Becker’s Essential Ideas
Humans are animals with a common self-preservation instinct that are uniquely aware of their own inevitable mortality. These two fundamental traits, the drive to survive and the certainty of death, leave humans with a dilemma that results most commonly in the unconscious repression and denial of the fear and knowledge of death. Because human repression is imperfect, residual fear and dread remain as death anxiety.
Human cultures exist, in part, to equip their members with ways to overcome or at least function well with death anxiety. Cultures reduce death anxiety by giving their members a sense that life has meaning and they have value. Heroism is a culture’s general recognition of what a society reveres. It can range from a bold act of courage that risks one’s life in the service of another person or cause, to a quiet life of participation in a community that contributes to the well-being of others. Traditional heroism in our contemporary society has focused on a deed or achievement. It has expanded to include achievement of high social status, wealth and power. This is a broad use of the term that includes rulers, billionaires, generals, politicians, doctors, and luminaries.
Unfortunately this current form of heroism has a dual drawback. Our materialistic secular society provides opportunities for heroism through social status and achievement that are not attainable for all of its members. This is a source of social dissatisfaction, anxiety, and unrest. Moreover, the striving for this current form of self-directed heroism can promote greed and selfishness, a forsaking of the common good, and failure to reward those who do focus on it. “Traditional values” have become corrupted and have grown toxic to our social wellbeing.
CHI is focusing on contemporary culture’s method of striving for heroism and the crisis of values in contemporary American life. We recognize that understanding a culture’s heroism is a fundamental step to producing social change for the better.
One of Becker’s crucial insights is that cultural attempts to overcome death-anxiety are the motive energy that powers human achievement as well as evil. Projects for people to overcome and live with death anxiety have historically resulted in many achievements that enhance the quality and duration of life, improve health, reduce pain and suffering, expand human knowledge and understanding, and offer new areas for human endeavor. At the same time, most of humanity’s gravest problems including war, poverty, starvation, and the destruction of the natural environment are related directly to failing or competing cultural immortality projects. It is our contention that confronting these cultural forces in their myriad forms, and striving to increase human awareness of the underlying, psychological causes of conflicts and human-caused suffering can result in their reduction and control. Becker’s ideas, applied to human ills, will reduce human suffering. From this standpoint the challenge is to employ a Becker-informed perspective to devise healthy heroism to offer alternatives to existing destructive values.
Quotes from Becker’s Denial of Death
The psychotherapeutic religionists are claiming that The Life Force can miraculously emerge from Nature, can transcend the body it uses as a vehicle, and can break the bounds of human character. They claim that man as he now is can be merely a vehicle for the emergence of something totally new: a vehicle that can be transcended by a new form of human life. Many of the leading figures of modern thought slip into some such mystique – some eschatology of immanence in which the insides of Nature will erupt into a New Being.
I myself have been fond of using ideas like “the developing spirit of man” and “the promise of new birth”. But I don’t think I ever meant them to conjure up a new creature. Rather I was thinking more of new birth bringing new adaptations – new creative solutions to our problems – a new openness in dealing with stale perceptions about reality. New forms of art, music, literature, architecture, that would be a continual transformation of reality. But behind it all would be the same type of evolutionary creature making his own peculiar responses to a world that continue to transcend the3m.
Some myths are vegetative – they generate real conceptual power – real apprehension of a dim truth – some kind of global adumbration of what we miss by sharp, analytic reason. Most of all, as William James and Tillich have argued, beliefs about reality affect people’s real actions. They help introduce the new into the world. Especially is this true for beliefs about man, about Human Nature, and about what man may yet become. If something influences our efforts to change the world, then to some extent, it must change that world. This helps explain one of the things that perplex us about psycho-analytic prophets like Erich Fromm. We wonder how they can so easily forget about the dilemmas of the human condition that tragically limit man’s efforts. The answer is, on one level, that they have to leave tragedy behind as part of a program to awaken some kind of hopeful creative effort by men. Fromm has nicely argued the Dewey-an thesis that as reality is partially the result of human effort, the person who prides himself on being a “hard-headed realist” -and refrains from hopeful action, is really abdicating the human task. This accent on human effort, vision, and hope, in order to help
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