My Denial of Death

happy_birthday_by_babsdraws-d61xnoeEvery year, around my birthday, I freak out. Often, it’s about my failings, anxiety about my crushing ambition, but mostly, it’s about my inevitable death. My Thanatophobia is why I bury myself in books. Bound and bracketed texts comfort me.

Ernest Becker in The Denial of Death writes, “The real world is simply too terrible to admit; it tells man that he is a small, trembling animal who will decay and die. Illusion changes all this, makes man seem important, vital to the universe, immortal in some way.”

The world is simply too terrible to admit. Look at Syria. Look today. It’s not fair. It’s unworldly to me, unfathomable. When Ryan writes about Syria, when he talks about it, none of our friends respond. People push Syria into a deep pocket, away from their to-do lists and their lunches and bowel movements. I’m no different. I look at the computer then look at Aria, empathy overwhelms, then I cry. For some reason when I cry Aria runs over, finger pointed, and speaks Aria in a stern manner. “Stop crying,” I think she says and I am once again thrust into here, safety, the couch, chopping fake vegetables. Kids really do perpetually shove you back into your everydayness. Anytime you have an authentic moment, revealing your being-towards-death, there they are, coloring the walls, demanding your immediate attention less you have permanent blue streaked walls, which I do now. I should really look up how to remove crayons. You’d think they’d all be washable. I mean, duh.

Writing is words that stay.

She’s leaving her mark. I get it. I applaud it. I do the same.

Writing makes me feel immortal. Not simply because my texts will remain after I’m gone. The universe is expanding, for one, all will be lost, including Shakespeare. Also, my work could disappear from fire, technical mishaps, lack of interest. No, writing, for me, creates importance, gives me the illusion of control, gives me the illusion of immortality through the chain of readers reading, readers reading to write, which is the point of it all: to write texts that make other people want to write texts.

So I insert myself as author, as character.

Through my work I am my own mother. My work – myself – is my child.

Like my home, my work is an extension of myself.

Unlike my daughter.

Who is Aria to me?

She is a person who is not me.

We procreate to live forever. We procreate because we will die.

But the show must go on.

Like thoughts,



Madame Bovary dies, and still, the book goes on.

I can’t fucking believe the universe is expanding. Life was much simpler when the sky was Heaven, not space. As a result, space frightens me. Ryan doesn’t understand that.

When I think about his death, I think about madness. The kind of grief that consumes totally. Filled to the proverbial brim with blackness, nothingness. I don’t know which is more terrifying, my death or his. The thought of Aria’s death is too hideous to contemplate. Horrors cross my mind every now again, of course they do. I fantasize about someone kidnapping her at the grocery store. I then imagine I’m Leela and beat the living shit out of those people, saving my child, killing the bad guy, turning my husband on immeasurably.

I can’t believe that everyone I know and love will die.

Maybe it’s because I grew up Catholic, and that my parents are incessant optimists, but I feel as though immortality is somehow around the corner. That three generations from now we will have found the scientific secret of youth and eternal life. That this dread, this fear, the anxiety and the terror will all be over.

But I will have missed out.

I’ve never been swept away by a crowd – merged into mob mentality.

I was always uncomfortable at pep rallies then political rallies or protests, or – especially – in church. When the priest says, “Let us lift up our hearts to the Lord,” and everyone responds, “It is right to give him thanks and praise.” I was always creeped out. Religion is a palliative. Freud saw it as a weakness, an inability to cope with the torments of obliteration, a passivity that defeats our creative urges for more life.

Becker quotes Otto Rank:

[Surrender to God] represents the furthest reach of the self, the highest idealization man can achieve. It represents the fulfillment of the Agape love – expansion, the achievement of the truly creative type. Only in this way…only my surrendering to the bigness of nature on the highest, least- fetishized level, can man conquer death.

I take this as a personal challenge.

One can only achieve peace if one gives oneself over to the great public dream of eternal life?

I scoff.

There are no atheists in fox holes. I think Christopher Hitchens has disproved that.

Art is not designed to quiet the soul, to be a pacifier – it is designed to enlighten, ennoble, to strengthen, fight, and prepare. To feel God inside your veins through the act of creation is an addictive high that cannot (as gravity dictates) last.

That does not mean to give up and give in to a god because he is a better artist than you.

And giving in by way of taking Pascal’s Wager will not eradicate the doubt deep in your belly. That specter of impending nothingness will never fully dissipate.

Art is the only way I know of coping with that.


Art is the only place I know of where a woman is accepted. Where she can be herself.

“Write from your body,” Cixous says. Write with your body, write in white ink, mother’s milk. Your work, your collected body of work, are your babies, is your body.

Through writing I can pretend I’m not shackled to my carcass; this loathed, bloated, exhausted carcass.

Then, everydayness. Becker: “I am nothing and should be everything.” I nurse my ego.

I read of other’s deaths. Sometimes I’m moved, greatly. Often I’m not. People morph into statistics, casualties of war, of cancer, of old age. I compare my age to the deceased. I subtract my age from one hundred for comfort. Turning 30 was hard. I wanted to be so much more than I am by now.

Still, so much holds me back.

Again, Becker:

The depressed person avoids the possibility of independence and more life precisely because these are what threaten him with destruction and death. He holds on to the people who have enslaved him in a network of crushing obligations, belittling interactions, precisely because these people are his shelter, his strength, his protection against the world…

The depressed person is a coward who will not stand alone on his own center, who cannot draw from himself the necessary strength to face up to life.

When I’m depressed I feel like a coward. A failure. I feel tiny and insignificant.

For me, God is not the answer. Giving yourself over to a divine, demanding, infallible, Mercurial Dad sounds horrible. Self-effacing. Yet so many see Heaven as personalized. But what shape do we take in Heaven? Do we suddenly possess all the knowledge? Do old people stay old? Babies stay babies? Physically? Mentally? What if someone sees you in their heaven but you certainly don’t see them in yours? If I died and Ryan remarried would I be stuck with her too? Or worse, would I still have to put up with his mother?

Or would we all automatically forgive each other and only care about worshiping?

If then my ego disintegrates then what’s the purpose of having a soul?

When I stopped believing in God it was though I was diagnosed with a terminal illness. What I lost, what I’m struggling with, is my once-perceived immortality.

It’s the unbearable lightness of being.

Without eternal return life seems so thin.

If I were to repeat everything would that make my actions more significant? I would be imprisoned by my own life. A spectator.

Or I’m wiped clean and build everything anew in exactly the same way.

Free will would be an illusion. Which maybe it is.

Though I’m a postmodern child, at heart I am an existentialist. Sartre feels like home. My ego is an illusion. The unified self is an illusion. We are all empty sacks of blood and bone.


This was part of my room’s decorations as a kid – though my mom colored in the girl’s hair brown with a marker so it was a more accurate representation of me.

This is why I have given myself over to literature. I believe it’s important and significant. It matters. Stories matter. They shape people. They give people hope and help them carve out dreams and personalities. Representation matters.

Literature enables me to feel as though I’m a part of something bigger.

And this brings me peace. Calms the anxiety.



Incidentally, Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, did not. I couldn’t get behind his Christian message of hope. For Nietzsche, art is not just a form of human activity but is rather the highest expression of the human spirit. For me, it’s the purpose of my life. Be an artist. Treat your life as a work of art. Make good art. YOLO.

Allow me to end with Neil Gaiman. “And when things get tough, this is what you should do: make good art.”

I wrote about my Thanatophobia here too, where you’ll find a hauntingly beautiful mash-up video of an Alan Watts recording and the video for “Sometimes the Stars” by The Audreys. Every little bit helps.

About Cathy Borders

Writer. Book Midwife. The Republic of Letters. Waterline Writers. Omnia Vanitas Review.
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2 Responses to My Denial of Death

  1. gnatseyeview says:

    Love this post–and so glad to find someone else who has read Becker.

  2. Christian Kubik says:

    Reading Becker now, and found your post illuminating . . . and inspiring. I, too, feel that religion, or “giving up” isn’t the answer, but wondered what might be. I can’t imagine a better answer than your essay here – the answer is in art. Thank you for your thoughts!

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