I originally set out to write something about my five favorite books that I read this past year. Yuval Noah Harari’s book SAPIENS: A Brief History of Humankind was high on the list along with Snow Crash and a few others, then I just read Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and I haven’t been able to shake it since. The book has stuck with me. I feel like I’m saturated in it and I have to write about it to purge it out of my system.
I know I’m late to the party on this book. It came out in 1973 for fuckssake. All you college know it alls that went to Ivy League schools and studied this in psych class can go fuck yourselves. I was never much of a reader. I was a shitty student and I hated school.
My mother wanted me to go to college. No one in our family had ever gone so when I got into VCU to play baseball I did it just to make her happy. But fuck, when I got there… let’s just say it wasn’t for me. Fast forward to prison– all you have is time. It’s crazy how we get caught up in our own lives filled with activities that are so ‘important.’ You go to weddings, take family vacations, work a busy job and before you know it you look in the mirror and see wrinkles and gray hairs and realize that 20 years have gone by. That’s life. The perfect distraction.
But in prison– time slows down. Well it doesn’t slow down as much as it ceases to exists. You have time to actually hear yourself breathe. You have time to ponder the meaning of simple words. I was reading some book, can’t remember what it was, but I got stuck on the word ‘a’. Yes I know, it’s just an article… it means nothing but I just stared at it and went through this inner monologue. I don’t have an idea how long it lasted, could have been five minutes or maybe 5 hours, I don’t know. Point is time stopped. And when time stops… let me tell you how ill equipped the human mind is for that.
–Sorry I’m going on a tangent but some of all this stuff connects to The Denial of Death. So if you haven’t read the book here’s a brief summary I pulled off Wikipedia, just so you get caught up:
The basic premise of The Denial of Death is that human civilization is ultimately an elaborate, symbolic defense mechanism against the knowledge of our mortality, which in turn acts as the emotional and intellectual response to our basic survival mechanism. Becker argues that a basic duality in human life exists between the physical world of objects and a symbolic world of human meaning. Thus, since humanity has a dualistic nature consisting of a physical self and a symbolic self, we are able to transcend the dilemma of mortality through heroism, by focusing our attention mainly on our symbolic selves. This symbolic self-focus takes the form of an individual’s “immortality project” (or causa sui), which is essentially a symbolic belief-system that ensures oneself is believed superior to physical reality. By successfully living under the terms of the immortality project, people feel they can become heroic and, henceforth, part of something eternal; something that will never die as compared to their physical body. This, in turn, gives people the feeling that their lives have meaning, a purpose, and are significant in the grand scheme of things.
Becker argues that the arbitrariness of human-invented immortality projects makes them naturally prone to conflict. When one immortality project conflicts with another, it is essentially an accusation of ‘wrongness of life’, and so sets the context for both aggressive and defensive behavior. Each party will want to prove its belief system is superior, a better way of life. Thus these immortality projects are considered a fundamental driver of human conflict, such as in wars, bigotry, genocide, and racism.
Another theme running throughout the book is that humanity’s traditional “hero-systems”, such as religion, are no longer convincing in the age of reason. Science attempts to serve as an immortality project, something that Becker believes it can never do, because it is unable to provide agreeable, absolute meanings to human life. The book states that we need new convincing “illusions” that enable us to feel heroic in ways that are agreeable. Becker, however, does not provide any definitive answer, mainly because he believes that there is no perfect solution. Instead, he hopes that gradual realization of humanity’s innate motivations, namely death, can help to bring about a better world.
My perspective on death is different from most because I was minutes away from being executed. I’ve faced my own mortality. Leading up to my execution I put in so much mental work to remain calm. I was scared to shit my final month there. As they strapped me in I thought my heart would rupture and I’d die of a heart attack before they even stuck me. Irony is just as the reaper approached me I went numb. Everything felt meaningless, like this whole world didn’t matter. Suddenly it was like my mind had been illuminated. Then as soon as that phone rang and my case overturned I felt empty… like I was cheated out of something. It sounds ridiculous but I felt like I was on the cusp of this profound knowledge and it quickly went away with that phone call.
Life on death row and life on the inside is basically all the same. We’re all doing the same thing… waiting on death. The only difference is people on the outside have way more distractions and creative ways to avoid thinking of the inevitable. You know why? Death is fucking scary. The unknown causes most anxiety but death is a permanent unknown. You can’t go and experience it and come back and tell others what it’s about.
I’m not a religious person but RJ had me read the Bible cover to cover and I’ve done it a few times. In fact I can probably debate the Bible better than a lot of Christians I imagine. Christianity is more of a culture than an actual belief. Not for all but for most. Go ask the average Christian what they think about poor people and you’ll hear a bunch of people that have no idea was Jesus was all about. But what the fuck do I know, I’m just an ex-con.
But the reason I brought up the Bible is because of what happened in the garden of Gethsemane. Experts agree that Jesus existed. Whether you believe he’s God is a whole entire different conversation and moreso if you believe he rose from the dead. Personally I don’t think he did but let’s just say he did because a lot of people believe it. This is a guy who said he was God so why was he scared to die? Isn’t that just a fear of mere mortals? Jesus knows he’s immortal. I imagine he knew he’d rise again from the dead, so what the hell was he afraid of? To me that tells me death is a scary fucking thing.
You take a look in the mirror and you get nervous because of all the wrinkles on your face and gray hairs. Is it vanity? Is that why you’re afraid or is it just a reminder that you’re approaching the end of all of it? I think that’s why people don’t want to age. It’s a sobering reminder of what’s ahead of you. Why do people hate going to old folk homes… it’s the same thing. Your mortality is thrown back into your face… so what do we do… we spend endless amount of time on the internet, on facebook, watching porn, indulging our flesh because we’re weak. We can’t stomach the fact that one day we will spend the rest of our existence in the unknown.
Ever since the moment we were born we were dying– is that too sobering?– So how do we deal with the fear of death?– How do we make our lives matter so it’s not some hollow existence of indulgence and insecurity? If I knew the fucking answer I would have told you by now.