I would love to be able to tell you that what I am about to write has come from some original insight or unique genius on my part. The truth is that what I know comes from Ernest Becker’s 1973 work, The Denial of Death, and Dr. Louis Sass’ existential psychology course from my doctoral training. What they knew came from philosophers like Heidegger, Kierkegaard, and Lacan. And if you look back farther, you can find the themes that will be discussed in the teachings of well known philosophers and religious leaders like Socrates, Jesus, Buddha, etc. Even farther back still, you find these themes encoded in myth and legend. Man has wrestled with these particulars the human condition for at least as long as the records have allowed us to peer into history.
So what is this great insight? What is this answer that explains it all?
It’s this simple: Man is a living contradiction. He is animal and he is cerebral. He has a physical body and he has an abstract, symbolic mind. He can create whole worlds and manipulate the force of nature, yet he is fragile, needy, and doomed to die. He can create purity and goodness, yet he still has to defecate. And as a result, he becomes torn and filled with fear of both life and death.
The fear of death is easy enough to explain. We are born into mortal bodies that need food, water, air, etc. If we can not meet those needs, we die. We have bones that break, skin that punctures, organs that fail, and predators that would like to invite us to dinner. But more importantly, we recognize that we are mortal, which no other animal is known to be able to do. Death becomes a great terror for us, a terror that would overwhelm us if we were left undefended.
To protect ourselves, we erect structures meant to deny death by denying the body. We wrap ourselves in symbols, social order, and a desire to be special. When we are reminded of our mortality, our terror causes us to react violently towards others. When something challenges our defense against death, we reacted just as violently.
Why do narcissists have their rage? Because a challenge to their self-image reminds them of the terror.Why do people surrender to authority even when doing so harms them? Why do good police repress and attack those protesting citizens they have sworn to protect? Because the social order gives them self-definition and to challenge social order is to attack their defense against the terror. Why do we so often attack people different than us? Because if people can be different, then the self concepts and ideas of social order we hold are not absolute, and our defenses becomes threatened.
As frightening as death is for us, though, life is no less terrifying. The world is infinitely large, complex, and confusing. On top of that, we recognize that we are individuals, and alone in our bodies. And yet we we have needs and urges. We want food, we desire sex, and we get angry. These are natural parts of being alive, and yet if we let them get out of control we end up hurting or alienating others. The natural consequence of us enjoying our total freedom to be animal and vital would be isolation and the guilt from the injuries we cause. As a result, life, our fully impassioned freedom, becomes feared as well. For to fully embrace our physical selves and urges, to demand total freedom of experience, is to suffer as well.
And so, we retreat from ourselves. We tether and chain our emotions and passions, like anger and ecstasy, in fear of them leading to our banishment from society. The only times we dare let these urges out are when they are deemed “appropriate” by some external law.
As a result, we shun drug users, while fueling our addictions to alcohol, sex, television, etc. We hold onto our anger, letting it out in explosions of “righteous rage,” causing us to harm others far more than the natural consequences warrant. We allow ourselves pleasure only when prescribed, and ridicule those who search for authentic experience as alien or weird.
When you add these two together, fear of life, and fear of death, we are as Daedalus and Icarus, precariously trying not to soar too high nor too low, terrified you may be burned by your own sun, or crash due to being overly laden by your own acknowledgement of death.
Despite this torn and conflicted state, we still have to figure out how to be functional. We have to create defenses against reality. A select few look to build internal strength. For them, the terror is a demon to be faced, and reality is can become bearable. They find courage and strength through balance, learning the discipline to experience the vitality of life without harming others, and the acceptance of death without surrendering to despair. Building this strength, however, is a difficult and perpetual process, attempted by many, but mastered by few. Many people start down this path with varying success, only to retreat from their trials, partially because as a path it is vague and frightening, but mostly because they are tempted by external paths that are far easier.
Some choose to end the contradiction by hiding from their animal selves under cloaks of self-definition and social role. They strive to be unique and important, gods unto themselves, denying their more mortal selves. But like all external strategies, their defenses have flaws. When one has a rigid self, he or she falls apart in the face of an ever changing reality. And when one’s sense of self acts as a defense, the more he or she feels vulnerable, the more he or she slips into pathological narcissism. the reality of their fallible and mortal existence pokes through, and the result becomes an obsessive and often compulsive reaffirmation of their self deceiving lies. The person becomes enslaved to their defensive self concept, only vaguely aware that the emperor has no clothes.
Others choose to escape the contradiction by hiding from their symbolic selves. But when you choose to omit from the world the concept of the soul, the you yourself become soulless. Without the abstract you may have pleasure, but you can have no joy. Without the symbolic structures, you have disallowed hope, inspiration, and aspiration. The world becomes so limited that jaded fatalism becomes the only outlook. Yet as limited and reductive as this world is, the person who choose it will always defended it to the death as “rational” and “realistic.” To do otherwise, to seek something greater that the material but certain world, is to risk facing the overwhelming larger reality, and the trials of the vital life that can end in shame and isolation.
Many survive the contradiction by enslaving themselves to symbolic parents who can hand them answers so they do not have to struggle with the questions themselves. They are told when to restrain, and when to release. They are told how to be good, and how to be bad, and as such handed conditions in which their specialness and their shame will lie. At the leaders command, they are rewarded for their dutiful observance and absolved from the guilt of their sanctioned violence. The pitfalls here are often seen in society, such as in the harassments committed by both the fundamentalist theist and the fundamentalist atheist, the institutional violence caused by authoritarians, and the chaotic violence caused by criminal groups.
Still others seek to end the contradiction by denying death and embracing their passions. The wanton hedonism that results is often justified as liberation, but in truth, it is (to paraphrase Monty Python) contradiction and not argument. Rather than developing a free expression of the vitality of life, they enslave themselves to a reflexive existence. And if they injure another in their self satisfying acts, it is the victim who is wrong for impinging on their freedom.
Finally, most people will survive the contradiction by distracting themselves from it. By constructing a world of artificial needs and priorities, they can shift their focus from the terrifying and overwhelming to trivial minutia. By focusing their minds on their favorite team, the scandalous gossip, or what is happening on their favorite reality show, they don’t have to face their own fear of death, nor the treacherous path of living life without the threat of guilt or isolation. They may never grow or experience a fullness of life, but they also won’t become overwhelmed or fall to terror. It is a blissful mediocrity, avoiding the tragic fate of Icarus by being too involved to even make the flight.
That’s the condition and crisis of man in a nutshell. It explains why great religious leaders struggle to develop internal resources of courage and compassion, tell their followers to love each other, only to have many of those followers turn and do the opposite. It explains why some people become bitterly anti-religious, only to replicate the violence they claim to oppose, as long as they can justify their targets. It explains why pro-establishment protesters can show up at armed and leaved unmolested, while peaceful “troublemakers” get beaten and maced. It explains how people can claim that they are rational as they deny their own thoughts and feelings. It explains our narcissism, and our fatalism. It explains our reflexive indulgence, as well as our fascination with the Jersey Shore.
In as much as it explains why we fail, it also shows us how we ultimately can be fully human. For the wisest among us have throughout history started by looking at our basic contradictions, and took them inward to find resolution. From their inward journey they found the strength to be wise, loving, compassionate, peaceful, just, and a experience the fullness of life. We have but to only find the courage to face our fears and explore on our own and discover the resolution for ourselves, but first we have to challenge our own defenses and admit the contradiction is there. We can face our demons and return victorious.