Becker with Real Bullets

Charles Nolan | March 26, 2016

Charles Nolan

Charles Nolan

Turn on CNN any night of the week and you’d think you were watching “Escape from Evil, the Movie”. It’s not about theory any more. It’s not an armchair discussion. The armchair is at the controls of a tank. Case in point — after writing that last sentence, I clicked over to check my email and found a link to the breaking story of a suicide bombing in Istanbul staring back at me from the top of the page. The picture on this page is from that story. If I want a different picture, I’ll be able to check again tomorrow and find a new one, with a new story behind it. Carnage, masked men waving automatic weapons in the air, American crowds demanding “no entry” for Muslims, the body of a refugee child who died trying to escape the war zone – the pictures are easy to find — too easy. So what has this got to do with Ernest Becker? Everything.

BeckerUntitled2’s central point in Escape from Evil, that our need to deny our own deaths and helplessness is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, with destructive results, has seldom been so clearly in the headlines. The line between religious, political and ethnic groups has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. Accusations that Islam is a “political system masquerading as a religion” are answered by Jihadist fears that Western economic and political muscle will spell the end to their “way of life” (a term that signals dangerous ground whenever it is used). All sides concerned believe that they are doing God’s will, substituting concepts such as “Liberty”, “Freedom” or “The American Way” for the Supreme Being in the slightly more secular West. Either way, it’s all about identity, what Becker called the “hero project.” The individual becomes a hero by sacrificing all for the group, killing its symbolic enemies and risking or losing their own life in the process. The fact that one can deny their own death by literally, actually dying is probably the hardest piece to grasp in this scenario, but the most important if we are to understand it.

…our need to deny our own deaths is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, [and] has seldom been so clearly in the headlines.

In most wars through history, some tangible, observable prize has been at stake – territory, power, trading rights. The winner got the country, the right to self-government, access to the spice routes – something solid. After the American revolution, the Americans formed their own country and Britain lost a colony. After World War 2, Germany and Japan had to shrink back to their own borders. But the same underlying game was at work. The hero project is the foundation upon which all nations and all wars have been built since time immemorial. The winners (be they Kings, Presidents or Generals) who represent the “country,” and collect the enemy’s surrender and spoils of war, have seldom if ever come from among the loyal millions whose blood paid for the victory. The soldiers who did the actual fighting, with spears, muskets or machine guns, fought and died for their group’s hero project, creating their own identity through their participation in the greater symbol, the bigger picture. That’s been true forever. It’s why the wars are fought, and is equally true for the leaders and the soldiers. The participation of the hapless civilians who got in the way has never been a consideration.

What’s different now is that the underlying force that previously drove the game has become the game. Blowing yourself up in a restaurant frequented by Western tourists doesn’t gain your group one inch of territory. It doesn’t damage your enemy’s ability to wage war. If anything, it inspires your enemies to come after you with more vigor and a larger military budget. The symbolic victory has become the whole victory. 9/11 was the game changer. Taking down the World Trade Center towers was not going to topple the United States of America, only enrage it. It was the lesson of Pearl Harbor all over again, except that the Japanese attack at least had the strategic intent of crippling the United States’ Pacific fleet.

The soldiers who did the actual fighting, with spears, muskets or machine guns, fought and died for their group’s hero project, creating their own identity through their participation in the greater symbol, the bigger picture.

Today, it’s all about the ideology. The revolt in Syria has less to do with political factions than religious factions. Isis has gone international, and seems intent on goading the west into an Armageddon-like confrontation. Political power and oil have become secondary. Terrorist groups compete with each other for the bloodiest headlines. Paranoia is growing on all sides, as each group circles its wagons. There’s no way to win a war this pure. Every enemy brought down inspires others to take their places, on all sides. Every victory is its own defeat and every defeat is its own victory.

The lesson Becker tried to teach us forty years ago has been ignored at our peril.

As if to make my point, as I finished the first draft of this piece, news was posted of a Taliban attack on a Pakistan University that left 22 dead – anonymous civilians killed because they were identified with education. Here’s today’s picture.


This is no time for armchairs.

Charles Nolan is a freelance writer and poet, whose work is chiefly concerned with the problem of human meaning and how we deal with “the strange hand we’ve been dealt” without the supports previously provided by formal religion. He has recently written his first full-length non-fiction work, entitled “The Holy Bluff, the Search for Meaning in the Post-Religious Age”. 
Charles Nolan studied for the Catholic priesthood for eight years, holds a Masters Degree in Social Work and has been a Human Services worker for over forty five years. He is the father of three and has six grandchildren. His work is aimed at providing “tools for the job, not easy answers”. Charles lives in Philadelphia with his wife Cheryl.

One Comment

  1. May 25, 2016

    Hello Charles,

    Wonderful article. In particular, it made me want read “Escape from Evil” again. I have read it–but about 40 years ago. I’ll have to try and find time to read it again (Although I have to admit that my “try to find time to read it” is equivalent to “just one thing I’ll never do (again)”. In a lunch conversation with Neil Elgee long ago he said that he thought it was Becker’s best book. I can understand why but I think “The Denial of Death” is his masterpiece. Regardless, my thanks for your article.

    Your brief bio speaks of your interest in poetry. Have you ever read Rebecca Elson’s “A Responsibility to Awe”?. She was born on January 2, 1960 but, being a poet, a journal keeper, and a world class astronomer, she had a different way of saying it.

    “I was born in the coldest hour of the night
    At four in the morning in a blizzard
    At the time of year when the earth comes closest to the sun
    On the second day of the decade of free love
    And walking on the moon.”

    I wish I had the time to say more about her (one) book but time and a lack of decent typing skills prevents me from doing so. There is no indication she ever read Becker but much of her poetry reflects his ideas–especially those poems and journal entries about her 11 year fight with non-Hodgkin’s lymphoma and her approaching death at the age of 39. The small book is hard to get but it is possible. I recently gave it as a wedding gift–to an astronomer.

    I look forward to reading further articles from you.

    My Best,

    James Berglund