There have been far too few individuals who have been able to see through the lies that we tell ourselves, and certainly almost none as clearly as Ernest Becker. He was awarded the Pulitzer Prize, posthumously, for his most famous work, The Denial of Death.
I’ve read both The Denial of Death, and The Birth and Death of Meaning, and though Denial is definitely the more mature work, Birth and Death has illusion-shattering power. There is nowhere for the insecure and vulnerable self to hide after being revealed by Becker’s penetrating analysis. He goes straight to the center of what we are really trying to do when we form societies and interpersonal relationships.
One of my favorite stories about Ernest Becker is about when his term was almost up at Berkeley University. His students loved him so much that they got together and offered to pay his salary if the university would keep him. I can think of only one professor of mine whose salary that I would pay, but I definitely know what those students felt.
Becker lays the groundwork for his insights into human character by going into what exactly separates man from the lower animals. The prefrontal cortex, our special gift, allows for higher mental functioning to take place. Mind culminates in the organism’s ability to choose what it will react to, and so we can leave animal instincts behind and gain self-awareness.
It also forms the basis of our potentially paralyzing death-anxiety, and collective neuroses.
Becker notes the close connection between anxiety avoidance and the basic thinking process. Without speech, there can be no ego, and so the development of the self-reflective ego was the starting point for the creation of our illusions. We are not a species that can face the idea of our own death without illusion.
Enter, the world of symbols. How are we to overcome the arbitrariness of our situation and the painful awareness of our own eventual deaths without constructing a system of meaning in the only life that we have?
In a simplified way, jobs and houses and cars give us stability in the world, show off our value to others, and push away death anxiety. They, among literally every other “symbol” in the world allow us to project ourselves into something stable, something lasting. Our ephemeral selves have security and value as long as they aren’t inextricably bound up with a creature that is destined to die.
People can have their “selves” wherever they feel those selves to be. Possessions, family members, groups…they all can give the individual a sense of permanence in a world that he is destined to leave. In a way, those things are believed to be as much of themselves as their own limbs, or even their own personalities.
I no longer wonder why people can kill themselves after they lose a lot of money, or end a serious relationship. Hedge fund managers can kill themselves when their money dwindles down to nothing because they ARE those numbers, and when the numbers go down to zero, that means that they are already dead.
It’s not as depressing as maybe I’m making it sound.
Genuine heroism is possible, says Becker.
The ability to withstand anxiety is probably the only genuine heroism given to man. Anxiety is so basic to his condition that it constitutes really the main problem of his entire existence. Just as solitude is the greatest terror of childhood, the realization of alienation in a cold and indifferent universe threaten to beat the individual down at every turn.
Possibly the most riveting part of the book breaks down the structure of our social interactions and what is really at stake when we interact with others out in the world.
Ernest Becker realizes that self-esteem is vitally important to mental health, and in fact, its importance can NOT be overemphasized. Without the self-esteem provided by our social roles, social value, and conditioning, our functionality would break down completely. We would be literally unable to act, or to navigate our social world.
The temptation for me is to simply copy out whole chapters of the book, because his analysis is really that fascinating. Such as his observation about what people usually do when encountering someone else with whom they must interact out there in the world. Almost everyone cycles through, in their own mind, what they deem to be important to their self worth and reminds themselves that they are in fact, somebody.
They have to prop up their self-esteem by reminding themselves what is so great about themselves so that they can try to make the other person see that value as well.
Once Becker laid out this idea, I began to see it everywhere. As an aside, I think it’s true that the best books make you look up and say, “Yes! The world is like THAT!”.
We are thrown against people who have very unique ways of deriving their self-esteem and we rarely know what exactly they want from us. If you really want to understand someone, ask him what his framework of reference for heroism looks like or why he doesn’t feel like a hero in his own life. At stake during each social encounter is the positive self image that each person has laboriously crafted for himself.
Likewise, if you want to understand why a youth opts out of the system, find out why it fails to offer him a chance for heroism. Culture is a structure of rules, ideas, and customs which serves as a vehicle for heroism, but if it doesn’t extend this opportunity to the individual, they will bow out. You see it all the time and in many ways.
Children and adults need to see themselves as being an object of primary value in the universe, and when society doesn’t offer them the chance to see themselves in this way, only tragedy can result.
Children are trained to want to do what society tells them that they have to do, and seemingly everywhere, people willingly propagate whole cultural systems which hold them in bondage.
Interpersonal relationships are key to this whole functioning of the society. When you view status as a social technique for facilitating action as Becker does, you can see that we exercise our power to manipulate others indirectly by providing the symbolic context for their action.
Social ceremonial is a joint theatrical staging whose purpose it is to sustain and create meaning for all its members, and being a good actor and using the proper phrases and words gives you incredible control of your social world. The proper word or phrase, properly delivered, is the highest attainment of human interpersonal power. And at the lower end of development, children are cruel because they haven’t yet learned to use these social face-preserving conventions.
Part of one’s social obligation is to protect the other person, as well as oneself, against undermining in the social context. As we are doing so, we direct our performance to the “observing ego”, who sets the standard for it and keeps us in line, saying just the right things.
When we see someone’s “performance”, we don’t really know how he feels about himself at all, but merely see how smoothly the individual is staging himself, controlling his performance.
We don’t like to see someone who is too absorbed in his own staging at the expense of the convincing delivery of his lines, because this belies our underlying social fiction. And most often we don’t say what we actually feel because we are masking our private thoughts and sentiments in order to allow action to go forward.
ANSWERS TO THE PROBLEM OF EXISTENCE
At both levels, individual and societal, man’s answers to the problem of his existence are in large part fictional.
The burdens of his painful existence in the here and now are overcome as he projects himself into a heroic past or a victorious future, says Becker.
However, there are obviously constructive and destructive ways of doing this.
E.B. – “Society is beginning to crumble around an archaic commercial-military hero-system, unrelated to the needs and challenges of contemporary life. But to turn the hero-system around to one of peace, social service, the reconstruction of society, seems beyond the imagination and capability of the people.”
The solution is that man, if he is to survive, has to bring down to near zero the large fictional element in his hero-systems.
This is, obviously, easier said than done.
The world of human aspiration is largely fictitious, and if we don’t understand this then we understand nothing about man. It’s not easy to just give all this up and start living more authentically. Man must at all times defend the utter fragility of his delicately constituted fiction, and deny its artificiality.
You can’t just give that up cold-turkey.
I like how Becker qualifies this. He say that there is no cynicism implied here, no derision, nor any pity. Simply, we must realize that this is how THIS animal must act if he is to function as THIS animal. By which he means humans.
Man’s fictions are not superfluous creations that could be “put aside” so that the “more serious” business of life could continue, but instead are vital to his functioning in the world.
E.B. – “It is one of the most remarkable achievements of thought, of self-scrutiny, that the most anxiety-prone animal of all could come to see through himself and discover the fictional nature of his action world.”
The last thing that man can admit to himself is that his way of life is arbitrary. Thus, the problem of despair can be met only in one way: by being a cosmic hero, by making a secure contribution to world-life even though one may die, says Becker.
E.B. – “The only way that man could securely know that he was a hero would be if he really knew what was going on in evolution on this planet and in the cosmos. If he knew for sure how things were supposed to come out and where his part fit into the outcome, then he could relax and accept death because his life would be lived in the Truth of Creation. But this is precisely what he cannot know, can never know. And so the bitter defensiveness of his fictions, the desperation of his pretence of certainty that his cultural hero-system is the true one.”
Our lack of control over our fates is staggering. Death stalks us at every turn, and eventually, that darkness will come for us and we won’t be able to escape it. If a person admitted this utter lack of control, that death lurks at every breath, and let it rise to consciousness, it would drive him to fear and trembling, to the brink of madness.
E.B. – “Neurosis is a constriction of perception and action due to the need to maintain a positively valued self from within an inferior power position. And so we can flatly and empirically say that everyone is neurotic, some more than others.”
Whole societies which fail to act on real priorities for their survival can be said to be neurotic. Does this look like anyone we know? We all see the environmental degradation, the racial conflicts, the territorial disputes. And yet many of us do nothing. Individuals in today’s society are concerned with “getting ahead” and “making a living”, and they couldn’t be bothered with trying to make sure our planet is livable in the next thousand years.
Or even the next hundred.
In the end, the task of social science is nothing less than the uncovering of our social illusions. We see from Becker’s work that power, for man, is the ability to support contradictions, nothing less. So social science, if it is to keep up, must help us support these contradictions without destroying ourselves.
E.B. – “Nature has no respect for even unanimous misperceptions of reality, and she has the coldest equanimity for the enthusiasms that carry whole populations into rapture.”
Many people stumble into a way of life that society rewards them for, and in a sense, there’s nothing wrong with that. You can take the “blue pill” and keep on living as before. In fact, the way things are set up, we are rewarded for NOT finding our special talent.
But Ernest Becker points out that the only genuine problem or task in a human life is to find out one’s authentic talent, or unique gift.
When most of our life is a rationalization for not finding out who we really are, it is the rare individual who can shake off the common motives of humankind and venture to trust himself as a taskmaster, as Emerson has said.
Many of us, however, are frustrated in this pursuit. Aggression is a reaction to frustration and we increase our aggressiveness by remaining so tightly bound to the successes of our social world.
In the final analysis, says Becker, comfortable illusion is now a direct threat to human survival.
All the best,
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Matt Karamazov is a human rights activist, boxer, and writer who reads 200 books per year and throws 300 punches per minute. His website, Godlike Discipline, is dedicated to raising money for causes like Doctors Without Borders, and Human Rights Watch, among others. It’s also dedicated to helping people tackle their biggest willpower challenges. He also like death metal, and so, consequently doesn’t get many second dates. Here he is on a horse.