There is no ultimate purpose, point, or meaning, to human life – our existence is absurd. Some of us know this – at least intellectually. And yet most of the time, awareness is not enough to prevent us from trying to escape our uniquely human problem, through the reification of symbolic meaning by illusionary ideals. This is an unconscious process where we deny or distort reality in order to more comfortably cope with the task of living. We invent meaning where there was none, and then forget that we did so. In some ways, it can be seen as a side-effect of existing as the world’s only symbolic animal. Becker was acutely aware of the fact that humans need illusions. But, then he asks the next most important question: “What is the ‘best’ illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness? … I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides” (Denial of Death, p. 202). Some illusions are worse than others – and we have every right to challenge them as they emerge within popular culture.
The illusionary trend I want to discuss here is an old one: that of worshipping one’s own physical body. Are you familiar with the old adage: “you are what you eat?” Well, the kind of trend I want to analyze is one where people take this adage to the extreme. They make a hero-project out of it, as it becomes their primary compass for navigating through life. I am referring to the kind of person who has made a life out of obsessively and almost religiously attending to factors believed to maintain or improve their physical health or long-term survival. This might be the kind of individual who anxiously consumes the latest ‘scientific studies’ and magazine articles about how to eat and exercise well, while following the latest consumerist trends that allow them to feel like they are in the ‘best physical shape’ they could possibly be in (and that others are ignorant or foolish for not ‘getting with the program’). Progress is measured in terms of physical health and/or the number of years that is believed to be added or kept with regard to one’s estimated life-span. If you were ask “what is the meaning of this person’s life?” The answer would presumably be: “to live as long as one can.”
Now to be clear, I am not singling out individuals who care about their bodies – if so, I would be describing not a small minority, but rather the majority (including myself). After all, if you believe that you have a half-meaningful life or at least one worth living – and since you have not killed yourself yet, this must be true – you must necessarily have a physical body in satisfactory working order. But a physical body is alone insufficient for a life to be meaningful. Reducing the meaning of life to physical survival is, as I have argued elsewhere, nihilistic. There is absolutely nothing that makes this kind of life more meaningful than that of a carrot or a slug.
It is also interesting to note that a person who organizes their entire life as such, in hopes of having more numerous tomorrows, are placing all their bets on a future that is anything but certain. How tragic it would be, for example, for this kind of person to get hit by a bus or to drop dead of a heart attack. All that careful planning, time, and energy, would have been for nothing. But this kind of thought would scarcely enter their mind, since their death-denying belief system keeps any nagging doubts safely outside of awareness.
We all live by illusions – they provide adherents with a way to strengthen their fragile selves. An animal that attains its self-worth symbolically, must stand out, must be better than the person next to them. A deeper problem arises when these folks openly judge, humiliate, or denigrate, those who do not ascribe to their faith-based lifestyle – in this case, one that revolves almost entirely around physical health. Betraying a smirk or snicker, for example, when they see someone else eating something they believe to be unhealthy, or not engaging in a kind of exercise regimen that is clearly ‘better’ – anything to feel as though they are superior, I suppose. As if that were not enough, many of these folks are also not above ‘informing you’ (or rather lecture you) about all the bad things that exist in the foods you eat, or how your exercise program, is in comparison to theirs, lacking. In other words, they try to force their death-denying schemes on others. After all, if they can get others on board with their belief, it legitimizes their efforts, secures their self-esteem, and further defends them from the reality that they unconsciously fear.
In short, this kind of individual that I am describing here, implicitly believes that the goal of life is primarily physical survival or self-preservation. Stated differently, the assumption is that ‘he who lives the longest, wins.’ It is nihilistic. But humans have the ability to make some things more important than their physical survival. There are some things that some of us would die for – if there is dignity to be found in humankind, it is to be found in this fact. Reducing the human being to nothing but the physical is a dehumanization of our species. It is reducing your worth or meaning to that of a potato. Those who treat their body as their “temple,” do not appreciate that it is also their cage. They avoid this realization, by mindlessly busying themselves with polishing the steel bars that hold them, unconsciously hoping that the shimmer from their efforts will blind their eyes from the reality that sits in front of them. Tyler Durden was right to say that “self-improvement is masturbation.” It feels good, but if that is all your life is going to be, it gets you nowhere. You’ve reduced yourself to a bag of meat – surely we can do better than that.