I am always curious about what people feel when they realize their death is imminent. The 2009 Air France plane crash into the Atlantic Ocean comes to mind. It took two years to find the black box and retrieve the data about the incident. Here is what we learned about the last minutes the pilots and crew experienced: Realizing that there was a problem with the plane at an altitude of ten thousand km, the co-pilot disabled the autopilot system and tried to take control. However, the plane continued to descend rapidly. Then the experienced pilot tried to come to the rescue. The pilots struggled for 3 minutes and 30 seconds but could not save the plane from falling into the sea with its 228 passengers and crew.
While reflecting on this sad story, I tried to imagine the reaction of the passengers who realized that their death was imminent with the announcement that the plane was going to crash. I asked myself: what would I do if I were among them? In fact, I remember well that just a month after this accident, I used the same route with the same airline and flew to Europe.
When I read Denial of Death by the famous social anthropologist Ernest Becker, I realized that there is no need for hypothetical contemplation. We are already on such a metaphorical plane. Since the day we were born, our plane has been descending rapidly- a reality even more terrifying than the Air France plane crash story mentioned above. This is because we don't even have a pilot to prevent our plane from falling. Neither are we in control. The only difference is that the people on the Air France flight were aware of the distance to the ground below- so they more or less predicted when they would fall into the sea. On the other hand, although we know the average distance between us and the sea of graves, we cannot predict when our own plane will crash.
According to Becker, we see the ignorance of not knowing the moment of our death as a blessing and actually deny the obvious fact that we are going to die. That is, we live in ignorance of the fact that our plane is crashing. In Denial of Death, Becker loudly announces that our plane is about to crash- just like the verse "every soul shall taste death". Obsessed with death and devoting his academic career to the subject, Becker says that even people who accept death in words, resort to many ways to deny it by their actions. Ironically, Becker was diagnosed with cancer shortly after publishing his work, and within six months he left this world, affirming the fact of death with his own demise. Two months after his passing, his work was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, the most prestigious author award.
According to Becker, in this world where every living being is prey to one another, human beings cannot accept the fact that one day they will be prey to bacteria. This is because, at first, people believe that they come to this world not to die- but to experience life to the fullest. However, when people age and realize that their loved ones are going to die, they experience the utmost anxiety. It feels like the world is falling apart. The fear of death runs through their bones. It is “a basic fear that affects all others, o fear from which no one is immune, no matter how disguised it might be” (p.15). When it takes full effect, the fear of death is like “terror”. Becker narrates a story from Carl Jung telling how Freud experienced such terror when he became aware of his own mortality. Jung said that he talked seriously with Freud about death twice, and both times Freud collapsed to the ground (p.102). Becker calls this an intolerable contradiction brought about by the consciousness of existence: “Man is literally split in two: he has awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever " (p.26).
Becker cites our different nature to animals as the cause of this horror: “Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their nose and shuts out everything else. But look at man, the impossible creature! … He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential burden.” (p.50-51)
This book is undoubtedly one of the best books on the reality of death. The author claims that as soon as we become aware of our mortality, we indulge in all kinds of activities to deny the unavoidable reality of death. He provides compelling evidence for this core argument, showing how we try to deny this clear fact. He argues that we should consider the desire for eternity and denial of mortality as the driving force behind our choices- not our sexual drive as argued by Freud. Ironically, the author himself died just six months after publishing this book, confirming the reality of death through his own demise. The book convinces readers that it is useless deception to ignore the reality of death, which exists for humans only as a phenomenal conscious experience. The author argues that we can never reach lasting happiness if we do not find a way to cope with this painful possibility that will end all possibilities. Thus, the book makes readers fear anxiety of their mortality and question the meaningless efforts of living a life in denial of death. It is a great read that helps readers go beyond a one-dimensional life and explore other dimensions of reality. As Heidegger states, anxiety of death would push people “reflect upon that which matters most” in life.