The psychoanalyst Ernest Becker’s 1974 book “Denial of Death” was a Pulitzer Prize winning description of how humans consciously and unconsciously create our “immortality project.” We are, Becker concluded, deathly afraid of death and desperately striving to be remembered.
I am reminded of this incisive book this All Saints Day, Nov. 1, when Christians remember those ordinary and sometimes extraordinary people who have died in faith, leaving behind a legacy of what it means to be a faithful son or daughter of God. These people, one would hope, lived lives of faithfulness not to be remembered or honored, but because they understood themselves to be a brother or sister, son or daughter, mother or father to others. They loved the Lord God with all their heart, soul, mind and strength and loved neighbor as self. That was all they wanted.
Some try very hard in the latter days of their life to change their image. Thus the wealthy industrialists of the 19th and 20th century are now revered through respectable foundations, highly coveted awards and named public buildings even though these people were once ruthless, almost despised capitalists.
Most of us, without the wealth to alter people’s memory, may still try via some noble act to be remembered as magnificent or kind. When I am honest with myself I realize that I wonder if I’ll be remembered beneficently or if it’s too late to change peoples’ impressions.
The ideal of the Christian life is to be unassuming in behavior, meek in spirit and gentle of heart, seeking not to be remembered at all. The people who Jesus singled out to be remembered were unassuming and generous: the woman who poured precious ointment over Jesus’ feet and the woman who dropped two copper coins into the temple offering plate. Those who trumpeted their deeds and their piety before others were recipients of Jesus’ scorn and mockery; about them he observed that they had already received their reward.
The nineteenth century Danish theologian Soren Kierkegaard recognized (The Anxieties of the Heathen) that when it came to wealth, the only way for a Christian to have riches is to forget that he or she has them, thus becoming generous and dependent upon God. If one is wealthy and obsessed with wealth one is a pauper, whereas the self-forgetful one - at any level of wealth or poverty - is rich indeed.
So it must be with those who would love God and serve neighbor. These people have a self-forgetfulness, an other-directed focus about them that runs counter to the philosophy of our glory and fame-famished world. Our many avenues of social media only serve to feed this desire for immortality. We can exist forever, we hope, through video and photo.
Give thanks today for those gentle, unassuming souls who lived and died for the sake of Christ and others, caring not for wealth, fame or honor. They have their reward.
Creede Hinshaw is a retired minister.