Mark Manson is a best-selling author, entrepreneur, and life-advice blogger. His website markmanson.net receives over two million monthly visitors. Mark drew on Ernest Becker’s work for inspiration for his most recent book, The Subtle Art of Not-Giving A F*ck: A Counterintuitive Approach to Living a Good Life, which has appeared on both the New York Times’ and Washington Post’s Bestseller List. He graciously took time to chat with EBF staffer Christa Masson about his new book, Ernest Becker, and how to live a good life.

The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ckLet’s start at the beginning… could you tell us when you first encountered Becker and what that process was like after reading his work?

I used to follow this blogger who would talk about philosophy and apply it to everyday life. I remember he wrote a post and the title of the post was something like ‘The Most Upsetting Book I’ve Ever Read. So, I picked [The Denial of Death] up and while it was a little bit hard at first to get what he was getting at, by the end of it — well, if I had to list the top three books that have blown my mind in my life — it’s definitely up there.

It was one of those books too that upon finishing it there’s no obvious immediate applicability. It shakes your worldview so much that you don’t know left from right anymore. I didn’t know what to do with it for about a year. My brain needed time to digest the ideas to integrate it into my own worldview.

Also, I think it’s very much woven into American culture to have this naive optimism about everything. “You can accomplish anything you set your mind to” and “Everybody’s great in their own special way.” Aside from Becker I’ve found very few American intellectuals that openly take that on. That was a big inspiration.

So at what point in your life and career did this happen?

I read The Denial of Death in 2012, and back then, my blog, it was much smaller and it was much more… I don’t wanna say superficial, ’cause that sounds kinda derogatory, but it was. It was less philosophical, just tangible life advice. I loved the book but didn’t feel like there was a place to put it in my work for a long time.

And then something changed.

Yeah.

What was that like? What was the first application (of Becker) that you really took?

Well, as the years went on my work got a little bit deeper, a little bit more philosophical, and I recommended the book in a few posts.

But then I started getting emails from people who had loved ones who died, or some sort of death happened in their family or their life, and they were having trouble coping with it. Becker obviously was one of the first things that came to my mind, but it was one of these subjects that I felt like an article couldn’t really do justice. It deserved more depth and deserved more attention behind it. Right around the same time, I started planning on writing the book, and so from the very first outline, I knew the last chapters would be about death and that Becker would be a big part of it.

What I write in my book, is that the experience of being close to death seems to have this amazing ability to shift your perspective on what matters in life.

Could you talk a little bit more about the central question that you’re answering in your book, which is how to live a good life within the framework of knowing that you’re going to be food for worms?

The way I open the chapter of the book which addresses that question is by talking about when a close friend of mine died. It was awful and tragic, and I went through a very dark and painful time dealing with it. I think before that event in my life I’d been a pretty naive teenager who took everything for granted and didn’t really think about things beyond a very superficial level. Experiencing that death in my life was a bit of a wake up call . Ultimately, what Becker did in terms of practical influence, is he explained that the purest way to measure what’s valuable in your own life is to contemplate your own death. When you’re comparing one thing to another, it’s just so easy to get wrapped up in how subjective and relative everything is. But when you start thinking about life, the world without you in it, it somehow clarifies a lot of these questions.

What I write in my book, is that the experience of being close to death seems to have this amazing ability to shift your perspective on what matters in life.

You make the case that this clarification process should lead to a better choice in values. Choosing to be led by the value of curiosity or compassion, for example, over accumulation of wealth or fame. How do you explain the difference between healthy and not-healthy values (or as Becker fans will call them, hero projects)?

Mark Manson

Mark Manson

It’s hard. In the first chapter of the book, which is completely laden with f-bombs and really absurd jokes, I say, kind of tongue-in-cheek but I’m actually very serious when I say, “This is possibly the most important question you can ask yourself: What do I give a fuck about? What are my values?”

And it’s funny, because doing interviews for this book, I get asked the question a lot, “What should we give a fuck about? What should our values be?” I always get really uncomfortable because part of the point is that your values don’t really mean anything unless you arrive at them yourself. And I think one of the problems that drives a lot of people to self-help material is that [people] never learned to ask these questions of themselves. They look for somebody else to tell them.

It’s a very hard thing and a lifelong process to distinguish what actually matters and what’s just frivolous. What’s ego-driven and what’s actually worthy and important. One of the aims of the book is provide tools to help people figure that out for themselves without pushing them too far in one direction. I see contemplation of one’s own death as one of the most important tools that people can use. There have been a lot of people who have pursued very bad legacies beyond their own death. I think it’s a very good tool, but I think what makes it so profound is exactly what Becker talks about, which is that we instinctively avoid the question our entire lives. It’s very hard to get people to stop and actually think about it, which is probably why it feels so powerful for people. It’s literally the one thing that they haven’t considered thinking about before.

Any crazy belief that makes you feel good, whether it’s white power or the idea that the federal reserve is ruining the country, the internet is going to give it to you, and it’s going to give it to you really easily and really quickly.

While your book is written a style attractive to many millennials, what would your advice be to a younger audience? Those who have just starting to look around at the world in a thoughtful way, starting to form their own worldviews and existential anxieties?

I think one of the problems, and again this comes back to culture, is the fact that it’s so taboo to talk about this stuff. Inevitably, everybody faces death…somebody dies in their family, or they come close to dying. One of the reasons it hits people so hard is because we just don’t have open conversations about it. I think about when I was growing up, and the only place I’ve ever had any conversations about death was in church and my parents made me go. That conversation generally didn’t progress past, “Oh, she’s in heaven now.”

We’re just skirting the issue.

Yeah, it’s like, “Oh, she’s in a better place, so don’t be sad.” And I think it’s probably very emotionally healthy, and developmentally healthy, to have honest conversations with young people because it’s impossible to talk about death without talking about meaning and value. Kids think about this stuff. Whether it’s anxiety, or shame or social problems, rejection, family problems. I think in general, our culture has a tendency to smooth over everything and pretend it’s not there and brush it under the rug. Even things as simple as therapy are still considered taboo for a lot of people.

I see contemplation of one’s own death as one of the most important tools that people can use.

The first step is creating outlets for people to talk without feeling ashamed. One of the most popular articles I wrote when I was starting my blog was simply titled, ‘You’re Okay’. And it listed all this fucked up stuff that people experience in their lives. And it’s like, “Guess what? Everybody experiences these things. You’re okay. This is not abnormal. This is part of the deal. If you’re gonna be alive, you get to experience this stuff.” And a lot of my early readers loved it. They would bookmark it and come back to it again and again.

In your book you discuss the concept of personal entitlement. Where did the idea to address entitlement come from? How does that fit in with all of this?

I originally wrote the book using the term, ‘narcissism,’ but that’s pretty heavy handed. And entitlement is more out in the ether right now. As somebody whose career is pretty much to be online and in the newsfeeds 24/7, I think there are a lot of unintended side-effects that this technology is having on us. One of the results is all the polarization you see in all these extreme ideas. People seem to be more immune to facts, but I see that as a result of just a simple sense of entitlement. People feeling that they deserve something.

I’ve seen this in my reader emails over the years. In some sense, life is getting so easy. At any point in your life, if you’re bored for half a second, you can just turn on your phone. If there’s any piece of information you want to know, you can know it in three seconds. If you want to laugh, you can go laugh within five seconds. Any emotion you want to feel at any given time, it’s literally clicks away. And I think that this is maybe having an unconscious effect on us. There’s a lot been written about how younger generations, college-aged kids, are more narcissistic than they were a couple of generations ago, and how they’re responding really poorly to basic problems. Campus counselors have seen their cases go up something like 300%. A lot of people that I deal with — all the thousands of emails I get — a lot of it just seems like they have really unrealistic standards of what they should expect from life.

I literally get people who are incredibly upset because they feel like they don’t deserve to be embarrassed by their boss at work, or something. And I’m like, “Dude, this is just… It’s part of having a job, sometimes, you’re embarrassed. This is part of being with other people, is you feel bad sometimes.” You look at a lot of the problems that are going on politically and it seems like people feel a certain way, and then they feel entitled to get whatever they want, just for no other reason than they feel a certain way. I see it as a lack of strong values. It’s people becoming enslaved to just feeling satisfied all the time. And I also see this tying into my industry, and my work. I see self-help as a big part of that problem. It’s primarily designed to just make people feel good and it’s not actually solving anything because people’s real issues are operating at the level of values. These books and seminars are only dealing with people feeling bad, not dealing with their values. They’re not asking, “Why do you feel bad? Why should you be feeling bad? Maybe you shouldn’t be feeling bad.” And so, that was actually the impetus for the entire book. I originally conceptualized it as a kind of negative self-help. I said, “I need to write a self-help book about why pain is important and why we should all feel it.”

I’m looking at a page from your book now and you’re talking about the pampering of the modern mind. You have a great paragraph about why people who are feeling particularly entitled are so because they need to be great, to be accepted, in a world that “broadcasts only the extraordinary.” Can you elaborate on that? What happens when the measure of success is so high that everyone is expected to be extraordinary?

I think another way to think about it is that people are given obscenely high metrics of success that they buy into. And so when they can’t reach it, they’re so flattened by disappointment that their only alternative is to be depressed about it or to turn around and try to tear it down and decide that, “This is all bullshit and I’m gonna ruin it.” And I think you see that in a lot of different corners of social movements and political movements these days. And you see it on all the sides of the spectrum but to varying degrees, it’s a varying destruction.

Technology on the one hand provides all these benefits of information and connectivity, but I think it unintentionally makes these hero projects or immortality projects easier for people to buy into and pursue. Any crazy belief that makes you feel good, whether it’s white power or the idea that the federal reserve is ruining the country, the internet is going to give it to you, and it’s going to give it to you really easily and really quickly.

Is there anything that you would like people to take away from the book or that you think a Becker audience in particular would appreciate?

I think a lot of these ideas are already going to resonate pretty strongly with a Becker audience. A main goal of the book was to teach people to get more comfortable with the pain in their life, and obviously death is a big component of that. And then, also, to just practice a little bit more self-skepticism and become a little bit more aware of these arbitrary metrics that we’re applying to ourselves, and applying to others.

To read more from Mark Manson, check out his blog at markmanson.net. His book, The Subtle Art of Not Giving A F*ck, can be purchased online at amazon.com.

“I Am Not an Animal!” The Signature Cry of Our Species

Michael Mountain & Lori Marino | December 6, 2016

not an animal

(On February 24-25, 2017, the writers of this post are holding a symposium in Atlanta on the topic of how our destructive behavior toward our fellow animals and the planet is driven by anxiety over our own mortality and our consequent denial of death. Sheldon Solomon will be one of the speakers.)

In his last book, Escape from Evil, Ernest Becker wrote:

Mortality is connected to the natural, animal side of [human] existence; and so man reaches beyond and away from that side. So much so that he tries to deny it completely.

As soon as man reached new historical forms of power, he turned against the animals with whom he had previously identified—with a vengeance, as we now see, because the animals embodied what man feared most, a nameless and faceless death.[1]

Forty years ago, when Escape from Evil was published, Becker could not have imagined where this truth might be leading – or how quickly.

The most recent Living Planet Index concludes that global wildlife populations have fallen by 58 percent since 1970, and that the decline is on track to reach two-thirds among vertebrates by 2020.

Another report shows that more than 300 kinds of mammals – from hippos to rhinos, and gorillas to camels – are being eaten to extinction. And sport and trophy hunting have left elephants, lions and most of the other great iconic species of Africa hanging on by a thread.

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Beck and Becker

Tom Cathcart | October 29, 2016

Tom Cathcart

Tom Cathcart

Richard Beck, the author of The Slavery of Death [Eugene, OR, Cascade Books, 2014], is a professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, a school affiliated with the Christian Churches, a self-described “evangelistic and Bible-based” denomination that believes in returning to the original teachings and practices of the New Testament. If, like me at the outset, you think that might be an unlikely place to find an appreciation of Ernest Becker’s work, think again. Beck has written a profound study of the place of death and death denial in contemporary life and Christian practice, and he draws heavily on the work of Becker, as well as the confirmatory empirical research of Sheldon Solomon and his colleagues.

Beck examines Becker’s notion of the role of self-esteem and “cultural hero systems” in allowing us to repress our fear of death, thereby closing us off, both from the realization of our true, vulnerable, existential situation, as well as from understanding and appreciating the worldviews of various outgroups. Beck understands and endorses Becker’s insight that the neurotic anxiety that underlies our death denial can all too easily spill over into violence, as we try to maintain our own heroism and our own self-esteem.   One need look no further than the 2016 election campaign with its camps of “elites” (the successful cultural heroes), and the “left-behinds,” who feel that their cry for self-esteem is not being heard by the dominant culture; as we have seen, violence is often just beneath the surface.
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Bo Bestvina

Bo Bestvina

Terror Management Theory (TMT) states humans have an unconscious existential anxiety arising from awareness of morality. In an attempt to buffer ourselves from this anxiety we create cultures to give life meaning. Our contributions to these cultures (e.g. inventions, novels, policies, etc.) are a means of living on symbolically after physical death. So when someone threatens our culture, they threaten us, which explains why people are prejudiced towards other cultures, races and ethnicities.

Initially, Terror Management Theory aroused defensiveness in me, on a personal level and as if I were defending society in North America. How could fear of death play such an important yet discreet role in culture? How could we elect incompetent politicians just because they promise to protect us from threats? How could my noble artistic aspirations be influenced by a pitiful fear of dying?

After setting sensitivity aside, I embarked on a project for the Ernest Becker Foundation to categorize academic research into important social issues such as women’s rights, racism, terrorism, criminal justice and mental health. In the process of reading research abstracts, I came to understand the profound influence of death anxiety on how people see different cultures, religions, policies and themselves.

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Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series
Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently completing (with Jeannine Brown) a theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).

What is the demographic of the students you teach in terms of age and background?

It’s a fascinating mix. United is a small seminary, and a stand-alone seminary in that it’s not connected to a university and it was begun with intentionally loose denominational ties so it would have an ecumenical flavor. But as a historic mainline protestant school, of course it attracts students from the mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have a vibrant Unitarian Universalist presence as well. But we’re also seeing growth in students from non-denominational and progressive evangelical backgrounds, as well as Catholic students, non-Christian students, and a number of students who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition (i.e. the “nones”).

As far as age, the students at United tend to be a little older than is typical for seminary (the average age of a United student is around 45). Students come from all walks of life; some have been in active ministry positions and are just getting around to formal seminary training. I would say the majority of students that I’ve encountered at United however, have significant life experience post-college before they start their seminary career intensively. That life experience adds a wealth of insight to the classroom dynamic.

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

With time to spare before a flight out of Pisa, I recently looked in on the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the famous tower of Pisa leans. The Piazza is the size of a football stadium. A medieval wall encloses a cathedral, a baptistery, the tipsy bell tower, a green lawn, and a humungous crowd. At first glance it’s sacred Disneyland. But there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

We depend on habit and familiarity to make overwhelming reality user friendly. Like a factory, habit uses repetition to make us productive—you don’t have to think about tying your shoelaces. But habit also imprisons us. To grow, to solve new problems, you need to “break” clunky old habits. The ultimate problem, that everything changes and dies, can make your everyday life feel like a lifeless habit.

Wonder opens an escape tunnel out of the prison of routine. The use of “awesome” or “fabulous” as an all-purpose grunt of approval shows how important wonder is. Slang is trying to force amazement and awe into everyday life. Tourism likewise organizes wonder to be a handy product. The trouble is, escape from habit into amazement or wonder can mean blowing your mind, which may feel ecstatic—or terrifying.[1] So tourism usually promises that you’ll experience “awe” from a comfortable mental couch—like TV.

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Programmed Life Who's in charge here?

Kirby Farrell | May 28, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

One afternoon last year local police pulled me over. When I said hello and asked what was wrong (inspection sticker out of date—duh), the cop ignored me and stuck to his script (“Let me see your registration,” etc.). In a crime novel he would have had “steely blue” eyes. He seemed ridiculously grim, as if arresting a murderer. It was partly self-importance—the rapture of a uniform and a badge. But what most struck me was his icily impersonal manner.

Being aggressively impersonal allows you to dominate someone from behind a mask, as if the Law, not you, is making the demands. You’re just doing your heroic duty while the Law commands the other person like a slave.

This is puzzling because impersonal correctness is a management technique used to insure efficiency, objectivity and fairness. If all officers follow the script, there’s less likelihood of abuse, incompetence, or misinterpretation. It’s industrial technology: you write a program and it carries out a particular task as if by magic. In factories this works brilliantly. Machines and workers programmed like machines repeat prescribed steps over and over, producing more stuff at lower cost. In your personal life, a strict program may take you to an otherwise unreachable goal. The right routine can free you to create.

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Hospice: Preventing pain after death

James Salwitz | May 13, 2016

Dr. James Salwitz

Dr. James Salwitz

David was 42 when he died from stomach cancer.  He spent the last year of life receiving useless chemotherapy and debilitating radiation.  More important, David was in terrible pain, all the time.  He lay in bed for agonized months, as the cancer destroyed his ribs, back and lungs.  Finally, David was rushed to a hospital, plugged into a breathing machine and invaded by countless IVs.  Agitated, in pain, he died despite a futile storm of tests, drugs and several rounds of rib-cracking CPR.

His wife, previously positive, happy and successful, never recovered. She quit work, drank heavily, and spun into a therapy-resistant depression.  12 months later, she used those same pills to take her life.

At the time of David’s death, his son was 17. The teenager found comfort in the kind of pharmaceutical intervention that come from bottle and needle.  A high school dropout, he was in jail by 20, and although paroled at 23, found the streets too much.  Back in prison by 26, his life dissolved to rubble.

David’s suffering, poorly controlled during that precious last year of life, and the tragedy of his last days, were a direct result of the failure to plan for the inevitable and the inexcusable negligence of his caregivers to provide comfort. That misery transferred to those he loved. David’s pain continued after death.  

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Everyone wants to be rescued. It could be Tarzan plucking you out of the croc’s jaws. Or someone loaning you $5. Praise for some virtue or talent can rescue your self-esteem from self-doubt or depression. A new lover may save you from loneliness or the terror of rejection and self-disgust. Romance promises to rescue you from the tedium of yourself or the monotonous people around you.

You get the picture.

The idea of rescue seems to be built into us. We are among the most social animals on earth, and after all, what are friends for? They’re folks you’d rescue and count on to rescue you. In politics, progressives believe people come together to save each other. Conservatives imagine that you save yourself.

In the big bad world, “warriors” save you. In psychosis and some religions, messiahs play a leading role. A St Bernard with a cask of hootch under his chin answers if you phone in an avalanche. If you’re over troubled waters, you can count on “God” or belief in God. If you’re rescuing a needy and hung-up lover, heroic rescue can make you feel ten feet tall till you hit your head on a door lintel one time too many.

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Larissa Fitzpatrick

Larissa Fitzpatrick

In the mock travel narrative, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift chastises humanity for hostile behavior, believing that people capable of reason fail to act reasonably when blinded by their personal illusions of reality. More than two centuries after Gulliver’s Travels was written, Ernest Becker also perceived a link between illusion and violence. Becker theorized that humans, terrified of their inevitable death, create a world of symbols, or immortality ideologies, that give their lives meaning and stability. Our need to conceal our death anxiety is so powerful that we often become intolerant of people with ideologies that threaten our own. Although living in different centuries and nations, Becker and Swift commonly found frustration in mankind’s inability to see reality and failure to reach its highest potential.

To show readers the danger of distorted reason, Swift uses satire to call attention to paradoxes, hoping to reveal the absurdity in certain accepted beliefs and behaviors. In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver enters the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he finds himself surrounded by difficult paradoxes, many of which are self-inflicted. He encounters two new groups of beings: one appears to have reason and one does not. Gulliver’s fear of insignificance among these groups drives him to blindly follow the individuals with reason, ironically leading him to become completely unreasonable. We, like Gulliver, experience many paradoxes in our lives. We are born only to die, and by attempting to conquer our anxiety, we make the world a more menacing place. However, by using self-analysis, unlike Gulliver, we can see the absurdity in our situation. By wrestling with our fears rather than denying them, we can analyze our behavior without dangerous bias, allowing us to experience our knowledge of death as a method of embracing life.

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