Don't Fear Your Full Potential

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker

Why do you do what you do?

This to me is one of the most interesting questions we can ask about ourselves.

Because there are really two important answers to it.

One is why do you think you do what you do? What’s your stated motivation in life.

And one is why do you actually do what you do? What subconscious processes are running behind the scenes in your brain pulling the strings and actually driving your actions.

It’s tempting to focus on the first one. Setting goals, stating our purpose, having a mission, but all of that is useless if we don’t understand what’s actually driving us.

Well in this book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker makes a compelling argument about part of what motivates us. And I think that this is essential reading for anyone who wants to more deeply understand themselves and their motivations.

I’ve shared some of my favorite ideas from the book below. And as always, if you want to listen to the audio, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

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You must investigate what you are doing to feel heroic in your life

“As we shall see from our subsequent discussion, to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life. Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem.”

Our culture no longer lets us feel heroic

“The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up.”

Anxiety is an evolved, default emotion

“Early men who were most afraid were those who were most realistic about their situation in nature, and they passed on to their offspring a realism that had a high survival value. The result was the emergence of man as we know him: a hyperanxious animal who constantly invents reasons for anxiety even where there are none”

The paradox of humanity is that we’re both gods and worm food

“We might call this existential paradox the condition of individuality within finitude. Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew. Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it.”

We’re afraid of living up to our full potential because it might destroy us

“We fear our highest possibility (as well as our lowest ones). We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perWe enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities fect moments we see in ourselves in such peak moments. And yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe and fear before these very same possibilities… The Jonah Syndrome, then, seen from this basic point of view, is "partly a justified fear of being torn apart, of losing control, of being shattered and disintegrated, even of being killed by the experience." And the result of this syndrome is what we would expect a weak organism to do: to cut back the full intensity of life.”

It’s easier to tune out and join the masses than face your mortality

But while one sort of despair plunges wildly into the infinite and loses itself, a second sort permits itself as it were to be defrauded by "the others." By seeing the multitude of men about it, by getting engaged in all sorts of wordly affairs, by becoming wise about how things go in this world, such a man forgets himself does not dare to believe in himself, finds it too venturesome a thing to be himself, far easier and safer to be like the others, to become an imitation, a number, a cipher in the crowd.”

Basing your sense of security or fulfillment on something external to you is to be like a child

“…each child grounds himself in some power that transcends him. Usually it is a combination of his parents, his social group, and the symbols of his society and nation. This is the unthinking web of support which allows him to believe in himself, as he functions on the automatic security of delegated powers.”

As we moved away from religion, we stopped relying on God and deified others

“Man reached for a "thou" when the world-view of the great religious community overseen by God died. Modern man's dependency on the love partner, then, is a result of the loss of spiritual ideologies, just as is his dependency on his parents or on his psychotherapist. He needs somebody, some “individual ideology of justification" to replace the declining "collective ideologies.””

To live is to be willing to risk death

“To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn't want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the "selfwilled over-valuation of self" whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature. He won't pay the price that nature wants of him: to age, fall ill or be injured, and die. Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head.”

We need a second, creative world to explore

“Man needs a "second" world, a world of humanly created meaning, a new reality that he can live, dramatize, nourish himself in. "Illusion" means creative play at its highest level. Cultural illusion is a necessary ideology of self-justification, a heroic dimension that is life itself to the symbolic animal. “

Depression can ultimately be seen as a fear of life

“Adler had already revealed how perfectly depression or melancholia is a problem of courage; how it develops in people who are afraid of life, who have given up any semblance of independent development and have been totally immersed in the acts and the aid of others. They have lived lives of "systematic self-restriction," and the result is that the less you do the ess you can do, the more helpless and dependent you become. The more you shrink back from the difficulties and the darings of life, the more you naturally come to feel inept, the lower is your selfevaluation. It is ineluctable. If one's life has been a series of "silent one ends up firmly wedged into a corner and has nowhere retreats, else to retreat.“

You can’t sit around and reflect all the time. You must take action.

“The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more "knowing," but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes.”

Thank you so much for reading, and remember if you want to listen to the audio, subscribe to the Nat’s Notes podcast on YouTube, Spotify, Apple, Amazon, or anywhere else you listen to podcasts by searching “Nat’s Notes.”

I’ll be back next week with another great book.