Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Film has surfaced of Donald Trump bragging about being a “star” and therefore able to force himself on even married women, The howls of condemnation are comically belated. For months, Trump has cast a fabulous spell largely because he has been selling the nation the infantile fantasy of total power and gratification through the magic of total will.

Trump’s sexual aggression is only incidentally sexual. Actually in the clip he is selling celebrity privilege to a junior TV star, urging Billy Bush, one of the Bush family stars, to try it like a vitamin tonic. It pays to remember that Trump was 59 at the time, beyond mating age. The dream of grabbing the genitals of younger women at will is counterphobic: a means of maintaining vitality in fantasy as winter sets in.

It seems likely that Trump’s dangerous run for president is also a compulsive fantasy about overcoming time and death—and falling sales. Coming after the devastating financial crash of 2007-2009, Trump’s power fantasies are alluring to folks still stung by the economic failure and the injustice the crash exposed.

Trump depicts the nation in shocking decay, and promises rejuvenation, as in his slogan “Make America Great Again.” This is a death-and-rebirth theme familiar in superhero sagas and religious revivals. Why is it so powerful?

Following Ernest Becker’s Denial of Death, Terror Management Theory (TMT) demonstrates that anxiety about death unconsciously influences our behavior. As a species, we’re uniquely aware of death. We cope, says Becker, by seeking to give our lives enduring meaning, striving to overcome our insignificance and futility by feeling heroic. When it works, Becker adds, you enjoy a feeling of self-worth that amounts to symbolic immortality. It may be denial, but some denial is necessary and—we hope—healthy.

Death-anxiety isn’t an off/on switch. It colors all behavior, conscious or not. In turn, heroic feeling means not just gold medals, but any striving for more life, from sex to payday. Likewise, we associate failure with death. If you’re powerless and shunned, you’ve fallen into social death. And since that can be as terrifying as biological death, minorities and the poor can be “enemies,” targets of hysterical fear and hatred. Killing others, especially scapegoats, as Otto Rank said, buys off your own death.

Terror Management Theory predicts that Trump draws supporters by arousing their anxiety about failure and death, and by posing as the heroic strongman who will restore your conviction that life goes on forever. TMT is still in its infancy. Its experiments demonstrate that dread intensifies immortality themes such as nationalism and religious piety. But to get at the comprehensiveness and quality of death-denial, we need to cast a wide net, as Becker did.

What is it about Trump that has so aroused Americans?

For starters, Trump takes the role of warrior-king. He is the king of beasts with a golden mane. He projects life as a contest—combat, really. Money and do-or-die toughness make him a strongman. He thrived in a military prep school, and at one point invested in the World Wrestling organization, that famed circus of violence. As a strongman, he favors judicial killing, as in his full-page newspaper ad condemning the young blacks convicted—wrongly, as it turned out—of a sexual assault in Central Park. In his book Think Big he boasts about his vindictiveness as a core value.

Now his plan to deport immigrants calls up visions of box cars carrying hated victims to the ovens at Auschwitz. His promised wall would keep out social death and his supporters’ rivals. More than once he’s made sly death threats against his opponent, “wondering” if gun-rights fanatics might assassinate her. As one writer innocently described Trump’s ability to survive criticism, he “appears to be almost bulletproof”—i.e., immortal.

For the tycoon, money is a weapon. It commands others, holding life-or-death power over them. Trump’s TV show celebrated firing—symbolically executing—failed “apprentices.” The boss condemns the unworthy to social death. As he said off the top of his head in a 2005 speech full of punchy expletives, “I love losers because they make me feel so good about myself.”

As a means of creating more life, money is another form of sex. As fashions and jewelry, money decorates the worrisome body that wrinkles and dies, kindling desire. Trump brags about his penis and his potency as a stud who beds fertile young women. His opponent he caricatures as the unhealthy, unfaithful wife in an sterile marriage.

The emperor brags about his potent name, his riches, his real estate “empire,” his sexual ”conquests,” his offspring, his servants, his supreme health. But the problem is that even emperors fail and die. In the 90s, a catastrophic binge of greedy overspending nearly ruined Trump. The death-anxiety of that failure shows in his anxiety about self-esteem today. Trump is compulsively combative, flinging insults as he does belittling nicknames. He lashes out at even trivial slights. In the wisdom of slang, criticism “puts someone down,” an idiom that links social death to real killing.

Trump’s determination to be a bigshot has an air of panic about it. We’re told that like Howard Hughes, he’s been phobic about germs. Commentators have suggested that he suffers from alexithymia, an inability to understand emotions and relate to others that people associate with autism. Emptiness in inner life can make for paranoid aggressiveness, defending a self always under threat.

When it nearly destroyed him in the 90s, Trump doubled down on his greed for life like a binge gambler. His casino splurge brought financial disaster rather than immortality ecstasy. Now that the Access Hollywood sex tapes have damaged his political campaign, he has escalated greed for life to messianic levels. Like many a dictator in history, he takes the role of christlike martyr, adding sacrifice to power in a new, intoxicating projection of immortality: “I take all the slings and arrows gladly for you,” he said in a scripted speech (10.13.16), for the sake of “our great civilization.”

For Trump’s supporters, hero-worship has a hypnotic quality. Revelations that he has systematically cheated employees like them only prove his power. They rationalize his sexual bullying of women. Like the maestro, they double down when reality makes a mockery of their convictions. The faithful believe that leader will share his greed for life with them, and not devour them along with losers. Because their idol has pumped up death-anxiety in order to show his mastery over it, and because the fantasy is so unrealistic, abandonment of the hero’s spell can be as frightening as leaving a cult.

Those not enchanted by the spell are likely to fear the hero’s selfishness. In its radical form, greed for life becomes cannibalism, taboo because ultimately it would devour everyone. Trump’s questionable charity, taxes, and treatment of working people raise concerns not only about ethics, but about his boundless appetite.

Greed for life demands not only sex and money, but also attention. And Trump of course is famous for his command of attention. It was an early sign of the spell he was casting in his campaign.

But attention is not only a practical matter of publicity and fascinated rallies. It is an essential process of identity. Most animals are self-sufficient shortly after birth, whereas without prolonged nurture human babies die. Since predators look for helpless morsels, most young are programmed not to attract attention. By contrast, human infants squawk for attention and quickly learn to pay attention.

In part thanks to our large brains, we are slower to become adult than other animals. We’re neotenic, retaining many juvenile traits throughout our lives. Where other adult animals are hard-wired and scripted in their behavior, humans remain playful, care soliciting, and submissive. Where adults of other species need to be stealthy, we continue to thrive on attention.

Identity reflects this background. After all, the self is not an object like a bone or a brain, but an action shaped and substantiated by social life. Orphans neglected in infancy are apt to suffer serious deficits in development. From birth, attention helps infants construct their reality. It is crucial in developing a sense of what is right. We associate loss of attention with punishment and death, as in solitary confinement, banishment, and social death.

To appreciate the power of attention, think of the way history’s monstrous tyrants rely on attention to manage their subjects’—and their own—fear of death. In their greed for life they demand empires, palaces, harems, treasure: all the symbols of slavish attention that Trump flaunts and media marvels at.

And who can be surprised? A demand for attention compensates for the emptiness in inner life. But you don’t need to suffer from alexithymia. Attention is also a basic means of managing death-anxiety. As an expression of concern, it substantiates us and creates solidarity. We may perish, but we feel we matter to someone else, to the family, the group. In funeral rites, monuments, scrapbooks, and memoirs, attention promises to overcome oblivion. However chimerical that promise may be, it is deeply rooted in us.

In advertising, media, social media, and education, American culture puts attention at the center of life. As the Trump phenomenon shows, attention can be a tool for manipulating our deepest creaturely motives. Even his most resolute opponents are awed by Trump’s ability to fascinate. In this respect his public personality shares the spotlight with rampage killers and celebrity movie stars, whose command of global attention speaks to our deepest hopes and fears.

We are childlike animals, brilliantly adaptable but also care-soliciting and often in trouble. Trump’s needy followers identify with his larger-than-life heroism: the illusion that in business and in person he is “too big to fail.” But they misread his ability to share attention with them. At rallies he addresses the crowd in familiar asides that make headlines, but usually he is directing their hostility toward outsiders or “enemies.” His vague policy slogans reveal how little attention he pays to their actual needs.

As a would-be leader, Trump comes on as the capable adult in the room. But his political persona enlarges and disguises the deepest concerns of childhood, including the raw terrors of death. Like a child—and like the Fuehrer—he makes fierce faces at the camera these days trying to look more imposing.

Trump has demanded “pussy” with a child’s sense of omnipotence, grasping at the security and nurture of an ideal mother—who alas, doesn’t exist. People are scared and offended because the compulsion is so drastically impersonal. And insatiable. Those who have fallen into the star’s dream are also sleepwalking. Look up from the enchanted pillow and there’s nobody there.

Being caught grasping, shamed by his desperation, the emperor suddenly stands naked before childish, mortal humanity. Psychology saw the fantasy threads all along, It remains to be seen if this demystification will dispel the political spell, and who will find some consoling wisdom in this instructive parable of sex and skull.

Resources used in this essay:

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

Raymond P. Coppinger and C. Kay Smith, “Forever Young,” The Sciences, May-June, 1983, 50-54.

Kirby Farrell, The Psychology of Abandon (2015)

David Cay Johnston, The Making of Donald Trump (2016).

Sheldon Solomon et al, The Worm at the Core: on the role of death in life (2016).

Bo Bestvina

Bo Bestvina

Terror Management Theory (TMT) states humans have an unconscious existential anxiety arising from awareness of morality. In an attempt to buffer ourselves from this anxiety we create cultures to give life meaning. Our contributions to these cultures (e.g. inventions, novels, policies, etc.) are a means of living on symbolically after physical death. So when someone threatens our culture, they threaten us, which explains why people are prejudiced towards other cultures, races and ethnicities.

Initially, Terror Management Theory aroused defensiveness in me, on a personal level and as if I were defending society in North America. How could fear of death play such an important yet discreet role in culture? How could we elect incompetent politicians just because they promise to protect us from threats? How could my noble artistic aspirations be influenced by a pitiful fear of dying?

After setting sensitivity aside, I embarked on a project for the Ernest Becker Foundation to categorize academic research into important social issues such as women’s rights, racism, terrorism, criminal justice and mental health. In the process of reading research abstracts, I came to understand the profound influence of death anxiety on how people see different cultures, religions, policies and themselves.

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Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts

Kyle Roberts (Ph.D.) is Schilling Professor of Public Theology and the Church and Economic Life at United Theological Seminary of the Twin Cities.
Roberts has published essays on Kierkegaard and modern theology, including several essays in the series
Kierkegaard Research: Sources, Reception and Resources (Ashgate / University of Copenhagen) and other collected volumes on various topics, including Pietism, Karl Barth, and Christian spirituality. Roberts has published Emerging Prophet: Kierkegaard and the Postmodern People of God (Cascade, 2013) and is currently completing (with Jeannine Brown) a theological commentary on the gospel of Matthew (Eerdmans).

What is the demographic of the students you teach in terms of age and background?

It’s a fascinating mix. United is a small seminary, and a stand-alone seminary in that it’s not connected to a university and it was begun with intentionally loose denominational ties so it would have an ecumenical flavor. But as a historic mainline protestant school, of course it attracts students from the mainline denominations like the United Church of Christ, the United Methodist Church, the Presbyterian Church (USA), and we have a vibrant Unitarian Universalist presence as well. But we’re also seeing growth in students from non-denominational and progressive evangelical backgrounds, as well as Catholic students, non-Christian students, and a number of students who don’t affiliate with any specific religious tradition (i.e. the “nones”).

As far as age, the students at United tend to be a little older than is typical for seminary (the average age of a United student is around 45). Students come from all walks of life; some have been in active ministry positions and are just getting around to formal seminary training. I would say the majority of students that I’ve encountered at United however, have significant life experience post-college before they start their seminary career intensively. That life experience adds a wealth of insight to the classroom dynamic.

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

With time to spare before a flight out of Pisa, I recently looked in on the Piazza dei Miracoli, where the famous tower of Pisa leans. The Piazza is the size of a football stadium. A medieval wall encloses a cathedral, a baptistery, the tipsy bell tower, a green lawn, and a humungous crowd. At first glance it’s sacred Disneyland. But there’s much more going on than meets the eye.

We depend on habit and familiarity to make overwhelming reality user friendly. Like a factory, habit uses repetition to make us productive—you don’t have to think about tying your shoelaces. But habit also imprisons us. To grow, to solve new problems, you need to “break” clunky old habits. The ultimate problem, that everything changes and dies, can make your everyday life feel like a lifeless habit.

Wonder opens an escape tunnel out of the prison of routine. The use of “awesome” or “fabulous” as an all-purpose grunt of approval shows how important wonder is. Slang is trying to force amazement and awe into everyday life. Tourism likewise organizes wonder to be a handy product. The trouble is, escape from habit into amazement or wonder can mean blowing your mind, which may feel ecstatic—or terrifying.[1] So tourism usually promises that you’ll experience “awe” from a comfortable mental couch—like TV.

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Programmed Life Who's in charge here?

Kirby Farrell | May 28, 2016

Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

One afternoon last year local police pulled me over. When I said hello and asked what was wrong (inspection sticker out of date—duh), the cop ignored me and stuck to his script (“Let me see your registration,” etc.). In a crime novel he would have had “steely blue” eyes. He seemed ridiculously grim, as if arresting a murderer. It was partly self-importance—the rapture of a uniform and a badge. But what most struck me was his icily impersonal manner.

Being aggressively impersonal allows you to dominate someone from behind a mask, as if the Law, not you, is making the demands. You’re just doing your heroic duty while the Law commands the other person like a slave.

This is puzzling because impersonal correctness is a management technique used to insure efficiency, objectivity and fairness. If all officers follow the script, there’s less likelihood of abuse, incompetence, or misinterpretation. It’s industrial technology: you write a program and it carries out a particular task as if by magic. In factories this works brilliantly. Machines and workers programmed like machines repeat prescribed steps over and over, producing more stuff at lower cost. In your personal life, a strict program may take you to an otherwise unreachable goal. The right routine can free you to create.

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Hospice: Preventing pain after death

James Salwitz | May 13, 2016

Dr. James Salwitz

Dr. James Salwitz

David was 42 when he died from stomach cancer.  He spent the last year of life receiving useless chemotherapy and debilitating radiation.  More important, David was in terrible pain, all the time.  He lay in bed for agonized months, as the cancer destroyed his ribs, back and lungs.  Finally, David was rushed to a hospital, plugged into a breathing machine and invaded by countless IVs.  Agitated, in pain, he died despite a futile storm of tests, drugs and several rounds of rib-cracking CPR.

His wife, previously positive, happy and successful, never recovered. She quit work, drank heavily, and spun into a therapy-resistant depression.  12 months later, she used those same pills to take her life.

At the time of David’s death, his son was 17. The teenager found comfort in the kind of pharmaceutical intervention that come from bottle and needle.  A high school dropout, he was in jail by 20, and although paroled at 23, found the streets too much.  Back in prison by 26, his life dissolved to rubble.

David’s suffering, poorly controlled during that precious last year of life, and the tragedy of his last days, were a direct result of the failure to plan for the inevitable and the inexcusable negligence of his caregivers to provide comfort. That misery transferred to those he loved. David’s pain continued after death.  

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Kirby Farrell

Kirby Farrell

Everyone wants to be rescued. It could be Tarzan plucking you out of the croc’s jaws. Or someone loaning you $5. Praise for some virtue or talent can rescue your self-esteem from self-doubt or depression. A new lover may save you from loneliness or the terror of rejection and self-disgust. Romance promises to rescue you from the tedium of yourself or the monotonous people around you.

You get the picture.

The idea of rescue seems to be built into us. We are among the most social animals on earth, and after all, what are friends for? They’re folks you’d rescue and count on to rescue you. In politics, progressives believe people come together to save each other. Conservatives imagine that you save yourself.

In the big bad world, “warriors” save you. In psychosis and some religions, messiahs play a leading role. A St Bernard with a cask of hootch under his chin answers if you phone in an avalanche. If you’re over troubled waters, you can count on “God” or belief in God. If you’re rescuing a needy and hung-up lover, heroic rescue can make you feel ten feet tall till you hit your head on a door lintel one time too many.

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Larissa Fitzpatrick

Larissa Fitzpatrick

In the mock travel narrative, Gulliver’s Travels, Jonathan Swift chastises humanity for hostile behavior, believing that people capable of reason fail to act reasonably when blinded by their personal illusions of reality. More than two centuries after Gulliver’s Travels was written, Ernest Becker also perceived a link between illusion and violence. Becker theorized that humans, terrified of their inevitable death, create a world of symbols, or immortality ideologies, that give their lives meaning and stability. Our need to conceal our death anxiety is so powerful that we often become intolerant of people with ideologies that threaten our own. Although living in different centuries and nations, Becker and Swift commonly found frustration in mankind’s inability to see reality and failure to reach its highest potential.

To show readers the danger of distorted reason, Swift uses satire to call attention to paradoxes, hoping to reveal the absurdity in certain accepted beliefs and behaviors. In the fourth book of Gulliver’s Travels, Gulliver enters the land of the Houyhnhnms, where he finds himself surrounded by difficult paradoxes, many of which are self-inflicted. He encounters two new groups of beings: one appears to have reason and one does not. Gulliver’s fear of insignificance among these groups drives him to blindly follow the individuals with reason, ironically leading him to become completely unreasonable. We, like Gulliver, experience many paradoxes in our lives. We are born only to die, and by attempting to conquer our anxiety, we make the world a more menacing place. However, by using self-analysis, unlike Gulliver, we can see the absurdity in our situation. By wrestling with our fears rather than denying them, we can analyze our behavior without dangerous bias, allowing us to experience our knowledge of death as a method of embracing life.

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Becker with Real Bullets

Charles Nolan | March 26, 2016

Charles Nolan

Charles Nolan

Turn on CNN any night of the week and you’d think you were watching “Escape from Evil, the Movie”. It’s not about theory any more. It’s not an armchair discussion. The armchair is at the controls of a tank. Case in point — after writing that last sentence, I clicked over to check my email and found a link to the breaking story of a suicide bombing in Istanbul staring back at me from the top of the page. The picture on this page is from that story. If I want a different picture, I’ll be able to check again tomorrow and find a new one, with a new story behind it. Carnage, masked men waving automatic weapons in the air, American crowds demanding “no entry” for Muslims, the body of a refugee child who died trying to escape the war zone – the pictures are easy to find — too easy. So what has this got to do with Ernest Becker? Everything.

BeckerUntitled2’s central point in Escape from Evil, that our need to deny our own deaths and helplessness is the driving force behind the eagerness with which individuals allow themselves to be carried away by group ideology, with destructive results, has seldom been so clearly in the headlines. The line between religious, political and ethnic groups has been blurred to the point of irrelevance. Accusations that Islam is a “political system masquerading as a religion” are answered by Jihadist fears that Western economic and political muscle will spell the end to their “way of life” (a term that signals dangerous ground whenever it is used). All sides concerned believe that they are doing God’s will, substituting concepts such as “Liberty”, “Freedom” or “The American Way” for the Supreme Being in the slightly more secular West. Either way, it’s all about identity, what Becker called the “hero project.” The individual becomes a hero by sacrificing all for the group, killing its symbolic enemies and risking or losing their own life in the process. The fact that one can deny their own death by literally, actually dying is probably the hardest piece to grasp in this scenario, but the most important if we are to understand it.

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The Cosmic Hero as Mystical Ideal

Victor Carrington | March 14, 2016

Victor Carrington

Victor Carrington

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.

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