Even though hardly a day passes without new descriptions of killing and dying–both fictional and factual–invading our consciences, so many of us still choose to remain inattentive to the simple fact that we will all die. This inattentiveness is perhaps the fatal flaw of our culture: some are beginning to believe that death can be overcome with technology; many others–especially those of us enjoying the comforts of affluent Western societies–are distracted by our material prosperity.

The ancients realized that the consideration of our mortality is the beginning of wisdom. In the Apology of Socrates, Plato frames the issue in simple terms:

Death is one of two things. Either it is annihilation, and the dead have only a dreamless sleep, or, as we are told, it is really a change–a transfer of the soul from this place to some other. But which it is, God alone knows.

The postmodern footnote to Plato’s assertion might be best summarized by the life and work of the American cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker. In his 1973 Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, Becker synthesized and expanded on a long tradition of existential philosophy and humanistic psychology that identified death–understood as annihilation–as “the worm at the core” of the human psyche. His book also sparked a renewed scholarly interest in “fear of death” as a fundamental driver of human action.

Start your day with Public Discourse

Sign up and get our daily essays sent straight to your inbox.

According to Becker, the tension generated by our instinct for self-preservation on one hand and the inevitability of our death on the other causes a profound crisis. If we do not resolve this crisis and instead repress thoughts of death, a corrosive “death anxiety” results. This “death anxiety” leads some people to a paralyzing terror and others to a vigorous search for coping strategies. Coping, in this context, means constructing social systems whose purpose is to overcome the dread of personal annihilation, thus facilitating our denial of death.

The ancients realized that the consideration of our mortality is the beginning of wisdom.


Becker says that we seek a symbolic personal immortality through cultural worldviews that offer meaning, solutions that offer hope of an existence beyond the here and now. These “immortality projects” are a way of “striving for the heroic,” taking part in activities that lead us to believe we are something more than our physical bodies, someone who won’t just disappear. Failure to deny death through some heroic achievement leads to debilitating levels of stress, anxiety, and eventually, to despair. Becker writes:

We achieve ersatz immortality by sacrificing ourselves to conquer an empire, to build a temple, to write a book, to establish a family, to accumulate a fortune, to further progress and prosperity, to create an information-society and global free market. Since the main task of human life is to become heroic and transcend death, every culture must provide its members with an intricate symbolic system that is covertly religious. This means that ideological conflicts between cultures are essentially battles between immortality projects, holy wars.

Immortality–for Becker, understood as the desire for a perfect world–compels humans to plan and execute grand projects and great adventures, to leave our mark in the world. Doing so inevitably leads to conflict. Most of the evil we do to ourselves and to the earth results from the clashing of rival immortality projects. Were he alive today, Becker might note that the tensions generated by the decline of our Judeo-Christian civilization and the postmodern ascendancy (the new world order and “the Great Reset”) would serve as a case in point.

We are now fifty years out from the publication of Becker’s work, and it is undeniable that many contemporary scholars have built careers on developing his premise that the basic motivation for human behavior is the need to control the terror that results from discovering that one day we will cease to be.

Six years after the publication of The Denial of Death, Harvard psychiatrist Robert Jay Lifton published Broken Connections: On Death and the Continuity of Life, his attempt to explore the place of death in the human imagination. He described his purpose as follows:

The spirit of the work is captured in a parable of the Jewish reinterpretation of the Adam and Eve story told by Nahum Glatzer. According to Glatzer, that description of man and woman being extruded from the Garden of Eden was not a “fall” but a “rise.” It meant “becoming human,” that is, “giving up immortality for knowledge.” For becoming human meant both surrendering ignorance of death (the state of other animals) and the expectation of living forever (a prerogative only of God). “Knowledge” in our sense is the capacity of the symbolizing imagination to explore the idea of death and relate it to a principle of life continuity–that is, the capacity for culture. The parable thus depicts an exchange of literal for symbolic immortality.

This book is a culmination of Lifton’s academic interest in death that began with psychological examinations of egregious acts of violence during World War II–those perpetrated by Nazi doctors on prisoners, and by the US government on the population of Hiroshima–eventually attempting to connect war and violence with the subconscious fear of death. Lifton observed that a “death imprint” could be found in survivors of these atrocities, suggesting that repeated, close-up witnessing of death and destruction generated vivid and indelible images of death in their minds, images they were forced to confront at every moment of their lives.

The distinguished Stanford University psychiatrist and professed atheist Irvin Yalom understood death as existential obliteration and identified it as one of the four key challenges that haunt the daily lives of human beings. The others, he posited, are isolation or loneliness, the experience of the absence of an external structure (an experience he called “freedom”), and a world of uncertain meaning. Yalom believed that most mental illness stems from the inability to manage or confront one or more of these challenges, a powerlessness that would eventually lead to inaction, inauthenticity, avoidance of change, stagnation, and a deepening sense of meaninglessness. On the other hand, attempting to derive meaning from a terminal and meaningless existence poses its own challenges: a catch-22 that easily devolves into nihilism and despair.

Like Becker and Lifton, Yalom’s existential psychotherapy is rooted in the work of nineteenth-century existential philosophers Kierkegaard and Nietzsche, fathers of a movement that rebelled against the tradition of seeking order and structure in the world. They suggested that, as humans, it is up to us to find meaning in what is largely a meaningless universe, embrace our meaningless existence, and use our will to choose and fulfill our own purpose.

In 1986, three American social psychologists–Tom Pyszcznski, Sheldon Solomon, and Jeff Greenberg–published their “terror management theory” inspired by the work of Becker and Yalom. They postulated that a repressed awareness of death and fear of annihilation are the root causes of most social conflicts today. Their theory inspired a broad current of empirical research in social science and psychology that continues today. Empirical support for “terror management theory” from experiments carried out through the 1990s offered hard data in support of Becker’s insights. Hundreds of studies and thousands of papers have been published since 1986, many proposing that religion is simply a way of adopting a cultural worldview that aspires to achieve symbolic immortality. Cultures, which are usually founded on religious claims, collectivize individual fear and loneliness into a communal exercise. The fear of “existential obliteration” leads us to invent God and a hereafter as a way of coping with our inevitable disappearance.

Ernest Becker began his academic career as a professed atheist, but he was no mortal enemy of religion. Like Plato, he suggested that reason and science can’t give us the answers we seek when confronting death. He concluded The Denial of Death by claiming that behind human yearning, behind our fear of annihilation, there was a driving force: a mystery that could not be neatly ordered and rationalized by science and secularism.

The acknowledgment of human vulnerability and dependence may well be the antidote to the fear and anxiety at the root of the modern denial of death.


A year later, in his work Spectrum of Loneliness, Becker wrote: “One’s existence is a question which must be answered. And the answer can never come from oneself. A life can only be validated by some kind of ‘beyond’ which explains it and in which it is immersed.” Published the year of his own death, the work seems to punctuate the course of Becker’s own personal transformation from atheist to believer.

Becker’s life ended on March 6, 1974, at the age of 49, but not before he was able to give a deathbed interview to the philosopher and academic Sam Keen for the journal Psychology Today. Becker began the conversation by saying, “Well, now I’m in extremis, and you can see how a philosopher dies.” He went on to explicitly profess his belief in God:

I would want to insist that my awakening to the divine had to do with the loss of character armor. For the child, the process of growing up involves a masking over of fears and anxieties by the creation of character armor. Since the child feels powerless and very vulnerable, he has to reinforce his power by plugging into another source of power. I look at it in electrical-circuit terms. Father, mother, or the cultural ideology becomes his unconscious power source. We all live by delegated powers. We are utterly dependent on other people. In personality breakdown, what is revealed to the person is that he is not his own person.

Thirty-two years after the Becker interview, Keen acknowledged the powerful impact this deathbed conversation had on him. “I’ve never ceased to be moved by it . . . He was a man who thought with everything in him, everything in him. There was none of the dilettante in him, there was none of the academic game player,” he recalled. “He thought with his life.”

So it seems that for Becker–and hopefully for all of us–the end of life may involve a true illumination: a clear perception that death may not be the end, and in fact, it may be the beginning. Becker’s experience of dying involved a recovery of lost innocence, a “growing up” to become a child. He discovered that innocence is recovered by letting go of the protective armor we create for ourselves through fear and anxiety, brought on, perhaps, by an inability to acknowledge our radical vulnerability and utter dependence on others.

By embracing the fact that we do not belong to ourselves, we are not “our own person,” we may discover that responsibility for our dignity in both life and death belongs to God and to others, as it does to our own choices. The acknowledgment of human vulnerability and dependence may well be the antidote to the fear and anxiety at the root of the modern denial of death. 

Image by Milan Lipowski and licensed via Adobe Stock. Image resized.