by | Apr 29, 2014 | Uncategorized

Last week, I told a story about sitting at a stoplight while a long funeral procession drove by. It happened at a moment I was particularly aware of my own mortality. So I’ve been thinking a lot about the impermanence of life.
becker earnestThis week’s post, is something of a book report. It’s a book most sane people never need to read – almost 400 pages of pretty dense writing. I let my kindle read it to me while I was on the treadmill over the course of a couple of months. Even so, it made a pretty deep impact on me.
Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer prize in 1974 for the book, The Denial of Death. In it, he disputes Freud’s contention that the fundamental tension inherent in the human condition has to do with sex (eros). Instead, our fundamental struggle, he says, is grappling with the reality of our inevitable and inescapable deaths.
You and I, Becker insists, carry a sense of transcendence within ourselves. We have these great big prefrontal cortexes. They give us the ability to experience parts of reality other animals don’t. A cow in a field, munching on grass, has a very different response to the murder of a cow beside him. Were her companion to have her throat slit and fall to the ground, she would look blankly, then return to munching grass. You and I, on the other hand, have brains with the capacity to imagine, to extrapolate, and to plan. We’d bolt! We’d run like hell!
eternityThis imaginative capacity, Becker insists, is at the root of our human struggle. You and I have the ability to imagine transcendence, eternity. We can envision a reality beyond time, beyond our lifetimes, beyond history. “Eternity in our hearts,” it has been called. We have this incredible capacity to imagine, or to sense, timelessness and immortality.
The problem is, that we carry this incredible capacity to experience ourselves within eternity – inside bodies that each day are marching us closer and closer to our deaths.
That’s the fundamental tension that drives human struggle – a deep and abiding sense of transcendent eternity, housed in mortal, decaying bodies.
It would be easy if we, like the animals, could not imagine transcendence.
It would also be easy if our bodies lasted as long as the timelessness our brains can imagine.
But we can – and they don’t.
graveyardAt the heart of all of the world’s religions and philosophical systems, Becker contends, is the struggle to deal with this predicament.
What we usually do is gloss it over. We usually get busy living life, having babies, working and buying and selling. We put death out of our minds – and out of days. We move death to nursing homes and hospitals. We get busy living life and if ever we have to walk by the graveyard, we whistle. Even we Christians tend to gloss over death. We focus our story of death on an afterlife that claims more certitude than we can authentically claim.
How we live is determined by how we handle this fundamental struggle. How do you handle it?
That’s what I’ve been thinking about the last few weeks. Last week I quoted John Donne, paraphrased like this: “Don’t ask for whom the funeral bell tolls. It tolls for every one of us, for you, for me. We are connected, all of us, in this deep struggle – hearts of eternity bound up in bodies of death.”
So, what do we do with the struggle?
What do you do? How do you handle this existential struggle?
I’d love to hear what you’re thinking in the comment section below.
More next week.

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