Notes on The Denial of Death

When I first read The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker a few years ago, I was blown away by it. I loved his style as much as what he was saying. This second read-through is being done with a more discerning eye. Well, I’m adding a shit-load more critical thought although probably nowhere near enough. It seems appropriate that I start to write up these notes after receiving word that my older sister has passed away from stomach cancer during the last day or so. We weren’t close because of circumstance, so I have no hefty amount of emotional processing to do, but it has enough impact to provoke thoughts about mortality in general, and maybe more importantly, thoughts about not putting things off. I’d known about her illness for a couple of months and wondered about getting in touch with her; but then my own life events took over as they so often do and I figured I’d see where I was at in the new year….that I would then find the time to communicate…but she didn’t have time….

So, the book begins by addressing issues of self-absorption, the underlying narcissism inherent in us humans…all of us, not just me or you.


That got me thinking about whether it’s even fair to give it a name? And one which is seen to be derogatory at that. I refer to the word narcissism; it’s one of those tags which says we should avoid the individual because they’re not very nice as a person. But, if we’re all secret narcissists, is it not unfair to penalise those who are out of the closet? Becker mentions Freud, who said it was one of the most tragic aspects of being human, that we appear to be doomed to suffer from self-absorption. Becker himself says;

It is one of the meaner aspects of narcissism that we feel that practically everyone is expendable but ourselves.

But is this true?

Do all people believe this about themselves? I can accept it could be a fleeting thought which flies through everyone’s mind from time to time, but humans think lots of thoughts, and they’re mostly not true nor realistic. I’ve come across many who openly bask in their self-importance, but I wouldn’t say they could put their hand on their heart and say with all honesty that they truly felt they were the most important person on the planet. Those displays of grandiosity are more commonly a defense against a feeling of impotence – they have a sense of lack, not superiority.

Becker also says that this basic narcissism is inseparable from self-esteem, so why are we so negative towards those who are said to be narcissistic? It’s a serious question; I’m not being flippant here. If we’re all inherently narcissistic and if it’s necessary for psychological survival, then why is it a bad thing if someone actively indulges that part of their human self? It seems that regular society only wants those who can suppress the more natural aspects of being human, it’s like we’re not allowed to admit to the stuff that we need, and god-fucking-help-you if you take it to excess. But the excess of anything usually points towards a lack of something else and yet you’d be hard pushed to find anyone who would feel genuine empathy for a narcissist – I mean empathy for whatever it is they are lacking. And yes, as with many words, the clinical definition and the use of the word in a general conversation can vary widely. There’s interesting stuff to uncover when it comes to looking at people’s attitudes and the actual meaning and reason for a word’s existence, language itself, and its uses and all of that, but,

There’s a question that floats around in my mind whenever I hear the word narcissistic because I mostly see the word hurled as an accusation against an ex-partner. It always makes me wonder if the ‘victim’ is in fact, a bigger narcissist than the one they’re accusing…after all, you’d have to think you were something very special indeed if you assume that anyone is going to put your needs above their own, right?

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