A. Review of the Humanistic and Existential Themes
Themes in humanistic and existential psychology focus on the essential nature of man, as descriptive rather than explanatory or applied theories, and on the innate potential for growth through self-awareness. Self-awareness is achieved through sincere open introspection, building on insights and realistic perspectives that go hand in hand with client empowerment. Incongruences between values and actions are points of conflict, of inauthenticity, that produce stress and diminish functioning in a person’s life. To align values and actions, individual motives are examined in context with values and priorities, adjustments are made to these based on insights and the individual lives a more authentic existence. Often, the incongruity is caused by a reliance on external validation, approval, or fears related to alienation. Inevitably, the person must consider his or her roles in society as subordinate to the essential character of being. This depth of philosophical examination leads to ultimate questions about the human condition, the essential nature of humankind, personal meaning and purpose in context with the cosmic or collective, and finality of life.
Freedom is tied to a minimum trust in oneself, such as confidence in capabilities and acting on them independently. Freedom is expressed through creativity, health, love, individuality, being and becoming, all in the face of external limitations. The idea is to express self in spite of obstacles, to orient the mind to potentials of empowered thought and action rather than the restrictions of life. Anxiety repression is a disempowering force that draws the mind into a downward spiral of complexes and dysfunctional behaviors. Experiencing unconditional positive regard builds client courage and confidence to strip away an extraneous outmoded self-concept and roles. The client is then able to reengage creatively between the outer and inner worlds and the inevitable anxieties caused by confronting life paradoxes.
B. Terror Eclipses Worldly Beauty
Becker viewed the body and culture as prisons of the soul in which we struggle for self-esteem (Martin, 2014). Many people live in a “limbo of satisfaction” a spiritual minimalism that deadens alienation and perpetually reinforces its necessity (Kramer, 2007). Religion, even in it its outward, more conventional expression, collectivizes the fear and loneliness into a communal exercise. Becker saw the analogous state expression as Nazism which isolates scapegoats to bear the burdens of ever-increasing acts of violence. Similar to Viktor Frankl, facing the brutality of the world neutralizes its impact on meaning of life, even if the object of attention is seemingly insignificant.
Becker’s view of the world, as noted by Kramer (2007, p.438), supports a deeper cosmological connectedness, “Is it possible that nature’s beauty is truly neutral, that the single objects count for nothing, but that the whole sweep of life is somehow the telling thing?” Measuring broader developments and connections across time by one’s own short life is a form of egotism, a microcosmic bias. People tend to focus on one object or another based on historical rather than subjective present experiences and this skews their reality, a macrocosmic bias. We are all seeking God out there in the universe to provide the point of reference or measure of meaning for our little lots in life (Kramer, 2007). In our searching, we are looking for validation from the Other through appreciation of beauty. But it can only be truly accepted when the God image is wholly distinct from oneself. The baser merging of god and man leads to self-aggrandizement and aggressive behavior such as tyrannical state authority.
Becker’s writings, therefore, support both macro- and microcosmic perspectives to reclaim a vision of beauty in the world. Essentially, appreciation of beauty in the here-and-now and an expansive fluid concept of past, present and future reintegrates the person into a richer, larger, truer organismic experience of nature and cosmos (Kramer, 2007). Nature is life-affirming in that it continues creating more life. A morality in harmony with nature will be life promoting. The vision of beauty is inseparable from a natural source of meaning for human beings. We retain reason, will and determination but with a predisposition to life-sustaining harmony as a minimum threshold for healthy functioning. We lose this natural source of meaning when we objectify nature as a means to an end (Becker, 1971). Becker (1971) also implies a communal appreciation of beauty. We may collectively reaffirm the intrinsic value of objects by passing them on and sharing, as they also impress upon us an appreciation of being in the world.
Attention to the body and the symbolic self must be in balance to promote appreciation of beauty (Liechty, 1995). We avoid this balancing act because focusing on the body will confront an impermanent aspect of being. Instead, the self as a constellation of attributes with consciousness gives lower priority, and therefore value, to the body as a thing objectified and owned. Overindulgence as a cognitive process superficially prioritizes the body with a resulting loss of self, so that even overuse of the body subverts its control and consumes it as an object. Feelings of guilt, contempt, and futility are projected onto the body as inadequate to fulfill human aspirations, a physical prison of the gnostic or Manichean tradition, with all of this distracting from a more primal fear of mortality (Becker, 1971). But the body is uniquely attuned to savor physicality and provide a point of context for consciousness. Symbolic self can perform in the opposite direction to extend the self reflexively with the objects of beauty in the world, imbuing them with transcendental being and, therefore, meaning (Becker, 1971). Often, however, the symbolic self is appropriated from cultural context alone and forms a shell or persona that prevents the true organic self from interacting with others (Becker, 1971).
C. The Drive to Suppress Anxiety
Humanity has a unique quality distinct from animals to distrust even when no immediate danger is present (Kramer, 2007). The human faculty of meaning-making is the cause of this distinction. Insecurities in the meanings one holds onto will provide the trigger for threat recognition anytime a contradictory, or perhaps simply more rational, meaning is proffered. But this tension with passivity or ambivalence reveals a natural human characteristic. Surrendering meaning-making to a soulless social construct, such as the state or local culture, is a surrender of what little innate control we have. The social construct structures and solidifies meaning, albeit as an irrational extreme, causing both new despair and greater reliance.
The psychological foundation for anxiety is seen in early development and continues as a maladaptive protective mechanism in society in general. Children express annihilation anxiety when separated from their caregivers and this triggers a drive to secure contacts (Leichty, 1995). A buffer for anxiety develops to stabilize the ego and supporting self-esteem. Self-esteem provides security through a contextual understanding of self in the world. Higher cognitive expressions of self-esteem cover issues of purpose, meaning-making, self-mastery, and mastery of the environment, i.e. confidence and competence. As the child ages, the anxiety-reducing defense mechanism is transferred onto the social system and a proclivity to add external commands into the self-system, i.e. self-regulated compliance/conformity (Liechty, 1995). Becker’s main criticism of psychiatry is that it controls and manipulates people to fit back into a social system in such a way that the underlying social values remain unquestioned (Liechty, 1995)(Becker, 1971). In contrast, primitive societies often acknowledged a spiritual and consulting role for schizoid members in the form of shamanic practices (Liechty, 2005).
Becker’s earlier works drew upon Rousseau and Dewey to provide a more social, rather than sexual, origin of roles and meanings that formed personal identity (Martin, 2014). Symbolic practices help us create a self-regard strong enough to carry on in the face of ever present terror. Focus on activities that maximize both individual expression and the community then helps avoid situations that lead to alienation and loss of meaning (Martin, 2014). However, society often requires a tradeoff for generalized security at the cost of acting as less than a holistic individual (Liechty, 1995). Attachment to symbol-objects alienates the individual from his self in two ways, a) by reducing objects to a use value fresh new perspectives are precluded, and b) a divorce between the persons active control and the end product (Liechty, 1995). Essentially, the individual buys into a world view in which the personal stake is marginalized and occluded.
Becker describes the cyclical process of suppression experienced by even the most creative people (Martin, 2014). Creative people are better apt to reject the imposed roles and responsibilities of others but then, paradoxically, they are left even closer to isolation and dread. Anyone who strays too far from the collectivized meaning is disincentivised with poverty, social obscurity, and ridicule (Liechty, 2005). Freedom then becomes a momentary respite, a short glimpse or taste of truer life only to receive sticker shock and return to conformity. Essentially, creativity can occur in service to the culture, the individual or them both. Examining the aesthetic quality of the creation gives insight into its source of meaning (Liechty, 2005). Society ties meaning to predictability, a connection that secures emotions and reduces anxiety. These cause and effect sequences work until they do not, such as presumed travel or food safety—thus any anxiety reduction is false and transient. Becker (1971) refers to these points of revelation as uncovering fraud and considers the human inclinations to relish in literary plots. Becker (1971) also draws the creative potential back to a collective expression, each person can provide a unique authentic expression that adds to the mix and functions to root out illegitimacy by contrast.
D. False or ‘Cultural’ Heroics Compound Human Evils
Societies actively foster a lack of awareness in key areas of personal functioning for the purpose of diverting death awareness, i.e. operate a death mechanism (Liechty, 1995). Children seek to increase security by identifying with their primary caregivers. This is evidence of a life-long inclination to defer to the collective. Societies use propaganda and brainwashing, whether intentional or not, to promote a particular band of death denial—a distorted worldview. The worldview provides benefits such as: a) centralized authoritarian control for deference of self-responsibility, b) behavioral rewards for compliance and apathy, c) social structure for the repression of unwieldy impulses, d) social rituals and rites of passage to smooth over discontinuities caused by the system (Liechty, 1995). All of these cultural functions eclipse individuality, reducing the person to a cog in a machine.
Sooner or later the ideological systems we buy into will break down forcing us to confront contradictions such as injustice (Martin, 2014). Becker faced this personally during one of his lapses in employment, “I am masking my fear of finitude…having no real weight or meaning…masking this by devotion to the family, what would happen to them?” (Martin, 2014, p.73). He distinguishes this as pessimism that retains a glimmer of hope in what little control we can retain, echoing existential writers like Viktor Frankl (Martin, 2014). Clearly, some people will lash out at a system with a false sense of individuality. Some will express the stress of social constraints through seemingly personal motives—an armed robbery resulting in death, but this is yet another variant of false heroism and the scapegoating or transference of death onto another.
Becker drew from Otto Rank to flesh out his concept of evil (Martin, 2014). Human beings can misapply a drive for transcendence by controlling the life and death of others, a “love of violence.” (Kramer, 2007, p.431). Indeed, a revolutionary time can signal both that something of significance is taking place, and therefore attributes significance to the participants and primary causation to Nature itself (Kramer, 2007). Becker makes repeated references to Nazism and Communism as forms of revolutionary efforts gone awry. Becker sees the function of scapegoating as a primary means of reducing death anxiety (Liechty, 2005). Human beings project onto another their anxieties and then sacrifice the person, object, ideal, to transfer the literal experience of death. Experiencing the death vicariously reaffirms a false sense of safety and purpose no matter how transient or dubious in meaning.
Societies all promise their own variant of a hero system that conquers evil and death (Liechty, 1995). Death is a given of existence and so these promises can never be fulfilled. Evil is disconnection, misapplied or misaligned meaning and purpose, something we could minimize but only by confronting death. Closing the mind to alternative world views prevents an ideal progression for the society into greater peace and harmonious community. False heroism exacts tolls in the forms of compliance, social controls, and repression. An examination of the society then becomes a matter of determining the cost of the lie, the extent of distortion and the tolls paid by scapegoats (Liechty, 1995). This examination is one from of science Becker offers as a remedy to the death mechanism. Once we know the tolls, players and mechanisms of social decline we can begin to fashion life affirming options, in essence digging ourselves out of a pit…of hell.
Individual heroism stands in contrast to false heroism. Heroism in general is an attempt to validate ones value within a cosmic scheme through ones contributions (Liechty, 2005). False heroism focuses on the source of one’s roles in a cultural context. This type of heroism cannot lead to transcendence because it asserts itself as the transcendent. Culture and society then become the source of human significance. Once someone realizes the social fiction, their roles lose meaning and they fall into feelings of insignificance and depression. The individual is seeking out novelty and adventure to the exclusion of routine, approval and death (Liechy, 1995). The hero is attempting to transcend baser heroics of culture to achieve a personalized meaning. But this stands in contrast to the masses and subjects him or her to new evils, threats of death and alienation. Individual heroic expression exposes cultural heroism as arbitrary and fictional, as such it is as much a threat as death (Becker, 1971). Instead, most people opt to be channeled into narrow expressions of cultural heroism based on their roles, such as worker or family member. This concentration of self-worth and energy on one source of meaning leaves the individual further vulnerable to external events and the loss of self-esteem (Liechty, 2005).
E. Understanding of the True Condition is Contingent on Science and Spirituality
Religion, as a pervasive construct across societies, begins to appear necessary for healthy human functioning (Martin, 2014). Becker reached points in his personal memoirs where, in the anxiety of death, there was no other course but to “trust in God.” (Martin, 2014, p.73). Although it is important to note, Becker was himself responding to a Cold War culture when he rejected the concept that an atheist could truly be free (Kramer, 2007). We look to the inherent transcendental nature of being part of a greater milieu, both dependent on and contributing to it. I tend to look at the indispensable relationship between self and environment in Lockean terms. Becker is acknowledging the need for a social contract yet seeking a return in attitude to the state of nature. This requires living with the paradoxical tension rather than oscillating as we do with wounded pride, fabricated wars, grandiose motives, and so on. The simple fact is that, because it is a social construct, the political state is a derivative of something more essential and timeless. I see this as call to reintegrate society back into nature, as much as we can during a time of plastic wrapped chicken and glued cadaver eyelids on one end of the spectrum and Greenpeace and anthropocentric global warming on the other.
The truly free person must be critical of conventional science just as he or she would any other source of domination (Kramer, 2007). Over-reliance on science can break one’s link to nature and impose itself as the new god and meaning-maker (Becker, 1971). Modern science is also used as a cultural egotism that isolates us from the wisdom and insights of our ancestors and, more broadly, a natural lifestyle (Becker, 1971). Instead, Becker advocates a “united science of man” with a morality deferential to life and, thus, humanistic (Kramer, 2007, p.447). Science is essentially a cumulative meaning based on rationalism (Kramer, 2007). We must confess to the ignorance behind our culturally-imposed assumptions or we never reach a point of wonder and transcendence (Becker, 1971). In fact, the stated claim of conventional science was to do just that, to remove illusions and fallacious relationships from the body of knowledge (Becker, 1971). Society is often progressing on intuitive understandings of interrelationships, such as Enlightenment democratic principles, while the social structure is responding to instinctual fears of death (Becker, 1971). The ideal would be malleable social structures yet addressing their flaws would draw attention to anxiety-inducing content.
Art and love then become key expressions of freedom (Martin, 2014). Fear of life and fear of death are locked in constant tension that energizes and propels creativity which, by extension, is the source of all noteworthy cultural products (Kramer, 2007). But this creativity is hard won because culturally derived perspectives have impaired its natural functioning. The true artist acts as a mediator between security and challenge, to seek out depth, complexity, nuance, self-reflection and improvement (Liechty, 2005). The artist confronts death and anxiety and fashions innovative symbolic content to transcend it, to discard the dichotomy of life and death and hold each in paradoxical union. Creativity becomes a powerful expression of love because it can be used to manipulate the cultural system to avoid individual harms and to broaden perspectives for systemic change.
Self-analysis forms from an intersection between science and spirituality. As one progresses through introspection, personal insights become more subtle due to a process of elimination, a cutting away of what is not true identity (Kramer, 2007). This provides a liberation from false past, the imposition of culture and conditional regard, and opens one to malleable and broader concepts of past, future, and implications of one’s own contribution. Agapic love can lead to a loss of self and stalled development (Liecthy, 2005). Erotic love can lead to a loss of humility and gratitude. Together these applications can provide the individual both opportunities for growth and context in the world. Also, the self can only be reintegrated by venturing into the inner world and freeing the inner self to authentic expression in the world (Becker, 1971).
F. Integrating the Themes
Essentially, Becker is drawing out prior theories, such as conditional regard, to their ultimate extremes, the concepts underlying freedom or dread. Prior humanistic authors focused on acceptance as a means to jumpstart innate abilities at resilience and self-actualization. Becker’s life was cut short before he could fully expound on the positive extreme of his dichotomy, the acceptance of life albeit however nasty, brutish and short. Becker did, however, illustrate two main areas of holding the paradox, developing the self or connecting with the cosmos. The first concept is synonymous with the aims of third force authors such as May or Maslow. The second concept is the purview of spiritual traditions and transpersonal theorists. In this sense, Becker was seeking out a descriptive theory of everything in the human realm of experiences. Death terror adequately describes the condition precedent which third force therapies and methods aim to ameliorate. A better understanding of this underlying condition will hopefully grant practitioners greater insight in addressing ideations and relationships based on false heroism.
Similarly, Becker’s insistence on the unavoidably evil impact of cultural distortions also draws attention to baser drives. The individual is not really interested in culture at all, rather it becomes a façade or window-dressing for false security, acceptance and approval. The true interest is similar, again, to creativity, self-expression, and growth, all universally identified by humanistic authors. The interconnection between self-actualization and culture is found in the agape motive, to merge with and integrate into the world in its natural-state rather than distorted perspectives, concepts and ideologies. The human realm allows a unique exchange for authenticity to happen but only when the meaning-making is holistically derived from a transpersonal source, Oneness or the Divine. Becker is setting up a theoretical system to explain age-old mystical traditions (Liechty, 1995). Mystics see the oneness, live in paradox, reintegrate dichotomies, express symbolic context, and most significantly they are absent the cultural distortions. Mystics are peaceful, accepting of their insignificance, magnify the significance of everything around them, and exhibit higher ethical functioning, all third force traits of self-actualization.
Becker is also offering a new postmodern perspective. Postmoderism exposes and confronts societal absurdities. Existentialist writers often focused on the meaninglessness of social roles, social utility, isolation, confusion, and depression. Becker is offering these insights in a psychological framework. Becker also sought to reintegrate contemporary society with prior cultures, to reinforce continuity and the collective wholeness of humanity. Becker saw this integrative perspective as a requirement to transcend discrete cultures and innovate institutions such as religion and science. In this sense, Becker is echoing the socially minded later years of Maslow.
Becker, E. (1971). The birth and death of meaning: An interdisciplinary perspective on the problem of man (2nd ed.). New York, NY: Free Press.
Kramer, R. (2007). The journals of Ernest Becker, 1964-1969. Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 47, 430-473.
Liechty, D. (1995). Transference and transcendence: Ernest Becker’s contribution to psychotherapy. Northvale, NJ: Jason Aronson.
Liechty, D. (2005). The Ernest Becker reader. Seattle: University of Washington Press.
Martin, J. (2014). Ernest Becker at Simon Fraser University (1969-1974). Journal of Humanistic Psychology, 54, 66-112.