Do You Know What Your Two Selves Are Up To This Evening?

Do you know the difference between your physical self and your symbolic self? 

In his seminal 1974 book, The Denial of Death, Ernest Becker introduced this argument that there is a basic difference between the physical world of objects and the symbolic world of meaning. This distinction helps us cope with the dilemma of mortality (i.e. the knowledge that life ends with death).

We tend to focus, not on the physical self, but on the symbolic self, which allows us to design and work on our “immortality project(s)”. This provides a foundation for the belief that we are superior to our physical reality, and able to beat death on some level.

I was drawn to Becker’s work in Oliver Burkeman’s book, The Antidote: Happiness for People Who Can’t Stand Positive Thinking.

Humans are good at behaving as if we believe we’re immortal. But Becker’s idea of “immortality projects” suggests that we are more aware of our physical mortality than we might first realise. We embark on certain paths that will ensure that a part of us lives on even when we cease living.

This has driven some of the most wonderful human innovations and advancements. It’s not by default an ego-centric or a self-aggrandising approach to life. In fact it is an ingrained and inevitable part of what it means to be human. There is a natural desire to make the world better, or at least leave some kind of meaningful imprint on it. However, we can quickly lose perspective when our immortality project comes into conflict with another.

Are you aware of the distinction between your physical and symbolic selves and how it is motivating you?

We all have immortality projects on the go (both personal and collective ones). But how do you know what yours are, and is it possible to embark on a better one?

How to Define Your Immortality Projects

1. Be Aware of Your Symbolic Self

What is it carving and why? remove ego so that you’re not clashing with immortality projects of others – is the success of yours dependent on the failure of others?)

2. Creativity

There is a difference between someone who gets famous because they are an incredible artist, and someone who produces art because they’ve seen it as a good way to get famous.

“Creative and artistic individuals deny both physical reality and culturally-endorsed immortality projects, expressing a need to create their own reality. The primary difference is that creative individuals have talents that allow them to create and express a reality that others may appreciate, rather than simply constructing an internal, mental reality.”

Build stuff that others can appreciate and use for their own creative projects.

3. Inspire, Don’t Inflict

“When one immortality project conflicts with another, it is essentially an accusation of wrongness of life”. Each party will want to prove its belief system is superior, a better way of life. we engage in immortality projects to attempt to preserve ourselves indefinitely.

4. We Need Meaning

It’s important to recognise that immortality projects matter because meaning matters. They’re important because they give life meaning and allow us to find significance in the world. This is important because it shows we care.

5. Be More Dog

I envy animals in many ways. They rarely seem aware of their mortality. They live in the present and don’t panic about how productive they are.

6. Recognise When You’re Playing a Part in a Bigger Immortality Project

The concept of Terror Management Theory explains how when people are made to recognise their own mortality, you can get them to subscribe to and support wider immortality projects like wars, military action, ideological beliefs and even dictatorship. These answers to the terrorising fear of death do not necessarily provide more security or make us safer.

But they make us FEEL safer, giving us the perception of security, especially if they are done by people who appear to desire our protection (security officials, government, people in positions of leadership etc). This can blind us from reality and lead us to support things that are really not in the best interest of people.

Over to You

What do you think your immortality projects are? What gives your life a sense of symbolic meaning? I’d love to hear your thoughts, please share your response in the comments below.


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1 comment
  1. In thinking about what might be my immortality project, I figured it is my hopefulness to devise a way to encourage people to be more thoughtful before making assumptions about other people and, instead of finding a way to put them down to make us feel better about ourselves, to try to learn how they came to their thought or preference. We don’t need to accept what they believe- if appropriate, we can give our viewpoint, maybe debate in some manner, but at least allow them to express their thoughts with dignity. Or, maybe they don’t know exactly why they thought what they were thinking- maybe it will come later now that we have expressed interest. What makes us so perfect that we can be anyone’s judge and jury, anyway? My wonderful, but totally non-HSP husband tells me that it is impossible to change the way people think, but that we can only plant seeds or serve as a catalyst for one time or a short time- then we have to do it all over again. He maintains that others don’t have so many thoughts in the first place- their assumptions are, as Andy puts it, just more “simplistic” and probably will continue to be that way.

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