“Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing.” —Ernest Becker
Through these books, Becker weaves together a philosophy of humanity that argues most of a person’s actions are based on his or her fear of death. He writes, “Of all things that move man, one of the principal ones is his terror of death.”
But for Becker, it is not just the fear of physical death that moves people. In Escape from Evil, he contends that humanity’s greatest fear is to die without significance.
What man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance. Man wants to know that his life has somehow counted, if not for himself, then at least in a larger scheme of things, that it has left a trace, a trace that has meaning. And in order for anything once alive to have meaning, its effects must remain alive in eternity in some way.
To compensate, we begin to engage in the pursuit of immortality projects—any activity that will allow us to outlive our physical lives. By securing for ourselves immortality symbols, we are able to successfully defeat death, outlive our mortality, and overcome our terror of death.
These symbols could take many forms (writing, art, architecture). But Becker writes that most modern people in capitalist societies turn to wealth and possessions as their immortality projects. “Money gives power now—and, through accumulated property, land and interest, power in the future.” He contends that the pursuit of wealth and possessions is so common, “no wonder economic equality is beyond the imagination of modern, democratic man: the house, the car, the bank balance are his immortality symbols.”
I was first introduced to Becker’s philosophy years ago. And it has helped shape my understanding of why minimalism is a foreign idea to so many people. For those who pursue immortality through wealth and possessions, minimalism stands in sharp contrast to some of the very forces that make them human—even against the primal motivation of self-preservation.
But Becker’s contribution also gets me thinking, “Where then, do we find the motivation to own less? How do we live a life that is not motivated by the accumulation of more and more possessions? Is it even possible to live a life apart from the accumulation of money and possessions as our immortality symbols?”
Yes, of course it is possible. The key, it seems, is to discover and pursue new immortality projects—to make a conscience decision to not allow the appeal of the visible to crowd out its invisible competitors.
As a result, we choose to live a life of significance by embracing integrity, trustworthiness, honesty, and responsibility. We choose to touch the lives of others in meaningful ways by meeting their physical, emotional, and spiritual needs. We seek to elevate others rather than ourselves. We invest in justice and equality. Through work, we contribute to society rather than only ourselves. And above all else, we choose to champion and excel in love.
By seeking these invisible immortality symbols, we address our need for significance and we satisfy our desire for immortality. We impact the lives of others and outlive our physical lives. And removing the pursuit of physical possessions from our affections provides even more opportunity to secure true immortality symbols.