Ernest Becker

Ernest
Becker
1924
1974

American-Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Scientific Thinker and Writer

Author Quotes

Better guilt than the terrible burden of freedom and responsibility.

In seeking to avoid evil, [humanity] is responsible for bringing more evil into the world than organisms could ever do merely by exercising their digestive tracts. It is [our] ingenuity, rather than [our] animal nature, that has given [our] fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.

People cannot endure [their] own littleness unless [they] can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.

The road to creativity passes so close to the madhouse and often detours or ends there.

When we understand that man is the only animal who must create meaning, who must open a wedge into neutral nature, we already understand the essence of love. Love is the problem of an animal who must find life, create a dialogue with nature in order to experience his own being.

But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by the lies. Neurosis is, then, something we all share; it is universal.4 Or, putting it another way, normality is neurosis, and vice versa. We call a man "neurotic" when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it—or others seek it for him. Otherwise, we call the refusal of reality “normal" because it doesn't occasion any visible problems. It is really as simple as that. After all, if someone who lives alone wants to get out of bed a half-dozen times to see if the door is really locked, or another washes and dries his hands exactly three times every time or uses a half-roll of toilet tissue each time he relieves himself—there is really no human problem involved. These people are earning their safety in the face of the reality of creatureliness in relatively innocuous and untroublesome ways.

It doesn't matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning.

Rank calls this a paradoxical but deep insight into the essence of neurosis, and he sums it up in the words we have used as an epigraph to this chapter. In fact, it is this and more: it absolutely shakes the foundations of our conceptualization of normality and health. It makes them entirely a relative value problem. The neu­rotic opts out of life because he is having trouble maintaining his illusions, about it, which proves nothing less than that life is possible only with illusions.

The tragedy of life that Searles is referring to is the one we have been discussing: man's finitude, his dread of death and of the over­whelmingness of life. The schizophrenic feels these more than any­one else because he has not been able to build the confident defenses that a person normally uses to deny them. The schizo­phrenic's misfortune is that he has been burdened with extra anxieties, extra guilt, extra helplessness, an even more unpredictable and unsupportive environment. He is not surely seated in his body, has no secure base from which to negotiate a defiance of and a denial of the real nature of the world. The parents have made him massively inept as an organism. He has to contrive extra-ingenious and extra-desperate ways of living in the world that will keep him from being torn apart by experience, since he is already almost apart. We see again confirmed the point of view that a person's character is a defense against despair, an attempt to avoid insanity because of the real nature of the world. Searles looks at schizo­phrenia precisely as the result of the inability to shut out terror, as a desperate style of living with terror. Frankly I don't know any­thing more cogent that needs to be said about this syndrome: it is a failure in humanization, which means a failure to confidently deny man's real situation on this planet. Schizophrenia is the limiting test case for the theory of character and reality that we have been ex­pounding here: the failure to build dependable character defenses allows the true nature of reality to appear to man. It is scientifically apodictic. The creativity of people on the schizophrenic end of the human continuum is a creativity that springs from the inability to accept the standardized cultural denials of the real nature of ex­perience. And the price of this kind of almost "extra human" crea­tivity is to live on the brink of madness, as men have long known. The schizophrenic is supremely creative in an almost extra-human sense because he is furthest from the animal: he lacks the secure instinctive programming of lower organisms; and he lacks the secure cultural programming of average men. No wonder he appears to average men as "crazy": he is not in anything's world.

Why would a person prefer the accusations of guilt, unworthiness, ineptitude - even dishonor and betrayal- to real possibility? This may not seem to be the choice, but it is: complete self effacement, surrender to the others, disavowal of any personal dignity and freedom-on the one hand; and freedom and independence, movement away from the others, extrication of oneself from the binding links of family and social duties-on the other hand. This is the choice that the depressed person actually faces.

Civilized society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible.

It is not so much that man is a herd animal, said Freud, but that he is a horde animal led by a chief.

Relationship is thus always slavery of a kind, which leaves a residue of guilt.

There is the type of man who has great contempt for "im­mediacy," who tries to cultivate his interiority, base his pride on something deeper and inner, create a distance between himself and the average man. Kierkegaard calls this type of man the "introvert." He is a little more concerned with what it means to be a person, with individuality and uniqueness. He enjoys solitude and with­draws periodically to reflect, perhaps to nurse ideas about his secret self, what it might be. This, after all is said and done, is the only real problem of life, the only worthwhile preoccupation of man: What is one's true talent, his secret gift, his authentic vocation? In what way is one truly unique, and how can he express this unique­ness, give it form, dedicate it to something beyond himself? How can the person take his private inner being, the great mystery that he feels at the heart of himself, his emotions, his yearnings and use them to live more distinctively, to enrich both himself and man­kind with the peculiar quality of his talent? In adolescence, most of us throb with this dilemma, expressing it either with words and thoughts or with simple numb pain and longing. But usually life suck us up into standardized activities. The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism, paths to which we conform, to which we shape ourselves so that we can please others, become what they expect us to be. And instead of working our inner secret we gradually cover it over and forget it, while we become purely external men, playing successfully the standardized hero-game into which we happen to fall by accident, by family connection, by reflex patriotism, or by the simple need to eat and the urge to procreate.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die. Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with. The lower animals are, of course, spared this painful contradiction, as they lack a symbolic identity and the self-consciousness that goes with it. They merely act and move reflexively as they are driven by their instincts. If they pause at all, it is only a physical pause; inside they are anonymous, and even their faces have no name. They live in a world without time, pulsating, as it were, in a state of dumb being. This is what has made it so simple to shoot down whole herds of buffalo or elephants. The animals don't know that death is hap­pening and continue grazing placidly while others drop alongside them. The knowledge of death is reflective and conceptual, and animals are spared it. They live and they disappear with the same thoughtlessness: a few minutes of fear, a few seconds of anguish, and it is over. But to live a whole lifetime with the fate of death haunting one's dreams and even the most sun-filled days—that's something else.

Ecological devastation is the excrement, so to speak, of man's power worship.

Kierkegaard's torment was the direct result of seeing the world as it really is in relation to his situation as a creature. The prison of one's character is painstakingly built to deny one thing and one thing alone: one's creatureliness. The creatureliness is the terror. Once admit that you are a defecating creature and you invite the primeval ocean of creature anxiety to flood over you. But it is more than creature anxiety, it is also man's anxiety, the anxiety that re­sults from the human paradox that man is an animal who is con­scious of his animal limitation. Anxiety is the result of the percep­tion of the truth of one's condition. What does it mean to be a self-conscious animal? The idea is ludicrous, if it is not monstrous. It means to know that one is food for worms. This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-­expression—and with all this yet to die. It seems like a hoax, which is why one type of cultural man rebels openly against the idea of God. What kind of deity would create such complex and fancy worm food? Cynical deities, said the Greeks, who use man's tor­ments for their own amusement.

Right away we can see the immensely fertile horizon that opens up in all of our thinking on mental health and "normal" behavior. In order to function normally, man has to achieve from the begin­ning a serious constriction of the world and of himself. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: Some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality.

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

Erich Fromm wondered why most people did not become insane in the face of the existential contradiction between a symbolic self, that seems to give man infinite worth in a timeless scheme of things, and a body that is worth about 98¢.

Man cannot endure his own littleness unless he can translate it into meaningfulness on the largest possible level.

Some people are more sensitive to the lie of cultural life, to the illusions of the causa-sui project that others are so thoughtlessly and trustingly caught up in. The neurotic is having trouble with the balance of cultural illusion and natural reality; the possible horrible truth about himself and the world is seeping into his consciousness. The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakable, durable truth. He can earn his immortality in and under the dominant immortality ideology, period. It is all so simple and clear-cut. But now the neurotic.

To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.

For all organisms, then, opposing and obliterating power is evil – it threatens to stop experience. But men are truly sorry creatures because they have made death conscious. They can see evil in anything that wounds them, causes ill health, or even deprives them of pleasure. Consciousness means too that they have to be preoccupied with evil even in the absence of any immediate danger; their lives become a meditation on evil and a planned venture for controlling it and forestalling it.

Man has a basic narcissism built into himself, which naturally comes with self-esteem.

Author Picture
First Name
Ernest
Last Name
Becker
Birth Date
1924
Death Date
1974
Bio

American-Canadian Cultural Anthropologist and Interdisciplinary Scientific Thinker and Writer