What we can’t think about: In the following essay, I recommend the recently-released film Seeking a Friend for the End of the World and discuss how it illustrates many of the insights found in the works of Ernest Becker.
“The final mission to save mankind has failed,” a radio announcer declares. “The 70-mile wide asteroid known as ‘Matilda’ is set to collide with Earth in exactly three weeks time. And,” the announcer continues, his voice gradually taking on a more chipper tone, a tone reminiscent of Casey Kasem announcing the week’s Top 40, “we’ll be bringing you our countdown to the end of days, along with all your classic rock favorites.”
So begins Seeking a Friend for the End of the World, a film that comically—and beautifully—illustrates the different ways people deal with the awareness that they’re going to die. Several characters respond by putting their trust in different transference objects. Some, for example, go about buying more insurance, seeming to believe that their wealth and preparedness will save them from the giant asteroid set to obliterate the planet. “I’m afraid the Armageddon package is extra,” Steve Carell’s character tells one of his clients. “That protects you and your family against any sort of apocalyptic disaster—asteroids obviously, famine, locusts…”
Other characters immerse themselves in their jobs, carrying on as though everything is normal. Carell’s maid, for instance, keeps showing up to clean his apartment. When Carell kindly suggests that she instead spend her last days with her family, she assumes she’s being fired and begins to cry. Only after he agrees that she can continue cleaning the apartment does she regain her composure. Her denial, it seems, is so great that the planet’s impending destruction doesn’t even register.
This latter scene reminds me of one of my favorite Becker passages. “Gods,” he writes, “can take in the whole of creation because they alone can make sense of it, know what it is all about and for. But as soon as man lifts his nose from the ground and starts sniffing at eternal problems like life and death, the meaning of a rose or a star cluster—then he is in trouble. Most men spare themselves that trouble by keeping their minds on the small problems of their lives just as society maps these problems out for them” (The Denial of Death, 178).
So, in other words, many of us are like the maid, so consumed with the minutiae of our lives that we don’t have time to confront life’s bigger issues. More disturbingly, many of us are like a group of rioters we encounter later in the film. Unlike the maid, these rioters have responded to their imminent deaths by looting their neighborhoods and brutalizing anyone they can get their hands on. Their actions illustrate Becker’s argument that the fear of death often leads to scapegoating and violence against others (Escape from Evil, Chapter 8).
Needless to say, Seeking a Friend for the End of the World is not a feel-good movie. Early into it we learn that, just as in real life, we’re not going to be given a clichéd Hollywood ending; we learn that this fictitious world really is going to end and that everyone really is going to die. And yet the film gives us hope, much in the same way that Becker’s writings give us hope. The hope comes not from a mystical revelation that life has a transcendent meaning and that we have souls which will survive death. The hope is that each of us can live happier, more fulfilling lives and that the key to such lives is self-awareness.
In the film’s final scene—which is so beautiful and powerful that, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t describe here—we see that self-awareness is terrifying. And yet we see that it is only through such awareness that we’re able to extricate ourselves from the idols which rule most of our lives. For instance, it is only the film’s self-aware characters, those who have accepted that the asteroid really is coming, who are able to get past their own neuroses and form genuine and loving connections with others. Carell’s character in particular has what Irving Yalom calls an “awakening experience,” a confrontation with death that shakes him from his self-delusion and apathy and causes him to live a life of intention and value. (See Staring at the Sun: Overcoming the Terror of Death). Again, for fear of ruining the movie, I won’t say any more about it here.
Seeking a Friend for the End of the World certainly doesn’t provide the perfect Beckerian solution to the problem of existence. For Becker prescribed that we embrace both self-awareness and a Kierkegaardian-like religious faith. Both, he believed, are equally necessary. Yet I can’t help but consider this a very Beckerian film. It sends the message that people in our death-denying culture most desperately need to hear, that message being—to quote Yalom—that “[a]lthough the physicality of death destroys us, the idea of death [that is, the awareness of death] saves us” (33).