The Denial of Death, Masculinity, and a well-lived life

This post might have ended up on my my Dispirited blog, but there is enough cross-over with recent preoccupations here about grit to persuade me to pop here initially… 

Teaching is a funny thing. Sessions on material you have done many times before, and where you are pretty sure what is going to unfold, can knock you sideways. To mangle Heraclitus, I guess you never teach the same class twice. Today, I dragged myself and some coffee into a 9.15 class on our Love, Sex and Death final year module. They had just submitted their assignment for the module, and it is not the most popular timeslot, so there were a few missing, but enough present for some conversation and discussion.

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.

Becker, The Denial of Death

The topic today was to think how the other ideas we have studied might, or night not, fit with Ernest Becker’s 1973, prize-winning, The Denial of Death. In the past, we have tended to dwell on the most well known aspect of the work, where he tries to untangle the roots of human, and most notably group, violence. This relates to how we avoid our terror of death by building and subscribing to ‘hero systems’ to give a sense of immortality. These may be religious versions; or a nationalist affiliation to the idea that the great nation we belong to will persevere where we (as individual instances) are temporary. We then invest in this idea; we shore it up as our defence of the unmentionable terror of death. We are fearful of any question of the delusion. In a 1998 lecture/essay (one that I would recommend strongly), the Philosopher Glenn Hughes summarised this idea:

… as members of society, we tend to identify with one or another “immortality system” (as Becker calls it). That is, we identify with a religious group, or a political group, or engage in some kind of cultural activity, or adopt a certain culturally sanctioned viewpoint, that we invest with ultimate meaning, and to which we ascribe absolute and permanent truth. This inflates us with a sense of invulnerable righteousness. And then, we have to protect ourselves against the exposure of our absolute truth being just one more mortality-denying system among others, which we can only do by insisting that all other absolute truths are false. So we attack and degrade–preferably kill–the adherents of different mortality- denying-absolute-truth systems. So the Protestants kill the Catholics; the Muslims vilify the Christians and vice versa; upholders of the American way of life denounce Communists; the Communist Khmer Rouge slaughters all the intellectuals in Cambodia; the Spanish Inquisition tortures heretics; and all good students of the Enlightenment demonize religion as the source of all evil. The list could go on and on.

I don’t know what was different this year, because the more personal aspects of this are there in the work too. It has been a great class, where students have really engaged and made me think – but then RPE students are always great. Maybe it is because I am now the same age that Becker was when he died. I suspect, however, that it has more to do with the work I have been doing with my colleagues, Nikki and Ros, about resilience, grit and vulnerability, and most notably discussing gender and masculinity at length with the former. This has led to a greater sensitivity on my part to cultural practices and messages that both reinforce and challenge certain accounts of masculinity, and particularly those that revolve around lionising notions of strength, denigrating emotional openness and fragility.

I imagine this to be a factor in the direction our conversations finally turned to in class this morning. Although of course the students brought their own insights, and all educators have lenses that are recalibrating from year-to-year as their experiences change.


We turned to the issue of how do we deal with death – with the reality of it – its actual imminence for us? We struggle with this – with seeing it as ‘the most certain possibility’, as Heidegger has it. We distance it, we busy ourselves, and we try to invest our psychic energies in plausible disbelief (or aforementioned reality systems). To do this, we use, as Becker terms it, emotional armour. We seek to toughen ourselves. To diminish our sense of ourselves as vulnerable to annihilation, and of the fragility of all we are. Becker looks to examples, within and beyond religions, that do something else, but these are, for him, noble exceptions; a kind of inverted moral hero: not strong in the face of death, but heroic enough to stare down the terror. This is Socrates’ learning how to die. When Becker (in The Denial the of Death) is discussing Kierkegaard, paraphrasing Luther, he says it is only when you ‘“taste” death with the lips of your living body that you can know emotionally that you are a creature who will die


This is in itself interesting, but why am I writing about it here? Because this vulnerability and openness is not merely about how to die. Its true lesson is in how to live – in its role in the provision of an inkling of what a ‘good life’ might be. A life that doesn’t over–anxiously fetishize a hyper-masculine fear of death. This lesson in how to live is partly the memento mori-inspired carpe diem approach that many of us might recognise in strands of our art, literature and history. Beyond that though, I am interested in how what stands between many of us (men, and of course the promotion of male values as superior in our wider culture) and this more full sense of a valued, fully-lived, flourishing, life is the trap of gender. Of a deeply conditioned notion of what it is to be a man, or for male values to be seen as the default ideal of what it is to be human.

This seems to be two-fold. Firstly, we cannot use our fragility, our fast-approaching mortality as a prompt to make the most of our finite time if we don’t allow ourselves to even consider its imminence. If we won’t admit that the light at the end of the tunnel is an oncoming train, we won’t take the prompt action needed. Indeed, an attitude of ‘not thinking about difficult things’, of radical compartmentalising, might be argued to underlie the notably toxic trouble men have discussing feelings, often implicated in the shockingly high suicide rates of young men.

Secondly, the things we may actually find that make life valuable, and give our finite days some meaning, are those often seen as suspect by toughened masculinity. What I might think a ‘well lived life’ looks like; what matters; what those on their deathbeds regret not doing; are things that many conventional accounts of masculinity stand in opposition to. Spending time with family; telling people how we really feel; expressing our love, forgiveness and appreciation to partners, family, friends and more. If we devalue and mock men who cry, express their emotions and human connection, we stand as obstacles in the way of what some may term ‘human flourishing’.

Learning to die is taking death as the urgency that allows us to jettison extraneous concerns, to live alongside our fear, and really live. We should, to paraphrase the Buddhist injunction, live as if our hair is on fire.

So, what we does this lead us to? To think of a contemporary practicing to die, we need to burn down our gender prisons. Part of this might constitute promoting an inverted heroism. Although there is the danger of treading too-worn a path of the manly, existential hero, who summons a true strength to ‘turn the corner in the mind’ and face the monster, a narrative of a less muscular hero may actually serve us well. This inversion necessitates the lionisation of vulnerability, of emotional openness and acknowledging fear, love and uncertainty. Of course this is easily said, but how does our world transition towards this? We have been writing about the contributions education can make to this; beyond that I am reminded of how hard it is as a parent not to worry about children being tough enough. Our culture embeds getting a lollipop for being brave, praises not crying, models a male culture of not telling friends how you feel*, and chipping away at it is wearying. Nonetheless, every time, as am man, I attempt to resist our culturally-embedded compulsion to praise gritty strength, or bite back the simulacra of hyper-masculinity I have learnt to perform – and express an actual emotion, I have hope that I am chipping away towards a better life for me, and any who might be paying attention. If we can do this, we have made ourselves, as Nietzsche would have us do, into a ‘bridge to the future’.


*Though many British men have a good line in using insults to mark out those they actually like, reserving politeness and seeming respect for those they hold in contempt.

This may also be of interest on this topic: The Importance of Fostering Emotional Diversity in Boys

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