The denial of death, by Ernest Becker

Mental health, in a word, is not typical, but ideal-typical. It is something far beyond man, something to be achieved, striven for, something that leads man beyond himself. The “healthy” person, the true individual, the self-realized soul, the “real” man, is the one who has transcended himself.
How does one transcend himself; how does he open himself to new possibility?


By realizing the truth of his situation, by dispelling the lie of his character, by breaking his spirit out of its conditioned prison.

The enemy, for Kierkegaard as for Freud, is the Oedipus complex. The child has built up strategies and techniques for keeping his self-esteem in the face of the terror of his situation. These techniques become an armor that hold the person prisoner. The very defenses that he needs in order to move about with self-confidence and self-esteem become his life-long trap. In order to transcend himself he must break down that which he needs in order to live.

Like Lear he must throw off all his “cultural lendings” and stand naked in the storm of life.

Kierkegaard had no illusions about man’s urge to freedom. He knew how comfortable people were inside the prison of their character defenses. Like many prisoners they are comfortable in their limited and protected routines, and the idea of a parole into the wide world of chance, accident, and choice terrifies them.

[…] In the prison of one’s character one can pretend and feel that he is somebody, that the world is manageable, that there is a reason for one’s life, a ready justification for one’s action. To live automatically and uncritically is to be assured of at least a minimum share of the programmed cultural heroics—what we might call “prison heroism”: the smugness of the insiders who “know.”

The prison of one’s character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one’s creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man’s anxiety, the anxiety that results from the human paradox that man is an animal who is conscious of his animal limitation.

Anxiety is the result of the perception of the truth of one’s condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God.

[…] The flood of anxiety is not the end for man. It is, rather, a “school” that provides man with the ultimate education, the final maturity. It is a better teacher than reality, says Kierkegaard,

because reality can be lied about, twisted, and tamed by the tricks of cultural perception and repression. But anxiety cannot be lied about. Once you face up to it, it reveals the truth of your situation; and only by seeing that truth can you open a new possibility for yourself. He who is educated by dread [anxiety] is educated by possibility…. When such a person, therefore, goes out from the school of possibility, and knows more thoroughly than a child knows the alphabet that he demands of life absolutely nothing, and that terror, perdition, annihilation, dwell next door to every man, and has learned the profitable lesson that every dread which alarms may the next instant become a fact, he will then interpret reality differently.”

No mistake about it: the curriculum in the “school” of anxiety is the unlearning of repression, of everything that the child taught himself to deny so that he could move about with a minimal animal equanimity.

[…] What Kierkegaard is saying, in other words, is that the school of anxiety leads to possibility only by destroying the vital lie of character. It seems like the ultimate self-defeat, the one thing that one should not do, because then one will have truly nothing left. But rest assured, says Kierkegaard, “the direction is quite normal… the self must be broken in order to become a self….”

[…] One goes through it all to arrive at faith, the faith that one’s very creatureliness has some meaning to a Creator; that despite one’s true insignificance, weakness, death, one’s existence has meaning in some ultimate sense because it exists within an eternal and infinite scheme of things brought about and maintained to some kind of design by some creative force. Again and again throughout his writings Kierkegaard repeats the basic formula of faith: one is a creature who can do nothing, but one exists over against a living God for whom “everything is possible.”

Possibility leads nowhere if it does not lead to faith. It is an intermediate stage between cultural conditioning, the lie of character, and the opening out of infinitude to which one can be related by faith. But without the leap into faith the new helplessness of shedding one’s character armor holds one in sheer terror. It means that one lives unprotected by armor, exposed to his aloneness and helplessness,

[…] Now the dread of possibility holds him as its prey, until it can deliver him saved into the hands of faith. In no other place does he find repose… he who went through the curriculum of misfortune offered by possibility lost everything, absolutely everything, in a way that no one has lost it in reality. If in this situation he did not behave falsely towards possibility, if he did not attempt to talk around the dread which would save him, then he received everything back again, as in reality no one ever did even if he received everything tenfold, for the pupil of possibility received infinity.

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