We all have the potential to pioneer this universe of wonders and discoveries, but we are like genies trapped in bottles. Not only that, the bottle is rusting away, and we have barely gotten to exercise our powers. Yet here we sit, instead of working on the situation, we do what we can to deny death and pretend it’s not happening. We fight tooth and nail for land, gold, traditions, landmarks, and policies, but when it comes to human life, the most valuable of all, something causes us to pull back and let it slide. If gold or a landmark had a genie in it then would it be less valuable?
The author of The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker, writes, “This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.” “Man is literally split in two: he has an 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.” What do you do in a position like that? What are the most sensible courses of action to take for apes wandering along, suddenly finding themselves alight with the vast powers of reflective cognition? Becker says we go mad driving ourselves blind with social and psychological games, that when faced with fight or flight, we flee into rationalizations and distractions.
Being “inauthentic” and “one dimensional”, people are “unable to transcend their social conditioning: the corporation men in the West, the bureaucrats in the East, the tribal men locked up in tradition—man everywhere who doesn’t understand what it means to think for himself and who, if he did, would shrink back at the idea of such audacity and exposure.” Having not completely figured out what it means to think independently yet, humanity as a whole just kind of sinks back into default positions of mimicry and whatever generates tribal acceptance and basic survival needs. When fighting the duality is considered, even the thought of getting a basic grip on it is overwhelming. “[H]is insides are full of nightmarish memories of impossible battles, terrifying anxieties of blood, pain, aloneness, darkness; mixed with limitless desires, sensations of unspeakable beauty, majesty, awe, mystery; and fantasies and hallucinations of mixtures between the two, the impossible attempt to compromise between bodies and symbols.” From this is built the conventions and characters that become lullabies of distraction from the torture and slavery of impending death. It’s like Reek in the Game of Thrones refusing to leave his cage, even when his liberators came for him, because like him we are convinced that to even consider liberation is to set ourselves up for unbearable torture.
If people could see why there might be a reason to fight, why they should fight, where a plausible army and strategy to do so might be and why they might win, then maybe it would be considered. But who tells anyone about any of that? “Why do people have such trouble digging up the resources to face that terror openly and bravely?” That’s why. What manual, what reasoning exists that might prompt them to such thoughts and actions? What might get them over that terrifying hump of facing the intense dangers and struggles of it?
The process and situation is so twisted that attempts to stop rationalizing it away just end up rationalizing it in other ways. Like Becker says, “In times such as ours there is a great pressure to come up with concepts that help men understand their dilemma; there is an urge toward vital ideas, toward a simplification of needless intellectual complexity. Sometimes this makes for big lies that resolve tensions and make it easy for action to move forward with just the rationalizations that people need. But it also makes for the slow disengagement of truths that help men get a grip on what is happening to them, that tell them where the problems really are.”
Their parents don’t set the example of trying to figure it out. Cultural heroes and icons don’t mention it. In those rare moments that people do start talking about it at least one but usually all of them get scared and change the subject. They are afraid of letting fear consume them and so they distract themselves, but like I often say, you must let what is scaring you make you angry so you can convert that fear into fight. This is natural, you are supposed to let challenges to your livelihood drive you to action. “We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us. This power is not always obvious.” He describes them as games, ways of life, hobbies, whatever it may be that we let absorb our attention and consume too much time. Life extensionists don’t play games with life and death, are honest about it and strong enough to stand alone.
On the one hand, if the destiny of humanity’s evolution has a difficult road block in the middle of it, leaderless people tend to flee, then on the other hand, those same people languish in pits of existential despair for want of challenging, horizon expanding ways to build on the human condition. When the most important work is abandoned, there is naturally only less important work to do. They have traded hard, fulfilling work for hard, unfulfilling work. Becker says that “The great perplexity of our time, the churning of our age, is that the youth have sensed—for better or for worse—a great social-historical truth: that just as there are useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars, so too is there an ignoble heroics of whole societies:” The noble, heroic causes that must and will pervade the world are life extension, space colonization, the hedonistic imperative, teaching kids how to think, grunt labor abolition to free the vast reserves of human innovation, and some others. That is why I work with the movement for indefinite life extension, education of the big picture, and getting critical thinking deeper into the curriculum of world schools, and if I had more arms and hours in the day I would take on more of them too.
When you send a confused, mysterious complexity that thinks, into a mysterious complexity, with no manual, something is going to happen. The complexity would be expected to flail about until some form of patterning or something is established or defaulted to. Rocks sliding down a hill aren’t destined to form castles, they are destined to form piles, but castles are in them if they can find ways to navigate their potential. Some of them might catch on and start trying to decipher the meaning but it can be like trying to decipher the history of a lost culture from the ashes in a few fire pits.
The Denial of Death tells us about how the majority are so scared and lost that during their formative years they readily latch on to just about any silver-tongued sophist who flexes a metaphorical muscle, and then bluff a game face until they die. People who try to break free from these comforting pacifiers of consensus are generally shunned. This grows into culturally approved ways for transcending death, “social neuroses,” the “pathology of whole cultural / communities.” People swallow entire political parties whole instead of putting in the work to make up their minds on the individual issues. It’s not, the book says, that people feel all-powerful and full of lustful destruction, it’s that in pulling the world down around them for their “cowardly” protection, their cloak tends to become the haste of the haphazard rather than the reasoning of the noble.
Becker says the reality you are being killed is not exactly something a person can make disappear, that it is always there in some form. He poses the question of how we can function being always in this terrifying position and answers that people do it by and large through transference, living out the function of “immortality”, survival, vicariously through something else. From Spinoza he borrows the concept of the “causa sui” project, an original personal project that, in Becker’s language, a person pretends makes up for death. He says that’s good though, that accepting defeat and wasting time is what a person should do, “one of the crucial projects of a person’s life, of true maturity, is to resign oneself to the process of aging. It is important for the person gradually to assimilate his true age, to stop protesting his youth, pretending that there is no end to his life.” That is immature excuse making and flight from responsibility. What is crucial maturity is to stand your ground and fight for survival even when it’s difficult. Without survival and the meaning of life you get, in Becker’s own words, “the extreme of depressive psychosis” where “we seem to see the merger of these two: everything becomes necessary and trivial at the same time—which leads to complete despair.” “One chooses slavery because it is safe and meaningful; then one loses the meaning of it but fears to move out of it. One has literally died to life but must remain physically in this world.” (That also gives insight into how to get through to more of the notoriously difficult to persuade older crowds, by looking for the ‘losing your religion’, ‘empty nest’, and ‘mid-life crisis’ types.)
Becker thinks that life can only ever be extended to a certain degree, say a few hundred or a few thousand years, if at all, that it cannot be extended indefinitely or permanently. By extension, he thinks that death will always come within some definite time frame and therefore continue to cause what he believes is the indisputable reality that all people will definitely always heavily tend to, and need to, repress death and transfer immortality (with some outlier individuals and groups here and there). Pretty much all life extensionists, he thinks, fail to understand this, “This failure to push the understanding of psychodynamics to its limits is the hurdle that none of the Utopians can get over; it finally vitiates their best arguments.” This, though, is not about setting a new window further out in which death can be expected, it is about indefinite, unlimited life extension, no known end time-frame, mainly only unexpected or voluntary death. On top of that, nobody can say that they know that permanent voluntary immortality is not in the cards through things like potential back-up copies, or back-up organs with indestructible new casings and so forth (FM2030 details that scenario well in the The Countdown to Immortality). He also thinks people will always continue to repress death and transfer their immortality because they are so fearful of the former and desperate for the latter. Without the repressing and transferring, he is saying, people’s existential vacuums, their lack of meaning, would be so terrifying and overwhelming that they would be driven insane. What Becker fails to understand, however, is that fighting death is the natural way to fight that existential vacuum, it is the thing their bodies instincts were trying to drive them to do before they fled into repressions and transferences, and it is way more fulfilling and satisfying than any irresponsible excuse of repression or transference could ever be. Becker just doesn’t want to admit that death is an engineering challenge and that we know how to engineer. He doesn’t want to break the cultural taboo, the bluff, of pretending it’s impossible, and be among the first to step into that uncomfortable world where one has to admit that it is their duty to put in work to drive a world industry of life extension research to its feet. I mean, that’s a lot of work, and he had psychology books to read and dogs to pet or whatever it was his routines and habits in life used to demand of him. He was also getting “old”; like most middle-aged people, he didn’t think he had enough time to reinvent himself in time to build up enough intellectual cred as having what he assumed was his transferred immortal legacy together. Becker is just another AWOL soldier in the ages old fight for survival doing everything he can to try to manipulate us into believing his excuses.
The propensity in humans to grow and expand has risen to such high levels that our ability to cut through obstacles is now enormous, like a video game where you start off with small guns and have massive ones by the 15th level. This process is the natural growth pattern of organisms. The book talks about it in terms of things like heroism and specialness in a way that sometimes puts an unnecessary pejorative tinge on it, like progress in life is the playtime fantasy of putting on capes so we can stand there and pose, as if playing games and abdicating duty is a more noble undertaking. A galaxy isn’t a special hero for consolidating and forming a rotating spiral nor is an oak tree a special hero for converting soil and sunlight so it can buckle and grind its way to girth and a full spread of branches. That’s just what they do, that’s their nature. Human beings are cosmic revolutionaries and therefore one expects to see revolutionary growing pains and branches. When not outright understanding it, most people at least sense that their growth patterns, their trajectory, is the pioneering of the mysteries and development of the potentials of the full scope of existence. They don’t want to feel heroic, they just don’t want to mess around, they want to be working on getting the job done. If you distract a bird from finishing its nest, it’s going to have anxiety no matter what interesting project you might be otherwise engaging it with.
If only people could reveal their own nature to themselves, Becker says, if only they knew what their ‘nest’ was, alignment with it could be made and crisis ended. He thinks those revelations are already outlined in the works of various thinkers like Kierkegaard, and the Freudian circles, boiling down basically to finding that really great way to pretend your survival is vicariously preserved through something. It stems in large part from the confusion that “Mans very insides—his self—are foreign to him. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect.” How can they figure it out with nobody talking about it? Becker relates that, “All things were absent which they talked not of. So I began among my play-fellows to prize a drum, a fine coat, a penny, a gilded book, & c.,. . . . As for the Heavens and the Sun and Stars they disappeared, and were no more unto me than the bare walls.”
“[P]eople need a ‘beyond’“. Yes, but Viktor Frankl’s kind of beyond: a great cause – or as I say: cutting-edge, priority-driven, humanity-pioneering causes – not the coping fantasies of the intellectually timid. “[B]ut they reach first for the nearest one; this gives them the fulfillment they need but at the same time limits and enslaves them.” People in their early years tend to be freeze-frame chameleons, morphing to mimic whatever is being talked about around them and then solidifying it into a nearly impenetrable shell.
“Most men spare themselves [..] trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as their society maps these problems out for them. These are what Kierkegaard called the ‘immediate’ men and the ‘Philistines.’ They ‘tranquilize themselves with the trivial’—and so they can lead normal lives.” By normal he means conventional, because giving up on the fulfillment and glory of your evolutionary function and path in order to chicken out, languish in a pit of existential despair and play delusional games with life is anything but normal.
“Rank could validly raise the issue of neurosis as a historical problem and not a clinical one. If history is a succession of immortality ideologies, then the problems of men can be read directly against those ideologies— how embracing they are, how convincing, how easy they make it for men to be confident and secure in their personal heroism. What characterizes modern life is the failure of all traditional immortality ideologies to absorb and quicken mans hunger for self-perpetuation and heroism. Neurosis is today a widespread problem because of the disappearance of convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis of man. The subject is summed up succinctly in Pinel’s famous observation on how the Salpetriere mental hospital got cleared out at the time of the French Revolution. All the neurotics found a ready-made drama of self-transcending action and heroic identity. It was as simple as that.” That’s right, important causes are not guaranteed for any given time, they come and go. What Becker calls a failure, Nietzsche calls a natural fluctuation of good and bad times. Becker says, “We have to reason about the highest actualization that man can achieve. At its ultimate point the science of psychology meets again the questioning figure of Kierkegaard. What worldview? What powers? For what heroism?” This lull is charging up with an energy that is waiting to erupt back into the answer to those questions with full scale societal dedication to a big, engaging and fulfilling cause via the movement for indefinite life extension. This movement isn’t a “maybe?”, “will it?”, “can it?” cause, it’s a burning wick that can’t be put out. Once we complete the laborious work of getting the horror of aging and general death back into mainstream consciousness, and get it to help us pull down its related blinders to the reality that we know how to engineer biology in an increasing faster and better fashion, the weight of that reality will begin to sink in and expedite the migration of the world to the battle lines via their natural inclination to “heroism”.
Without indefinite lifespans, “There is no way to experience all of life; each person must close off large portions of it, must ‘partialize’“. That’s another of the layers of the horror. Let’s make sure they don’t forget things like that.
“The problem of meaninglessness is the form in which nonbeing poses itself in our time; then, says Tillich, the task of conscious beings at the height of their evolutionary destiny is to meet and vanquish this new emergent obstacle to sentient life.” The obstacle used to be the elusiveness of food sources, the ability to maintain heat, hostile neighbors, plagues and so forth. With those types of things largely under control, the question becomes, “What new immortality ideology can the self-knowledge of psychotherapy provide to replace this?” The movement for indefinite life extension is the epitome of that ideology in its perfect form. “We don’t know, on this planet, what the universe wants from us or is prepared to give us. We don’t have an answer to the question that troubled Kant of what our duty is, what we should be doing on earth. We live in utter darkness about who we are and why we are here,” Movement for indefinite life extension was the answer Becker didn’t realize he was looking for and never found. Answers to those questions are central to the philosophy of the movement.
I write about those answers extensively. What does life mean? It means whatever knowledge of the full scope of existence tells us it means. You heard noise inside of a mysterious cave that you are trapped in? So, what does that mean? It means whatever full knowledge of what that sound communicates to us is and that you better check it out so you can make informed decisions about your situation. If there is a stream of water smashing against corners as it plummets through the cave, that does not mean the same thing as if we were to find a lost civilization that had lived in there for 180,000 years, or a monster. What is the meaning of these “sounds” in the cave (universe) of life? The answer is there to find, but not for the dead, and who would want to crumple that answer up and throw it away (die) before they have read it and had a chance to experience and contribute to the true reality of this situation, free of nature’s extensive ignorances, limits, and deceptions? In our case, instead of the meaning of a mysterious sound to figure out, everything is a mystery to figure out. In our case, we need to know what is going on so we can know what we ultimately need and want, so we can go about not wasting our lives. We need to know what is going on to know what to do. That is what this predicament we find ourselves in here means.
Life is worth it, death is horrific, your dead grandparents and parents are the obliteration of tremendous value. Death is engineerable and it can’t be done fast enough without you helping to complete its mountains of simple tasks. Life is good for you and your family, it makes sense, it helps you understand existence and live your dreams to the fullest, it provides endless opportunities for extreme fulfillment, and it’s the kind of thing that it is possible for almost everybody to get behind, which will lead to greater efficiency and a much greater degree of world peace. This is about freedom from the boundaries of death, freedom to live your life, keep your stuff, freedom from impositions on your priorities, from limited perspective. The only thing known for sure about when indefinite life extension could become a reality is that it gets here in proportion to the collective speed at which the world goes to get there. We don’t have to know we can get there to go there but we do have to go there to get there.
People crave big meaningful projects. They want what they are doing to be part of a deeply profound epic. They crave it because that is the level of the hunger of a reflective problem solver with unlimited potential. A lion has to run after big game in a big open space, and a human has to run after big ideas in a big open universe because they can’t help it. There is a reason for hunger pangs and muscle restlessness – existential despair is a hunger pang that has devolved to starvation.
People gradually and incrementally get used to just about anything, outlandish ideas are routinely taken up, people take bland topics and make them sensational. There is a guy who just stares in a particular way and people fall over themselves to be around him, Mormons and Scientologists exist, people make up wiggidy wacks and bodabooatangs, any given horde that is near them can be gotten to fall for and follow the given concept. Another factor that adds to this phenomenon is as Becker writes, “Man has ‘an extreme passion for authority’ and ‘wishes to be governed by unrestricted force.’ It is this trait that the leader hypnotically embodies in his own masterful person. Or as Fenichel later put it, people have a ‘longing for being hypnotized’ precisely because they want to get back to the magical protection, the participation in omnipotence, the ‘oceanic feeling’ that they enjoyed when they were loved and protected by their parents.” Keep that in mind when you talk to people about this cause too because sometimes where we think it is the difficulty of our message that holds us back, it is actually stick-to-itiveness and lack of a weightier confidence and authority in presentation. Life extension is already ordained by the trajectory of evolution, “As philosophers have long noted, it is as though the heart of nature is pulsating in its own joyful self-expansion.” When it comes down to it, all we really have to do to help it move along is not do nothing.
The Denial of Death wants us to believe there is no choice but to be terrified of reality and have faith in repression and immaturity. “[C]hildlike foolishness is the calling of mature men. Just this way Rank prescribed the cure for neurosis: as the ‘need for legitimate foolishness’“, “repression is not falsification of the world, it is ‘truth’“. When Norman Brown says, “The enemy of mankind is basic repression, the denial of throbbing physical life and the spectre of death”, Becker calls him shockingly fallacious.
Like Albert Camus in his search for meaning in the face of eternal obliteration, Becker doesn’t even try to address death. He’s like a kid who’s excuse for not wanting to take the big test is to defend all the other kids excuses for not taking the test. Except here, they take the utter impossibility of passing the test as an absolute given. They are so terrified of it that it’s never even once considered, not even uttered in one line that might suggest they might ever consider taking the test or that it could possibly be manageable. There is only one way to stop the test from dictating your life though, find out what you need to do to pass it and get it done. Take the word ‘impossible’ out of your vocabulary. Practice, prepare and convert your fear into determination. Fear is just misappropriated fuel, stop letting it drip on your wires and direct it into the combustion chamber. Keep your motor fired up, lest it floods, and ride into battle.
“[U]nrepression is impossible, because there is death: ‘The brute fact of death denies once and for all the reality of a non-repressive existence.’” General Death backed by the Army of Oblivion guards the door to indefinite life extension. Becker is so overwhelmed by their might that retreat forms his every syllable, an openly admitted silly retreat into an existential vacuum at that. This book is the confession of another poor, shell-shocked soldier going AWOL. He says that people in existential downturns need “dedication to a vision.” He is so close to the right conclusion, but ‘tuck-tail and hide’ is not the answer. After all, he is not all wrong when he says that “the orientation of men has to be always beyond their bodies, has to be grounded in healthy repressions, and toward explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence”; sometimes people tell me not to say that we CAN beat death or that it can be done in our lifetimes, but stating it in the affirmative is a psychological necessity. That’s our healthy repression, we repress thoughts of coming up short to help ensure that we go all in, a technique routinely used by people all across the social sciences. That’s our heroic “myth” in our asserting the guarantee of a win. People know they might lose the basketball game, but you don’t talk in those kinds of terms for a reason. Sometimes you need to throw down a challenge, call out the best in people, give them a fine reputation to live up to, set a goal worthy of our great species. That’s confidence, grit and the savvy of battle tested leadership. “Fromm has nicely argued the Deweyan thesis that, as reality is partly the result of human effort, the person who prides himself on being a ‘hard-headed realist’ and refrains from hopeful action is really abdicating the human task.”
“[O]ne can face up to the real danger of a known disease, as Freud did, because it gives one an object, an adversary, something against which to marshal one’s courage; disease and dying are still living processes in which one is engaged. But to fade away, leave a gap in the world, disappear into oblivion—that is quite another matter.” That’s right, we need to see aging as an opponent and give it tangible edges to latch on to, targets, bases of operation, comrades, weapons and so forth, to bring that traditionally mystical nature of aging up into the world of symbols for the mind to grasp onto. That’s why life extensionists create ways for the public to contribute to research, have been making progress getting aging classified as a disease, have organizations, memberships, conferences, books, strategies, philosophies and more. I believe that people have a fairly unshakable instinct for war, they naturally band together and channel their energy toward a common opponent. Life extensionists call aging a dragon and I call diseases and all mortal afflictions the “minions of death” and the “Army of Obliteration” led by “General Death” with their lord the Grim Reaper for those kinds of reasons. The movement for indefinite life extension is about the spirit of the fight, standing up, not giving ground, teamwork, sacrifice, strategy; it’s about self-actualization and transcendence, the meaning of life, making this a central priority in one’s life. We can’t and shouldn’t win this unless most people of able body and mind go all in, unless people stop denying death and prove they want life as much as they want victory in comparatively paltry revenge, dominance, territorial or resource wars.
The Denial of Death’s last words are “The most that any one of us can seem to do is to fashion something— an object or ourselves—and drop it into the confusion, make an offering of it, so to speak, to the life force.” He tried, but he just couldn’t get there. His conclusion is just kind of, well, that’s not really a conclusion at all, is it? Contribute to the Affirmation of Life. The most that any of us can do is join the movement for indefinite life extension and fight like hell.