July 8, 2012

Ernest Becker: An Introduction


Human Motives, Human Lies

Writing in the Adlerian tradition, Ernest Becker claims that, along with physical survival, humans are primarily motivated by self-esteem. That is to say, we need to feel good about ourselves, to feel that we’re significant, that we matter and that the world is a better place because we’re in it. As Becker puts it, we need to feel that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning (DD 4-7). Now it might seem that we’re actually striving after different things, as some spend their lives seeking fame, others political power, others business success, others religious transcendence, and so on. But these are just different attempts to achieve the same end, assurance that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning.

Much in life is capable of diminishing this feeling. Other people can easily make us feel that we don’t matter after all, committing violence against us, expropriating our property, sometimes just wounding with their words. When we think about life as a whole, it’s also easy to conclude that we’re not valuable and that the world is not a place of meaning. No matter how we live, no matter how ethically or successfully, we’re not immune from diseases and natural disasters and, depending on where we live, the violence of the animal kingdom. Even if we pass through life relatively unscathed, we must eventually die (53-54). We must eventually, as Becker so vividly reminds us, become “food for worms” (26). And although some of us comfort ourselves with belief in an afterlife, the fact is that we can’t really know if there’s an afterlife, or if there’s a god, or if life has any transcendent meaning and the values we live by have any sort of basis in reality (BDM 159, 189-90).

Facing up to all of this is enough to engender terror in the strongest of us. If we tried to live in full knowledge of reality, we would be paralyzed, too overwhelmed for meaningful action; Becker in fact claims that we would quite literally go insane (27). Consequently, we end up distorting reality—all of us at times, some of us more than others—this being the only way we’re able to go on living. Put differently, in order to convince ourselves that things really aren’t so horrible, that we really are objects of primary value in a world of meaning, we lie to ourselves.

This lying occurs subconsciously. So, although we’re the ones who do the lying, we don’t realize that we’re doing it. Our lies often come in the form of defense mechanisms, actions whereby our egos falsify reality in order to make us feel that we are in fact objects of value. Through repression, for example, the ego blocks certain painful feelings from consciousness.  Through denial, the ego blocks certain facts from consciousness. Through projection, the ego ascribes one’s unacceptable feelings to others (BDM 55).

We also lie to ourselves by engaging in transference. Transference has historically referred to the process whereby patients in analysis unknowingly transfer the feelings of dependence and awe they had for their parents during childhood onto their therapist, drawing “protection and power from him just as the child merges his destiny with the parents.” In transference then “we see the grown person as a child at heart, a child who distorts the world to relieve his helplessness and fears, who sees things as he wishes them to be for his own safety, who acts automatically and uncritically, just as he did in the pre-Oedipal period” (DD 129).

Pointing out that this phenomenon occurs throughout all of culture, not just in the therapist’s office, Becker broadens the definition of transference. Deep down, he writes, we’re all children, longing “to get back to the magical protection, the participation in omnipotence, the ‘oceanic feeling’ that [we] enjoyed when [we] were loved and protected by [our] parents” (132). Our transference object, Becker writes,

need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center. All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely. Augustine was a master analyst of this, as were Kierkegaard, Scheler, and Tillich in our day. They saw that man could strut and boast all he wanted, but that he really drew his “courage to be” from a god, a string of sexual conquests, a Big Brother, a flag, the proletariat, and the fetish of money and the size of a bank balance. (55-56)

Becker describes transference as a “taming of terror”:

Realistically the universe contains overwhelming power. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can’t really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focuses them on individual beings, which allows him to find the power and the horror all in one place instead of diffused throughout a chaotic universe. Mirabile! The transference object, being endowed with the transcendent powers of the universe, now has in himself the power to control, order, and combat them…By the means, the child can control his fate. As ultimately power means power over life and death, the child can now safely emerge in relation to the transference object. The object becomes his locus of safe operation. All he has to do is conform to it in the ways that he learns; conciliate it if it becomes terrible; use it severely for automatic daily activities. (145-46)

Transference explains “the urge to deification of the other, the constant placing of certain select persons on pedestals, the reading into them of extra powers: the more they have, the more rubs off on us.  We participate in their immortality, and so we create immortals” (148).


The Respective Perils of Self-Delusion and Self-Awareness

So, to summarize, we lie to ourselves because we need to believe that we’re objects of primary value in a world of meaning. As Becker puts it, man lies to convince himself “that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody—not just a trembling accident germinated on this hothouse planet” (55). Following the great psychoanalysts, Becker points out that the lies we tell ourselves can be harmful, both to ourselves and to others (179). For this reason, obtaining self-awareness can have real value:

Psychotherapy can allow people to affirm themselves, to smash idols that constrict the self-esteem, to lift the load of neurotic guilt…It can clear away neurotic despair—the despair that comes from a too-constricted focus for one’s safety and satisfactions. When a person becomes less fragmented, less blocked and bottled up, he does experience real joy: the joy of finding more of himself, of the release from armor and binding reflexes, of throwing off the chains of uncritical and self-defeating dependency, of controlling his own energies, of discovering aspects of the world, intense experience in the present moment that is now freer of prefixed perceptions, new possibilities of choice and action, and so on. (270)

Although attaining self-awareness can be beneficial, “[b]eyond a given point man is not helped by more ‘knowing,’ but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way” (199). This follows for the simple reason that attaining self-awareness cannot alter the human predicament; it cannot change the fact that we live in a terrifying, indeterminate world and are very possibly not objects of value. As Becker puts it, “All the analysis in the world doesn’t allow the person to find out who he is and why he is here on earth, why he has to die, and how he can make his life a triumph” (193). Self-awareness doesn’t change the fact

that human life may not be more than a meaningless interlude in a vicious drama of flesh and bones that we call evolution; that the Creator may not care any more for the destiny of man or the self-perpetuation of individual men than He seems to have cared for the dinosaurs or the Tasmanians. The whisper is the same one that slips incongruously out of the Bible in the voice of Ecclesiastes: that all is vanity, vanity of vanities. (187)

So, although living under too much self-delusion can be harmful, living under too much self-awareness can be just as harmful:

The person gives up something restricting and illusory, it is true, but only to come face to face with something even more awful: genuine despair. Full humanness [that is, self-awareness] means full fear and trembling, at least some of the waking day. When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the powerlessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view? (59)

For seeing the world “as it really is is devastating and terrifying,” making “routine, automatic, secure, self-confident activity impossible,” placing “a trembling animal at the mercy of the entire cosmos and the problem of the meaning of it” (60). For this reason, Becker tells us that becoming unrepressed would be tantamount to being “reborn into madness” (66) and that, although self-knowledge can make “an untenable life liveable," it “can entirely destroy it for some people” (269).


Splitting the Horns of the Dilemma

So how then are we to live? Given the discussion so far, it seems that we’re in an impossible situation, that no matter what we choose we’re bound to fail. For being self-deluded has disastrous consequences, but so does being self-aware. But all is not lost, Becker tells us; we need not choose between happy-but-destructive delusion and unhappy-but-non-destructive awareness.

In order to live well, he writes, we must turn to religion. For only God can give us what we most need: true self-esteem, assurance that we’re objects of value in a world of meaning. If God is there, then our basic problems are solved. The universe is a place of meaning, for the creator is running things, working everything together for good. And humans are objects of value, for even if we don’t attain earthly success, we can know we’re valued by the author of life and that even the lowliest among us can be used for divine purposes. And of course, God eliminates the problem of death, granting us eternal life.

All secular worldviews, Becker writes, ultimately fail because they cannot do anything about the sources of terror and unhappiness; they cannot impart meaning to the universe and they cannot grant humans cosmic worth (190-99). As he puts it, psychology—and we can replace psychology with any number of other human systems: science, medicine, democracy, capitalism, family, etc., etc.—“does not give what men want, which is immortality” (271).

Religion also has the potential of liberating us from the transference objects that hold us in bondage. As we saw earlier, transference prevents us from seeing people as they really are and for this reason often has disastrous consequences—for example, causing us to blindly trust self-serving leaders (BDM 177). As we’ve also seen, transference is essential to taming the overwhelming terror of reality; for this reason we cannot ever stop engaging in it, or if we do it’s at the risk of losing our sanity (DD 188-89). Religion gives us a new transference object, a more worthy one, “a Creator who is the First Cause of all created things, not merely the second-hand, intermediate creators of society, the parents and the panoply of cultural heroics. These are the social and cultural progenitors who themselves have been caused, who themselves are embedded in a web of someone else’s powers” (90).  By being freed from these human powers, we’re now able to grow as individuals:

Our life ceases to be a reflexive dialogue with the standards of our wives, husbands, friends, and leaders and becomes instead measured by standards of the highest heroism, ideals truly fit to lead us on and beyond ourselves. In this way we fill ourselves with independent values, can make free decisions, and, most importantly, can lean on powers that really support us and do not oppose us. The personality can truly begin to emerge in religion because God, as an abstraction, does not oppose the individual as others do, but instead provides the individual with all the powers necessary for independent self-justification. What greater security than to lean confidently on God, on the Fount of creation, the most terrifying power of all? If God is hidden and intangible, all the better: that allows man to expand and develop by himself. (202)

Although Becker sees the value of religious faith, he stresses that it must be the right type of faith. “As psychoanalysts have taught us, religion, like any human aspiration, can also be automatic, reflexive, obsessive” (BDM 197). One can have religious faith while remaining in a state of self-delusion, continuing to falsify reality in myriad ways. Needless to say, faith built upon self-delusion is not liberating. Moreover, as history has shown, such faith can be extraordinarily destructive (197-98).

For this reason, Becker advocates combining the liberating potential of religion with the liberating potential of self-awareness (BDM 185, DD 280). To put it another way, we must maintain faith in a loving god while remaining honest, honest about ourselves and about the terrifying and tragic world in which we live (DD 283-84). Belief in a loving god in many ways seems incompatible with belief in the terror of creation, and for this reason Becker stresses that we must be strong enough to “support contradictions, no matter how glaring or hopeless they may seem” (BDM 198).

So this is the answer Becker gives us, his prescription for human living. It’s not an easy pill to swallow, and if we’re to evolve in this manner we must develop “new forms of courage and endurance” (DD 279). Faith has never been easy, but especially not in this age of ever-expanding scientific explanations (200). Self-awareness isn’t easy either: being honest about ourselves and about the world in which we live, accepting the terror and ultimate indeterminacy of it all.


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References

DD: The Denial of Death. New York: The Free Press, 1973.

BDM: The Birth and Death of Meaning. New York: The Free Press, 1971.

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