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Featuring Vice President of the EBF and Professor of Social Work, Daniel Liechty
Becker and the Holidays
There is so much packed into the experience of the holidays- stressful family get-togethers, obligatory giving expectations, loneliness, as well as the comfort and joy of ritual. How does death anxiety play out in these emotional complexities?
One of the dangers of focusing too directly on the death denial theme in Becker’s work is that it can tend to isolate this theme from the body of work that preceded it. Becker’s larger focus was on the ways that culture and society function to provide people with a sense that they are significant actors in a purposeful pageant of transcending value. So long as people feel this sense of forward movement (we could call it “self-esteem” in the largest sense of that term), life maintains a sense of meaning.
But if any part of this fails, things begin to fall apart. If the individual cannot maintain the sense of being a meaningful actor in the cultural pageant, achieving and passing along the goals and values of the society, we start to see rage and depression develop on the individual level. On the collective level of society and culture, when large numbers of people lose faith in the transcendent worth of the cultural narrative, that is, its root mythologies that tie the cultural values into the super-human realm, we are also vulnerable to a sense of malaise and futility.
In America today, we are currently being hounded by this on both ends. On the one end, we are heavily encouraged to measure “value” almost exclusively in terms of money and wealth. At the same time, the economic system is skewing increasingly toward extreme social stratification. Feeling good about yourself in terms of accumulated money wealth is steadily excluding masses of people. On the other end, a “hermeneutics of suspicion” has filtered down out of the elite circles of academia and into the realm of popular culture. We increasingly doubt not only the idea of a God but we also increasingly embrace a tired cynicism toward the “secular” aspects of our cultural mythology. For example, that we Americans have the privilege and duty to bring to others “freedom, democracy, justice (and the American way!)”. This feeling of cultural malaise is summed up in Peggy Lee’s classic lyric, “Is that all there is…to life?”
Given this, from a Beckerian point of view, we would begin by noting that the experience of the holidays—stressful family get-togethers, obligatory giving expectations, loneliness, as well as the comfort and joy of ritual, are all aspects of that pageant of meaning and purpose- within which each of us struggles to see ourselves as significant actors. But as the holiday stories lose their grounding in a transcendent beyond, the songs, traditions, and rituals can easily start to seem kitsch, and at best “for the children”. We ask ourselves, what’s really the point? Even the best of families have conflicts, fights, and jostlings in the rankings for favorites, and can never measure up really to the “Holy Family” of our cultural mythology, gathered around the Thanksgiving/Christmas table of the Norman Rockwell calendar on the wall.
I imagine that if Becker was here to give us advice, he would offer up a prayer for us in our situation (perhaps one of his favorite biblical Psalms), along with his best wishes that if we do find ourselves squeezing a bit of comfort and joy from our experiences of the holidays, to savor it, to not let it pass by too quickly, and relish it as a fleeting but nonetheless true answer to Peggy Lee’s haunting question.