Tuesday, May 28, 2013

Life Anxiety, Epilogue: Terror Management

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Why would a story that portrays the murder of children as a triumph over evil resonate with someone? Answer that question, and you've taken serious steps to understand the Boston Marathon bombing, not to mention the American drone war.

It's not to say those two examples are identical, as one overtly targets children and the other rationalizes them as "collateral damage." But these two share more than the effect of child corpses. They also share a cause: the attempt to defeat evil by locating it in others and destroying them.

In my last post, I said that it's our job to write better stories than this. We need to figure out how to spin out yarns for ourselves that are 1.) aware of our fear but 2.) allow us to become the heroes we know we are.

In order to do that, we first need to consider the possibility that our own issues with mortality are propelling a less-than-conscious hero narrative, one that puts us at many disadvantages but which we are unwilling to change because it forms the locus of our self-esteem.

Phew. No easy stuff.  

To help with that, the Ernest Becker Foundation strives to share Becker's message and ideas, and the work of Becker lives on in Terror Management Theory.

Really interesting experiments are being done that add data to these ideas. For example, did you know that subtly reminding someone of their own mortality can make them more aggressive, less forgiving and more reliant on cultural symbols? It's a fact.

Just ask Reapy.

 I hope you'll read on, and write better.

Friday, May 24, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Twelve: Unfreedom

(Earlier posts in this series.)

So Becker suggests that we need "healthy repressions, ... explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence." Whatever that means!

We need to feel secure in the face of death. We need a bid for immortality and we need to see ourselves as heroic. Otherwise we retreat from life until we have nowhere left to run.

We live in a state of constant anxiety, hence the name of the blog.

But what are "healthy repression?" How can we be "explicit" about our own mythologies and still believe in them? Dr. B leaves it to us to figure the rest of that out.

Clearly it's not enough to just follow heroes who preach love and peace.

Especially if they are made of guns.

If all we needed were peaceful lover-leaders, the KKK would never have lynched in the name of Christ and Gandhi would have ended all the wars.

"What is it good for? Absolutely nothing." - Gandhi

But the more "explicit" we are about our need for heroism and our association of evil with death, the less likely we are to come under "The Spell Cast by Persons" a.k.a. "The Nexus of Unfreedom."

We live on borrowed power. That doesn't change. We look for something outside of ourselves to connect to. We find the person telling the story we need to hear. We project our needs onto their story and make it our own.

What's left for us to figure out, and it's no small task, is: "What is creative projection? What is life-enhancing illusion?"

After all, we write these stories. For ourselves and for each other.

Imagine what we could do if we were all better writers.

Epilogue: Terror Management

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Eleven: Holy War

(Earlier posts in this series.)

So Becker argues that "to become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life."

This is no easy task. "Self-knowledge is the hardest human task because it risks revealing to [us] how [our] self-esteem was built: on the powers of others in order to deny ... death."

Doing a little analysis on the hero myths provided by culture, he finds that "every society ... is a 'religion' whether it thinks so or not: Soviet 'religion' and Maoist 'religion' are as truly religious as are scientific and consumer 'religion,' no matter how much they may try to disguise themselves."

All wars are holy wars.

Put that in your pipe and smoke it, Bill Maher.

Merely realizing the fundamental need for a heroic purpose, which society is built to meet, will not somehow cure humanity of this need.

Instead he suggests that we need "healthy repressions, ... explicit immortality-ideologies, myths of heroic transcendence."

Next: Unfreedom

Monday, May 20, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Ten: Space Opera

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Previously, on a very special Life Anxiety, we discovered the root of all evil. No big.

No wonder Becker won a Pulitzer.

Turns out money isn't the root of all evil. Or greed. Or "hate." It's heroism.

See why that's funny? Because every time something evil happens we smother it in heroism. It's like trying to put out a fire with napalm.

Scenario: the righteous rag-tag band of outlaw underdogs lead a quest to liberate everybody from a conquering Empire. With the help of a mysterious and supernatural Force, they exploit a weakness of the Empire's stronghold and blow it up.



And you thought Episode 1 was a disaster.

So what can we do to break up the "useless self-sacrifices in unjust wars" or the "ignoble" or "tormented heroics" of, say, your Tamerlan Tsarnaev?

Becker answers: "To become conscious of what one is doing to earn his feeling of heroism is the main self-analytic problem of life."

I love the qualification "main self-analytic problem." The main main problem of life, then, could arguably be a lack of sufficient self-analysis -- although this is not quite Becker's conclusion.

Next: Holy War

Thursday, May 16, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Nine: Root of All Evil

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Primal terror is controlled through smaller, more concrete anxieties, and so you end up washing your hands 'religiously,' avoiding bridges or trains, keeping your voice down or on a shrill note higher than everyone else's.

But there is no heroism more direct than choosing death in the name of something greater than yourself. We should try to remember this, every time we greet a returned Marine or spit at the image of a terrorist's face. A wide world may seem to exist between the cherished heroism of the one and the despicable evil of the other, but underneath beats the same heart: a willingness to deal death and to risk it oneself in the name of what is "good," however that's been defined.

"As Nietzsche saw and shocked his world with ... all moral categories are power categories ... Purity, goodness, rightness -- these are ways of keeping power intact so as to cheat death."

We've made lasting symbols to ensure immortality, and our greatest anxieties are located there. If they are threatened or attacked, it becomes very clear to us where the evil is. By extension even the reform of some social structures is certain to appear downright apocalyptic, as we see going on right now in the marriage equality debate.

Doing good turns into getting rid of evil. George W. Bush proved that even in America, this does not have to be unconscious or metaphoric.

It's a war of ideas, but actual bodies stack up. Becker's pronouncement is chilling and severe: "man's natural and inevitable urge to deny mortality and achieve a heroic self-image are the root causes of human evil."

Monday, May 13, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Eight: The Heroism of Denial

(Earlier posts in this series.)

Most heroism demonstrates a pattern.

As Becker puts it, "history is the career of a frightened animal who has to deaden himself against life in order to live." It's a matter of range, not state. One is never submerged completely in the raw stream of life. You can't exist outside of the process of self-mediation that is your essence.

Phenomenologists call this "the impossibility of a complete reduction."

Maurice Merleau-Ponty
This is good news, really. Many have drowned in that stream. Human history is littered with the shattered lives of those whose coping methods broke apart. Or their victims. No one said performing in a theatre of heroism was easy.

Becker sometimes sounds pejorative about denial and repression, especially on a first read. But he also insists that it is necessary. Some amount of sustaining narrative is necessary to get us through the days. Whether it's desperate spin or enriching myth is up to us.

Most cultures interpret denial and repression in heroic ways: "a human animal who is partly dead to the world ... is most 'dignified' when he shows a certain obliviousness to his fate."

Heroes risk -- or give -- their life for others.

The courage of the warrior is an expression of heroic repression.

Next: Root of All Evil

Wednesday, May 8, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Seven: Theatre for Heroism

(Part One.)
(Part Five.)

We've finally gotten to where Becker begins: "Heroism is first and foremost a reflex of the terror of death."

Heroism is the essential component of the stories we invent. Becker quotes the psychologist William James on the subject:

We extend our thirst for life into that theatre, that symbolic arena where we seek a performance that scores a victory over meaninglessness, transience and death.

Of course we deflect this task in order to shield ourselves from its magnitude. For most of us a local heroism is sufficient, whether it's earning our family's daily bread or "piling up figures in a bank book."

For others, life exerts a greater pressure and demands a greater response.

Either way, the theatre is a fabrication, our construction. "This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism."

Next: Heroism of Denial

Tuesday, May 7, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Six: Composing

(Part Five)

I know phenomenology is for most either unheard of or incomprehensible psuedo-science, but it's the one philosophical strand I wish was more present in Becker's synthesis. Here's the briefest of overviews:

Phenomenology is a way of thinking about thinking. It's about describing as opposed to explaining how the mind works, how our perception constructs and reconstructs reality.

Phenomenologists find that we are made up of connections to the world. We are always in a situation that we're responding to, so we're never the wholly self-contained creatures we rationalize ourselves to be.

In fact, what we are in essence is a process. Many Eastern religions and mystics hit on this. Buddhism calls it interdependent becoming: we are connected to everything and all of it is happening, is in flux.

I'm drunk on panda mystery.

The essential process of our minds is composing the story of which we are part. To us, that story presents itself ready-made. The world already has meaning and we discover it there.

So this "situation" we are in is more than the objects around us, more than our senses, more than the weather. The situation includes our feelings about the situation. It includes placement in time as well as space, includes where we come from and points us forward to what we intend.

All the time the brain is explaining itself to itself, is carrying out this act of composition.

This hardly happens in a vacuum. We also find ourselves already inside pre-made stories, whole narrative threads that we have to write ourselves into or against.


Some enter into these cultural constructions more passively than others. How can they do otherwise, having never been taught to compose themselves?

But everyone interprets, and thus can warp, distort, mutate.

Becker still comes more or less to the conclusion that if the essence of what we are is an act of interpreting and making stories, we'd better get really goddamned good at interpreting and making stories.

Next: Theatre for Heroism

Sunday, May 5, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Five: Inheritance

(Part One.)(Part Four.)

Regroup: the simplest expression of what I've been writing about is that "man transcends death not only by continuing to feed his appetites, but especially by finding a meaning for his life, some kind of larger scheme into which he fits."

To get that larger meaning we've "erected cultural symbols which do not age or decay."

We do this "to quiet ... fear of [the] ultimate end."

Ok, these are really two ideas, or at least two versions of one idea, and I think sometimes Becker doesn't discriminate enough between them.

The first idea is about fear. The root of fear is death. This Becker emphasizes. We have to do something with that fear. We need to put death in its place -- this is fundamental to our survival.

We need a view, a pose, a "vital lie," a sustaining fiction. We need to control that primal instinct which senses the danger of the "overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world."

(That primal instinct we might call "life anxiety," if we were into burying ledes.)

This means we invent character to protect ourselves from the world. This puts fear at the root of all we create.

Some Trees
"A silence already filled with noises"

But the other side of the coin is in that "man transcends death" bit. I don't think Becker means that ironically. Even if it may be correct, in one sense, to call character a "lie," that lie is still "vital." It's a fiction, really. An art at the heart of who we are.

Our stories are vehicles to overcoming the limits of mortality. Stories are the only kind of power we have over the world.

It's easy to get caught up in the idea that everyone else is living a lie, especially if their story conflicts with ours. In the same way, "at heart one doesn't feel that he will die, he only feels sorry for the man next to him." Or woman. Ahem!

We all participate. We are all creators. Faced with the disabling presence of disease and death, we either write our own way out, or we lean on stories co-authored by others. Stories powerful enough to combat finitude.

This is not something we can opt out of. We can't call out others for having a "vital lie" without hypocrisy -- though we can certainly question a lie's effectiveness or call out its effects.

This shared project of confabulation is part of our unique human inheritance.

Next: Composing

Thursday, May 2, 2013

Life Anxiety, Part Four: Immortality

(Part One)

Last time the poet Rilke taught us that you can be extinguished, but you can't be revoked. You were. In the face of outstanding odds, despite the obscene and the absurd, you happened.

How far is it, really, the distance between seeming irrevocable and being immortal? How far to any one of the direct immortality narratives provided by the world's many religions and mythologies?

Our mere existence suggests some kind of permanence to us, if only because we aren't cognitively capable of conceiving of our consciousness ceasing to exist.

For Becker (an anthropologist, remember) the consistency with which all cultures have invented immortality narratives suggests that there must be a need for them. Becker questioned the purpose of these stories that guarantee our permanence.

More than that, he asked why these stories meant to assure our permanence are worth sacrificing our actual lives.

He concluded that "what man really fears is not so much extinction, but extinction with insignificance."

We have to do more than happen. We have to leave our mark on the world. Something of us has to remain.

We all need some bid for immortality.

Fortunately, immortality narratives seem to be in abundance. Certainly our children are a direct route to leaving a part of ourselves in the world, moving forward beyond our deaths. But many also believe that when their body dies, their spirit or soul will hang around, even transcend to paradise.

Some believe they will come back again in another form. Even science takes as a basic principle that energy cannot be destroyed -- and matter is just a form energy sometimes takes.

In the same way that our body is made up of star matter, we know that something does remain of us after death.

If only that were enough.

Next: Inheritance