded about our own mortality.  We imagine we live in a deathless society, and whenever death intrudes on us, it’s seen as something catastrophic and aberrant.  Of course, any thinking person knows that’s not the case; we’re all keenly aware of our own mortality, whether we like to acknowledge it or not.  It’s this suppressed recognition of mortality that creates neurotic anxiety in us.

Neurotic anxiety gets expressed like this: we know that we’re going to die, and, finding the idea of our own mutability unbearable, we strive to create some kind of legacy that will ensure a kind of immortality.  This legacy can be anything from having children to making art to working for the long term well-being of our workplaces.  We all have something we’re trying to leave behind as a way to beat out death.

Beck rightly points out that the combination of this striving for legacy and the illusion of deathlessness creates a social expectation that everyone do whatever they can to keep up appearances of everything being “fine.”  We can’t acknowledge that things are going wrong, because if we do then we’re poking holes in the mass delusion.  If something bad happens to you, then you dare not display your distress.

(On a personal note, I’m feeling this point especially strongly right now because I got some bad news about work this week.  Due to circumstances largely outside anyone’s control, I’m going to be teaching math next year instead of language arts, and I’m, quite frankly, pissed about it.  It’s not a change that jeopardizes my job or my income, but it still feels like a career setback because my passion is language arts; spending another year teaching math isn’t going to do me any favors in learning how to better teach the content that I love.  It’s been a weird few days as I’ve been trying to process the news, and in conjunction with reading this book, I’m trying to accept that I’m not really okay with it.  That doesn’t mean I won’t do my job, but it’s kind of liberating to accept that I don’t have to be happy about it.)

To begin digging into how all this willful delusion about mortality feeds into sinful behavior, Beck pulls in the work of Ernest Becker, a prominent psychologist whose work has spawned a branch of psychology that explores terror management theory.  The basic idea behind terror management theory is that we’re prone to building cultural hero systems (think about how any given group has its idols that exemplify everything that group thinks is valuable in a person) which we can use as standards to measure our own success within a group.  Essentially, we make up rules for a game and then try to excel at those rules in order to make ourselves feel like we matter.  This is all well and good, except that we can’t acknowledge that we have those hero systems in place.  They’re supposed to be transcendent ideals that outlast the humans who aspire to them.

Of course, that all falls flat on its face when two cultures interact.  The problem with upholding a set of universal ideals is that it doesn’t take long before we encounter someone who has a different set of universal ideals, and then we’re faced with the problem of who (if either) is actually right about their ideals being truly universal.  Competing in-groups remind everyone that we’re just playing a game here, and we don’t really know whose system is the best one for achieving a legacy.  Because they break the illusion of universality, people with whom we disagree are constant reminders that we’re going to die.

In order to deal with that, we create systems of division where people who disagree with us get foisted out of the group and labeled as aberrations, abominations, demons, etc.  They quite literally threaten our way of life, so we have to do something to devalue their position so that we don’t perceive it as a legitimate threat.  That’s the only way to maintain the facade that the way we do things is worthy and right and how we get our immortality.

No wonder the culture wars just won’t stop; everyone really is fighting to hold on to what gives their lives meaning.


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