Melissa Broder is the author of four poetry collections, including Meat Heart, Scarecrone, and Last Sext. She’s best known for @sosadtoday, the Twitter account she started anonymously in 2012, during a particularly dark time. (The first tweet was just two words: “sad today.”) Like the essays in So Sad Today, the account specializes in transmissions from a tortured id; its no-holds-barred brand of self-assessment gained 350,000 followers and led to a column for Vice. Melissa Broder spoke to me by phone from her home in Venice, California.
Melissa Broder: Usually, when I’m in a cycle of deep, existential anxiety, my first inclination isn’t to pick up a book with “death” in the title. If I’m really trying to find some solace, I’ll read some Jane Austen or something—something nice and light.
But sometimes I feel so consumed by questions about death and mortality that I can’t escape into anything else. I often feel alone in my active questioning. I wonder, why is no one else around me talking about this? Isn’t it strange that we’re all sitting around this table talking about Groupon? What is this table? What are we doing here? So I sit there, terrorized and feeling like an alien.
During these phases, Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death is a book that I return to time and time again. In its pages, I find camaraderie, understanding, and even solace in periods when I feel haunted by the strangeness of existence and the inevitability of death.
While Becker offers no consolation in the form of a spiritual palliative, or a definitive answer as to what we are doing here (who can?), it is its own consolation for me to read his work and connect with so many others, who, throughout history, have been plagued by what I might call seeing, feeling or thinking “too much” about existence.
It’s an exploration of the problem of mortality, which Becker looks at from every angle. He looks at the things around which we create our identities—and then examines what happens when those things are shattered, from multiple perspectives: psychological, physical, artistic and creative, literary and philosophical.
If there’s a basic thesis of the book, it’s this:
The irony of man’s condition is that the deepest need is to be free of the anxiety of death and annihilation; but it is life itself which awakens it, and so we must shrink from being fully alive.
Becker is saying that underneath everything we do is the anxiety that we will inevitably cease to exist—an anxiety we want to avoid more than anything. But this fear is implicit in life itself, and so we water down our lives and hide. The only way to escape our death-anxiety is to become, paradoxically, less fully alive.
What does it mean to be “fully alive”? I think when I am in the woods alone is probably the most alive I ever feel. When it’s just me in the woods by myself, with my little dog, I feel so quiet and good. I mean, I’m not John Muir. We’re talking about spending two hours with my little dog on a little cleared-out path. But inevitably, when I feel alive like this, I also experience what Becker is talking about. I grow scared of living that fully. So I’ll grab my phone to distract myself from the moment’s purity. I’ll retreat into something that makes me feel less alive.