“The impediment to action advances action. What stands in the way becomes the way.”
― Marcus Aurelius
What a great quote. I think that may be the most famous stoic quote, all thanks to Ryan Holiday of course.
It’s true. If you want to do or be anyone or anything, the obstacle is the way will always ring true. There’s no easy way. You have to put in the work.
Do you want to set up a business? You’ll have to deal with your lack of knowledge in marketing and sales (obstacles) so that you can reach success. Run a marathon, stop eating donuts, and fight your laziness. Do you want to do anything? You’ll need to knock off the obstacles first. It’s plain logic and easy to understand. The obstacle is the way.
Awesome, sounds easy enough to me, let’s get to work then.
So, I’ve followed this advice and crushed it at my job, family, and every other category you could crush. However, I still feel empty inside. I thought that by conquering my obstacles I would succeed in life! What the hell?!
Enter Ernest Becker Immortality Projects
“When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person’s ideas and then another’s depending on who looms largest on one’s horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic. Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula.”
― Ernest Becker
Ernest Becker, and his Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, will leave you questioning deeply your existence. Reading it feels like watching a horror movie but with a deep existential twist. It’s freakin glorious and I highly recommend reading it.
Human psychology, that’s it. But human psychology really is everything, because you cannot go beyond yourself, beyond how you’re structured to think and live.
The main idea of the book is that, at the core of our psychology, the fear of death dominates our existence. Because of this, and also because of our capacity to imagine ourselves beyond death, we develop immortality projects. Conscious of not being able to live forever in our decaying bodies, we develop ways with which we are able to live forever. That is our most basic psychology.
It is the reason why we build enormous skyscrapers. It is the reason why you’d like to have a street named after you (admit it). It is the reason why I’m writing this article. It’s basic human psychology.
“Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways — the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order to blindly and dumbly rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don’t know that death is happening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one’s dreams and even the most sun-filled days — that’s something else.”
― Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death
And so we picture ourselves as grandiose, conquering death through our actions. Conquering the obstacles, because the obstacles are the way, remember?
As I told you, I found myself working really hard and conquering all these obstacles. I feel proud of myself, but I also feel kind of empty.
Then I read Ernest Becker, and he made me realize that my immortality project was a cheap copy of a sold-by-the-millions immortality project. Get rich, marry, buy this and that, you know it.
I’m just playing here. I’d love to have a family one day and make it another meaningful part of my life. We are complex creatures and our tastes for life and what we find fruitful and worthy in it will be as varied as snowflakes. That’s not my argument.
My argument is that death is going to happen, and you’re already pursuing an immortality project irrespectively of you believing it or not. My question here is: have you ever given a conscious look at your immortality project? Is it yours? What is it?
Sure, conquer all the obstacles, immortalize yourself. But is it yours? Is it helpful? Is what you’re doing what you want to be remembered for?
“To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.”
― Ernest Becker
Remembering your death places everything in your life in the proper order of importance it deserves.
Do not dare to follow the advice of ‘the obstacle is the way’ without asking these hard questions first.
You’ll go far no doubt if you put yourself to work, but to where?
Answer that question first.
Thanks for reading,
Subscribe and receive the Askesis (practice) e-book for free to further develop your practice of stoicism.