At some point this year I remembered about a book I had read during my uni: The Denial of Death. There was something I had always liked about the style of Ernest Becker, possibly that one could always tell the anthropologist in him between the lines of his psychoanalytic musings.
It was early one evening in November when, chatting with one of my friends who had to pick up work as a delivery driver due to having lost her job, she was sharing how uneasy and strange she feels at the outpour of people’s gratitude when she delivers their parcels. After all, she is neither volunteering, nor does she feel like a proper frontline worker, so she didn’t feel she deserved that gratitude in the first place. Also, she added, it is really unexpected that people would just thank you for doing your job. When she worked as a language teacher, she confessed, nobody had even thought of thanking her for teaching people English.
I remembered how Becker had explained to my 20-something-year-old self, that, in order to cope with our primal anxiety of death, us humans tend to forge and engage in various kinds of heroic projects. Society opens up an array of chances for heroism to thrive and, in the process, construct the soothing illusion of immortality or at least deferred death. It had sounded like an intriguingly cool notion at the time, but it took two more decades and a global pandemic to understand and experience first-hand what Becker was saying.
Part of the debilitating effect of a global pandemic on the living and the healthy and the survivors is that it projects death as dangerously close. You shudder at its proximity translated in the devastating numbers in the news first thing in the morning, your body tenses at the danger with every mask it encounters, the circle seems to be tightening around each of us with more of our friends and neighbours getting afflicted, while stories of gruesome endings hit closer and closer to home. When part of our very human nature is continually striving to repress this deep-seated primal dread of dying, a pandemic that faces you with it in the tiniest details of our day can only be overwhelming and destabilising.
So my friend and I ended up reading bits of Becker’s book that night. We discovered what I had forgotten in the time since my first reading: that the more afraid we are, the more we feel the need for everyday heroes.
Mainstream impersonal heroes high on a pedestal are not enough anymore, they can’t contain the very private and yet generalised panic that we’re all experiencing. So our fabrication of heroes must go local and close-. In these times, it is medics, delivery drivers and supermarket workers that we need to look up to, as heroes in an attempt to counterbalance death.
We need them around to keep assuring us that they will be there to save us if we’re hungry, out of supplies or out of breath. While these people exist, so does our hope that we’ll be fine.
It is mums setting up remote support groups, it is dog walkers taking their neighbour’s pet along too, it is Facebook groups that ask people all over the world to take a photo of whatever is there outside their window or Christmas-themed communities still exchanging posts in February, because those living alone feel like belonging when they read them.
Some of us need heroes even more up-close, so we become them. The number of people volunteering or helping out has risen exponentially.
So what my friend and I discovered that evening was that indeed we have to both keep thanking and receiving thanks; we might be more important collectively than we had thought.