A Case for Terror: Making Space for the First-Person Perspective Within Collegiate Psychology

An Interview with Brad Peters

Brad Peters is a clinical psychologist and a part-time professor of psychology at St. Mary’s University in Halifax, NS. Currently, he is teaching a personality psychology course which touches on Ernest Becker and existentialist psychologists, helping broaden students’ conceptions of what it means to be a person. In addition to his private practice and teaching, he maintains a blog, Modern Psychologist, and can be found at www.modernpsychologist.ca.

Thank you for agreeing to share some of your experiences teaching Becker with us! To start, how do you think Becker fits within the contemporary psychology climate?

Psychology is interesting in how it tries to define itself. It wants to study the human mind – how we think, feel, and act- but it simultaneously has a philosophy of science that aims to be objective and empirical. Mainstream psychology doesn’t really leave a whole lot of room for the first person subject – for the first person perspective. I’m very anti-reductionist when it comes to persons and psychological phenomenon; I believe that any attempt to understand the human being has to be done in such a way that we don’t lose our ability to see the whole of what that means .

Yes, we want to understand why we come to have relatively stable or predictable patterns of thinking, acting, and feeling, but really what does it mean to be a self-aware, embodied subject? How do we come to have this first person perspective? You almost have to build a case for it in contemporary psychology!

When Becker was writing in the 60s and early 70s, very important thinkers like Abraham Maslow and Rollo May were pushing back against reductive, behaviourist, even psychoanalytic models and highlighting the importance of the subject or first person experiencer, the one whose existence is an issue for itself. Becker was writing during this time and thought similarly; since then, we’ve almost forgotten what was so important in this movement and what we were beginning to recognize.

The objective, third-person, ‘view from nowhere’ perspective that contemporary psychology uses to understand persons and psychological phenomenon, are going to miss something important, because to be a human being is to have a view from somewhere. We are an animal that is self-aware, involving an opening up to different probability fields. We can recall the past, we can anticipate and imagine the future, we can orient our behaviour towards those future possibilities and of course, this creates all the problems that Becker elucidates – including the problem of personal meaning and of one’s own death.

[These problems] are not going to be understood when we use the metaphors like, “the human mind works much like a computer”. Computers don’t have points of view, self-awareness, or anxious concerns about death and meaning.

So how do you approach Becker then in your psychology courses?

For contemporary psychology students especially, you have to somehow teach people, allow them to remember or notice, how different they are from computers, how different they are from other animals. There’s this tendency to want to biologize the social sciences, to reduce the human being to an assembly of neural networks and action potentials and so on. It’s totally glossing over where humanity really takes off- with self-awareness and real, true agency… with symbolic thought.

The personality course I teach entails looking at different theories, from a behaviourist cog-psych perspective to psychodynamic theory, and pulling grains of truth while also demonstrating some of the deficiencies with these perspectives. What do they leave out? What do they so obviously fail to explain? I try to lead students to a place where they are waiting for the punch line, build up to a place where there is a recognition or re-remembering of the self-awareness unique to humans, and then I introduce Becker.
Then, I’ve found people are more open to it. It’s something that almost has to resonate from within the person. They almost feel the truth of it; they feel it in their guts because they’re human, not a series of abstractions. When you get to this stuff you have to create some sort of emotional resonance or allow it to seep into their consciousness so that they become aware of it.

I tell people, if you’re encountering this material for the first time and you don’t have your hair standing up on end, nervous energy somewhere in your body, then you don’t get it. You may get it analytically, but you don’t get the full grasp of what this entails. That’s what is so powerful about Becker’s writing. He doesn’t write in this cold and analytical fact-based way; he’s writing much like the French existentialists like Camus and Sartre. He’s writing with a profundity that is almost poetic.

How do you create space for students to feel the resonance of the work?

The classes that I teach are about 35 students, so they’re not so large that we don’t have opportunities for discussion. But when I’m teaching the material, I give lots of examples and use a lot of imagery. I usually start into the material by showing them the video, Flight From Death. If you take it in small little steps with words on a powerpoint slide, students will often resist it the whole way through. If you present it with a collage of sound and imagery though, it has a fuller way of seeping into someone’s awareness.

I’ll also lay out some of the absurdities of human existence as well… so that they can experience a little bit of that bizarre sense of detachment from things that they maybe took for granted. If you hit it with the right pacing, and people are with you, you can see their eyes open up.

Can you elaborate on the concept of the absurd for us?

We get glimpses all the time, but only little glimpses and they don’t last very long. Catching sight of the absurd is seeing through our cultural meaning systems and seeing them as false, essentially.

The concept comes from Albert Camus, from The Myth of Sisyphus. The notion of the absurd is the dilemma that we are meaning-hungry, meaning seeking creatures and yet there’s no rock-solid unquestionable meaning in an absolute sense; this gives rise to our absurd condition.

One of the examples I give is from something most students have noticed or felt: “do you ever go on a bus and you don’t have your headphones on and aren’t distracted by anything… and you’re sitting there with a heightened sense of awareness. And you notice someone’s voice, you overhear this conversation that someone is having with their girlfriend or boyfriend on the phone and they’re arguing about what they’re going to have for supper. Is it going to be spaghetti or is it going to be Kraft dinner? … it seems like there’s some frustration about the dilemma. As you take all of this in, you have this weird experience and the thought: “why does this person exist?”.

Everyone can kind of relate to that on some level. We can see through and think, “what are we doing? What is this for? What is the meaning of this person’s life?” Yet, when we recognize that other people look at us at times and have much the same thoughts or feelings, it opens up this possibility of noting and feeling the absurdity of so much of what we all do.

What aspects of Becker’s work resonated the most with you and why did you choose to include it as part of your teaching?

I think it was the integration and the depth of his awareness of different parts of the human condition. How they all come together really resonated strongly with me- especially the notion of the hero and that our striving to prove our significance is an offshoot or symptom of self-awareness.

There’s a quote that I stumbled on in The Birth and Death of Meaning which totally speaks to my experience both as a student and now as an academic. Becker observes,

“There’s something perverse about our university education when it fails to show the authentically cumulative tradition of thought. We have to discover the vital thinkers on our own, and accidentally; our teachers, if anything, pooh-pooh the very people we should be studying, and we spend needless years just randomly and with luck coming into our own heritage.”

When I read that, I knew that this guy was right on the same wavelength as me because that was totally my experience; everything I found profound and important and worthy of knowing, I really had to seek it out. It’s almost an art form: going on amazon, reading the reviews, reading between the lines, finding the right books that we need to be reading. Unfortunately we don’t teach our students this sort of thing and they miss out on so much.

What have the responses been to Becker’s work and the idea that our illusions work to protect us from the idea of death?

I think it depends in some ways on the student. The student who is psychologically guarded, especially students who are prone to intellectualization, they spend a little too much time up in their heads in analytical thought and not enough time being mindfully aware of crucial aspects related to their own first-person existence.
People who approach it from a purely analytical way… it’s not going to resonate strongly with them and if they’re a critical thinker, they’re going to look at ways to poke holes in it, they’ll question some of the studies, and then it’s sort of an intellectual jostling. Again, the crucial ‘proof’ is partly known because you feel it existentially.

I should also say, I try not to leave people hanging in this stuff. Coming from Yalom’s work, what we might do in terms of a prescriptive is find a tightrope that we walk between giving blind allegiance to these meaning systems and being fully aware at every given moment of our existential predicament. There’s sort of this middle path. I spend some time helping people understand there’s a huge benefit to being aware of the relativity of these different meaning systems. It means that at least from time to time you are liberated from your cultural system, and you can poke your head up above the clouds and assess, “Do I really want to be doing this? What real significance does this have for me or is this a comfortable forgetting? Is it a dulling of my senses?”

Do you have any favorite exercises or passages that you use in your classes?

My powerpoint slides are very image heavy. Images have a way, especially if you choose the right images, of resonating with people in a way that words can’t. When you visually frame things in a way that really speaks to some aspect of the individual’s first person experience, or an existential intuition, they become more self-aware and can be opened up into a different kind of knowing.

Considering their importance, how do you select your images?

I’m very tedious in always searching for images that aren’t posed or trite or over-used and one’s that, like certain pieces of art, have a way of resonating with a person’s experience. That’s part of why Flight From Death is such a great documentary. It uses some very provocative images and the timing of the video images is spot-on.

Do you have any advice for other educators?

Jump in!

Also, it depends on where the student is in their history of learning but if they’ve accumulated this massive “knowledge” or understanding in a certain way, you may have to untie that knot a little bit to allow them to be open to new kinds of ideas. I teach Becker at the very end of the course because you have to slightly debunk a lot of the other stuff, show what it doesn’t explain and make room for this, but also because it’s a final integration of all these different insights.

If you’re getting them early enough, especially teenagers who are a little more connected to their visceral experiences and some of the existential dilemmas that are hanging there, maybe a little bit too painfully at times, in the backdrop of their existence, then they’re a little more likely to be prepared for this sort of thing.