Category Archives: Book Reviews

Review of The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

This is an existential classic and must read for anyone interested in existential theory. However, most people do not understand the profoundness of this book in their first reading. This, in part, is due to the the complexities of the thought in this book. Yet there is more to it than that. This book is a difficult emotional read. Becker, writing not long before his own death, directly deal with an issue most people wish would just go away. Yet, Becker approaches the issue in a manner that makes it impossible for it to go away. In approaching the topic, Becker provides a powerful overview and synthesis of the work of Otto Rank and Soren Kierkegaard. Ranks idea of the heroic serves as an ongoing theme throughout the book and carries over into his next book, The Escape from Freedom, which is an important companion volume to The Denial of Death. The heroic is part of our nature, but also part of our demise. Becker helps for us to be able to see the heroic desire in ourselves — in its beauty and its ugliness. Reading tips for The Denial of Death: 1. It is common for people to complain that Becker is both attacking and complimenting Freud at the same time. While this is accurate, it is generally tied to a misperception. Becker is complimenting Freud’s frame or structure of psychoanalysis while critiquing his content. In essence, part of what Becker does is  take Freud’s frame, remove Freud’s sexual theory, and replace it with Becker’s own death theory. 2. Don’t read “death” as being used only literally. While Becker certainly does use it in a literal sense and arguably never goes beyond that. However, there is much which can be added to Becker’s theory if it is also interpreted symbolically. Death is a symbol of human finiteness and limitedness. If Becker can be read in this context, the power of his book is greatly expanded.3. Read this book slowly and discuss it as you go. Better yet, read it with a group of other people interested in the topic. Many find this book to be terribly depressing and, at times, overwhelming. I’ve found that through time I’ve come to see it as a book full of hope, but this was not my first read of the book. Maybe Becker’s own theory could help explain why this book is such a difficult read for many readers. Maybe the audience of the 70’s, when the book was first published, was more open to the issue of death. However, now, maybe our culture has lived in an ever-increasing denial of death that makes a book like this so much more of a difficult read.

 

Original Version added 2004. Never been updated.

Review of Tuesdays with Morrie

Sometimes existentialism is best translated by someone who doesn’t even realize they are talking about existential ideas. Tuesdays with Morrie seems to be just such a book. The book, written by Mitch Albom, chronicles the lessons he learned from his teacher, Morrie Schwartz. Morrie plays the role of the teacher while Mitch is the one eager, now resistant student. After losing contact for many years, Mitch re-connects with his old sociology professor when finding out that Morrie was dying.

Morrie, who become one of the most famous dying men of all time, became famous through his interviews with Ted Koppel on ABC News. It was watching the first of the three interviews with Morrie that Mitch learned Morrie was dying. Morrie was very pleased his once eager student returned and encouraged Mitch to fly in for weekly meeting with Morrie which continued until Morrie’s death.

The story unfolds through Mitch’s recollection of the weekly Tuesday meetings, each of which have a different topic. Each lesson is more vivid with Morrie’s impending death. Morrie was diagnosed with Amyotrophic Lateral Sclerosis (ALS) or Lou Gehrig’s Disease. With ALS, there is a gradual deterioration of muscle that, by the time the Tuesdays meetings begin, was occurring at a rapid pace. With each lesson, death was more present.

Mitch’s own struggle with facing death issues makes Tuesdays with Morrie a very practical lesson in the denial of death. Throughout the book, he often makes comments to Morrie which encourage him to not talk about death or repress that Morrie is dying. Morrie returns encouraging Albon to consider the value of death and the value of facing reality.

The existential themes emerge through Morrie’s wisdom and facing of his impending death along with Mitch’s resistance to death and emotion. Morrie appears determined to help Mitch embrace his emotions, evidenced by making him cry, and face the existential realities he’s been denying. Morrie accomplishes this with great success

Sneaking in the Existential

Unfortunately, too many of the great existential works bear daunting titles such as Being and Time or The Concept of Dread. If making it past the title, the content is often no less intimidating. However, the praxis of existential theory need not be so relegated to the land of intellectualism and abstractions. The power of existential theory is that it deals with what is undeniably real to those who are honest with themselves.

Mitch Albom, an unknown in the existential world, is not someone anyone could expect to write a great existential book. Yet, this is what he has done. It can easily be read in a day or even an afternoon. The book is not long and even less complicated. Albom, himself, may know little existential theory. The book doesn’t give us enough information to know. The wisdom is more from his mentor, Morrie. Through the book, the reader can watch as Mitch gradually makes the wisdom his own.

Tuesdays with Morrie has sold millions of copies and impacted numerous lives; which is something that can be said of few, if any, books in the more popular self-help genre. But maybe that is part of what makes this book so powerful. It doesn’t pretend to be something it is not. It doesn’t pretend to have final answers. It doesn’t pretend to be filled with profound intellectual insights. But, it does offer some good, practical, existentially-informed advice from someone who is doing his coursework with the greatest of all existential teachers: death.

Reading this book I often wondered why so many people think existential thought is no longer relevant when a book such as this can sell so many copies. Maybe this speaks well to the place of existentialism in contemporary life. According to existential theory, it is countercultural by nature. It focuses on the realities of what it means to exist with specific focus given to the neglected aspects of existence. Death, as Ernest Becker so well informed us, is one of the greatest neglected aspects of existence in contemporary life. Yet, it is no less relevant.

The success of this book, in my opinion, underscores the existential issues that continue to be repressed in today’s culture. People are still asking the existential questions, even if they are more common at the unconscious level than the conscious. As long as they remain unconscious, we are robbed of the lessons which they can provide. This book could be an important first step in bring the existential unconscious to the conscious levels.

The Impact

This book brought to mind so many of my existential lessons in life. Mostly, it reminded me of one of my greatest existential teachers who never sought the label of being an existentialist. When finishing my training, Robert Murney was the person who became my mentor. He was 76 when we first met. Through the nearly 4-years we became friends, he faced his wife being diagnosed with cancer and his own death. I’ll never forget the last visit, which felt very similar to Albon’s visits with Morrie. He continued to mentor me and focus his attention on concern for me while he was the one in the hospital bed facing his last days. Much like Morrie, Murney faced death as a teacher and a friend, not a foe to be overcome. And, also like Morrie, he kept returning to love as the lesson.

Morrie, like Murney, was also very honest about his facing of death. He didn’t pretend it was something that he was looking forward to, but he didn’t dread it or avoid it either. He faced the reality that he was going to die and made peace with this fact. However, death helped him realize what he would miss when he was gone. He would miss dancing and teaching, but most of all, he’d miss his family and loved ones. He mourned for this without letting it consume him.

I was also reminded about people I’ve known who have not faced death with the integrity of Morrie. Death brings to light the depth of character the way little else can. For Murney and Morrie, death brought with it a sense of love and connection in the relationships they held dear. For others, it brings a bitterness and a drive to achieve some form of immortality that radiates an evil presence.

Beauty and Evil at the End of Life’s Journey

Erik Erikson talks about the final two developmental stages as being Generativity vs. Stagnation and Integrity vs. Despair. While I think Erikson was on the right track, I think he also missed some important elements. Not all people who fail to resolve these final stages reach the point of stagnation and despair. Also, I think there are some additional markers to those who have successfully resolved these stages.

Morrie and Murney are two of the great examples of people who have successfully navigated these stages. At the end of life, they were both very focused on their relationships with their loved ones, giving back to the community or the world, and continuing to learn until their last breath. The relational focus, hopefully, can speak for itself. The giving back to the world and the learning are of more interest to me for this review.

Learning maybe be one of the most healthy and health-promoting activities of life. It reflects an openness to the world and an awareness of our limitations (we don’t have all the answers!). Facing the end of life with an ongoing curiosity and excitement about learning reflects a healthy facing of death issues. However, people who have not found a healthy resolution to death issues often cling to hallow knowledge and a belief that they have the answers. Often, this narcissism is a result of a life of believing one’s own answers too much and remaining closed to the world and learning.

When I think of giving back to the world and community in life’s last stages, I think of Morrie, Murney, and Yalom. Yalom (2002) wrote a book at the end of his career titled The Gift of Therapy: An Open Letter to a New Generation of Therapists and their Patients. Shortly after this book was the first opportunity I had to meet Yalom. It is very evident to me that Yalom commitment to give back to the community is a genuine one. Murney continued to work until he died. He saw clients, supervised, and mentored many people until his health would not allow him to continue. Morrie was committed to sharing his lessons in dying through Mitch.

What made these offerings meaningful was their genuineness and their source. It seems evident to me that each of these individuals gave back because of their compassion, love, and commitment to others. It was an offering.

For others, there is a different type of urgency that emerges at the end of life. It is often presented as a gift to the community, but it is more of a forced gift which is given for selfish reasons. Ernest Becker, in his books The Denial of Death (1973) and The Escape from Evil (1975) , presents a case that the root of evil is the inability to accept or the denial of one’s death or limitations. This can be seen in attempts to symbolically achieve immortality through one great accomplishments that will live on forever. However, no accomplishment is good enough. There is a desperation in these attempts for immortality.

What Erikson misses is the people who masquerade as having successfully completing the final stages of development. They seem themselves as having achieved generativity and integrity. Yet, those around them see a desperate seeking of immorality. Unsuccessfully facing death, consciously or unconsciously, can turn narcissism into evil.

Morrie and Murney, on the other hand, demonstrate how death (something often viewed as evil) can be turned into beauty. The end of their lives were marked by love and genuine giving, two of the great beauties of being human.

Not all deaths end in evil or beauty. Most probably fall somewhere in between and others end in despair. However, the lessons of individuals such as Morrie and Murney can teach us how to seek beauty in the ending of a life.

Conclusion

As I’m sure is evident, this book was a great stimulus for me. It reminded me of some lessons I had forgotten and motivated me to get back in touch with these lessons. It also reminded me of the importance of praxis and practicality. I have a tendency to get lost in the abstractions, at times. At my best, I try to keep these connected to what is pragmatic or practical, it is easy to lose this focus. For Morrie, as told through Mitch’s eyes, there was a need for these lessons to remain practical. Tuesdays with Morrie doesn’t contain a lot of new knowledge for the existential student. However, the process lesson of remaining practical makes the book more than worth a read for even the most well-versed existential scholar.