Today I have a guest post for you from Nadia Jones. This is only the second guest post on the site, because I have very strict requirements for guest posts (so don’t worry, this isn’t going to turn into one of those blogs where you seldom hear from the owner any more).
About a year ago, I was experiencing ongoing periods of intense depression and anxiety. While medication certainly helped make daily life possible, the pills weren’t able to make life particularly enjoyable. There was something missing, some idea that I had not yet digested that was keeping me from overcoming this particularly dark period in my life.
Then I read Ernest Becker’s Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, and I realized that there were certain things I hadn’t thought through to get me to where I wanted to be. Although reading the entire book is, in my opinion, essential, here’s exactly what Becker taught me and how it changed the way I approach life:
The fear of death (physical or symbolic) is at the heart of all fear and anger.
Becker notes in his book, “The idea of death, the fear of death, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is the mainspring of human activity—designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying in some way that it is the final destiny of man.”
Whether we think of death in the physical sense, or we think of the various small symbolic “deaths” that terrify us—the idea of breaking off a close relationship, losing a job, or even losing your sense of self after failure—it is our unique human awareness of things having a final end that drives our anxiety, depression, and worries.
Fully accepting death is perhaps the most important first step in fully embracing life and all it has to offer.
In response to this fear, we attempt immortality through various “hero projects”. Most hero projects are limiting.
Mike has discussed how to be a hero at length here on How to Be Amazing. Becker, too, found that pursuing one or more “hero projects,” as he called them, was central to our well-being.
The society in which we live often dictates our hero projects.
For example, acquiring wealth is a common hero project in a consumerist society like ours. Starting a family and raising children is another common hero project, though not as universal as it once was. Seeking salvation, and thus, immortality, through religion is yet another pervasive hero system.
In the end, however, Becker found that most common hero projects, even if noble in their own right, even if cherished by the culture that surrounds us, will leave us feeling empty, depressed, and angry. This idea explains the rather common phenomenon of materially successful, wealthy people who nonetheless struggle with depression.
Going inside yourself to discover your own, unique hero project is terrifying, but ultimately rewarding.
If most hero projects will ultimately leave us dissatisfied, what, then are the heroics that we should strive for to feel truly alive?
Becker uses the idea of “cosmic heroics” to explain the only viable hero system that opens us to the full possibilities of life. While Becker doesn’t specifically define this system (after all, he emphasizes time and again that any successful hero project must be individually fashioned, rather than pressed upon us by others), cosmic heroics are the striving for an ideal self that transcends the experienced self. The ideal self “…is fully in the world on its terms.”
This process, the shedding of instilled hero systems and forging one’s own hero system, requires an understanding of the awfulness of reality. It requires the courage to let go of every preconceived notion you’ve held and reexamining it.
As Becker notes, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
Ultimately, for me at least, Becker has shown that really thinking about your personal meaning of life, and acting on it, is the key to fulfillment.
On a practical level, this entails both investing your own creative energies into projects that suit your talents, while also taking seriously that which has little monetary value in our society—our relationships with others and the openness to and enjoyment of visceral, lived experience.
How to create your hero project
So how can we take Becker’s wisdom and put it into action now? Here’s what I did:
- Write down your beliefs. Research educated opinions that oppose these beliefs. Open yourself up to new ideas.
- Write down what you are good at. Write down what you enjoy. Choose items that overlap and create your very own hero project.
- What are you afraid of? Think about how fear of death plays into your specific fear and slowly expose yourself. Personally, I would have panic attacks while driving, so I stopped driving altogether for over six months. After realizing that I was holding onto an unshakeable (and irrational) fear of dying in a car accident, I accepted this fear, and I tackled it head on. Accept your fears. Accept death.
- Let’s say that your number one priority currently is your career. Make a list of neglected relationships and place these relationships at the same level as your number one priority of work. You’ll soon find that when you actually make relationships a priority, once you make it a point to put time into them, your relationships with others will be your greatest reward.
This is a guest post by Nadia Jones who blogs at accredited online colleges about education, college, student, teacher, money saving, and movie related topics. You can reach her at nadia.jones5 @ gmail.com.
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