The vital lie

Which one do you use?

12th September 2009

A society that denies death winds up killing all that it loves.
  —   Johnny Barzakh

“It is a fraud for the intellectual to want to be taken seriously as a prophet.”

I keep this phrase hung above my desk to keep me honest. I can only present the news. Just because I understand what’s going to happen doesn’t make me anything more than the hack journalist I am, trying to figure out how to minimize hazard. Other people make decisions about who are prophets, who are swindlers concealing ruses, and who are fools.

The tumultuous future I see coming for all of us is only my reality, and any part of it you may wish to claim for yourself is because all of us are basically the same standard model of homo sapiens and all connected to the same stuff, which we may call consensual consciousness.

What follows is a tremendous teaching tool for the new consciousness that mandates transcendence of the pathological aspects of belief while keeping all those old wonderful values that we all love.

• • •

Everything in quotes in this piece is lifted verbatim more or less from Ernest Becker’s 1974 books The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil. Longtime readers know I’ve mentioned this little-known cultural anthropologist on several occasions.

The review of Becker’s landmark work The Denial of Death reads:

“Starting from childhood most people use all kinds of repressions to pretend that they aren't going to die. Much of society is based on symbolic systems for people to feel heroic, because when we achieve heroism we feel that we have transcended our mortality. Much of this heroism is in fact false, even disempowering, because for example most pointedly with entertainers and athletes we often in fact project our need for heroism onto them. In psychology this is called transference, which manifests itself in group psychology and other ways that Becker thoroughly covers.”

This Becker quote remains permanently on the top of my website.

“Once you base your whole life striving on a desperate lie, and try to implement that lie, you instrument your own undoing.”

To me, this is all of human history, all religions, all politics. The attempt to enforce the lie that human society is based upon has resulted in nothing but five thousand years of slaughter over the possession of material wealth.

All governments that have ever existed are inevitably unstable because they are based upon a lie — the lie that we do not die — and the corrupt supernatural sanction that always accompanies that lie and sculpts it into tyranny.

• • •

“Man is a frightened animal who must lie in order to live.”

We’re all trapped in a complex web of mistranslated myths that have been used to anesthetize the populations for purposes of commercial exploitation. This is the pattern of all history. Keeping the peace means getting people to agree upon a pleasurable lie. And always, the local God is turned into a hammer with which to slam the neighbor.

“Societies are standardized systems of death denial. They give structure to systems of heroic transcendence. Cosmic heroism is a self-defeating fantasy.”

Well, that’s the nature of the beast, isn’t it? As in the stars, so in ourselves, said Shakespeare. All this fighting in the outside world is really only a fight against the beast within, one that cannot be defeated no matter what weapon is utilized. Through scapegoating (a concept for which Becker is most famous), this mistaken focus accounts for the vicious enjoyment we take in killing others, and the nervous silence we have as Americans when we are reminded how many people we have killed around the world on a daily basis.

As Becker said somewhere, “the killing of others anesthetizes our fear of death.”

• • •

Reading Becker’s work in the early 1990s, the social truth that spewed out of every paragraph forevermore impressed me. Here is a select list of those aphorisms that can lead to hours of insightful contemplation.

“The most noble human motive will cause the greatest evil.”

“Evil is a natural condition, an offshoot of our drive to survive death.”

“The shadow is a natural phenomenon.”

“Failure of empire is always economic inequality.”

“Horror alone brings peace of mind.”

“In love we see the most distortion of reality.”

“Guilt is a reflection of the problem of being in the universe.”

“All religion is narcissistic megalomania.”

Whoa, there’s a good one! Pursue that one further.

“We embody death in order to control it. Ritual puts one in possession of eternity, yet is a departure from the truth of the human condition.”

There’s your definition of religion, isn’t it? Something to tell to children whose parents have gone and there is only God to turn to.

“Religious systematizers build symbolic interpretations around the crises of life. Historical religions are all critiques of false perceptions.”

Perhaps Becker’s most famous concept is “the vital lie.”

I wrote about the vital lie in a book I did not publish in the year 2000 titled “Dark Matter: Hope of heaven is destroying the biosphere.” This excerpt is practically all Becker.

“The vital lie is the story we tell ourselves to anesthetize our fear of death. We feel with certainty we will live forever and that certainly is not true.”

“The truth of the human condition is that we fashion unfreedom as a bribe for self-perpetuation, we suck up to God to beg for our eternal lives, we create a vital lie to immunize us from oblivion.”

“The concept of the vital lie may be used as a litmus for any form of religion. No matter the imagined weight of their sacred tomes, no religion contains any conception of actual death, only the pathologically figmented survival OF it, because that’s the way to deny death, rather than actually deal with it.”

“Learned from knowing about the vital lie?”

• “Material production is the greatest evil in human history because it is destroying the very conditions that sustain our lives.”

• “War is a sociological safety valve that cleverly diverts popular hatred of the ruling classes into a happy occasion to mutilate or kill foreign enemies.”

• “Killing others lessens our own fear of dying, although it is own sense of animality and inferiority we try to kill — and never succeed.”

• “Evil derives from the human urge to heroic victory over evil. Cosmic heroism is a self-defeating fantasy.”

• “The human is an evolutionary dead end (and ten years after I wrote that, I would add today, “if the present system is kept in place.”)

No program of education can remove the need for the vital lie, Becker wrote. The human apparently cannot function while distracted by the anxiety of death.”

Once you base your whole life striving on a desperate lie and try to implement that lie, you instrument your own undoing.

This is the history of the human race on planet Earth.

Do not think that either Becker or or this writer have lost hope.

“There is nothing in man or in nature which would prevent us from taking some control of our destiny and making the world a safer place for our children,” Becker wrote.

This is the team that I am on, and absolutely everyone is welcome to join.

John Kaminski is a writer who lives on the Gulf Coast of Florida, chronicling the bitter end of civilization as we have known it.