We like to be reminded that our central calling, our main task on this planet, is the heroic.
Ernest Becker, Ph.D.
This post will continue with the thoughts inspired by my reading of Ernest Becker’s wonderful book, The Denial of Death. His primary point is that mankind has created a hero system to transcend our innate fear of death, and this has doomed us “to live in an overwhelmingly tragic and demonic world.” The point seems very timely as the United States and our allies try to develop a strategy to deal with ISIS.
Becker was a cultural anthropologist, but his thesis emerged from poring over the works of great minds in the fields of philosophy, psychology, and theology like Søren Kierkegaard, Sigmund Freud, and Paul Tillich. This is a such a weighty book that one must be careful about summarizing, but it seems to address a breakthrough in human history. It follows the thoughts of these pioneers considering not so much what mankind was doing but why. With the dawning of the new era of psychoanalysis, Becker saw hope that through understanding what drives him, man might evolve, along with a new concept of heroism.
Becker does not limit application of the term heroic to the warrior type or to the individual dedicated to death-defying adventures or athletics. He points out that “The social hero-system into which we are born marks out paths for our heroism.” For the male, this can involve dedication to a certain profession; to certain religious restrictions; and to being a good provider, a good family man, a pillar of the community, and a solid citizen.
So how would the new era of psychoanalysis change this? It created the opportunity for man to understand himself, understand what drove him, and understand what influences had shaped him into the person he had become. With that understanding came the opportunity to experience an entirely new form of freedom.
The new challenge, according to Becker, is to answer the following questions: “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?”
Self-awareness can inspire exciting new potential in mankind, but it also requires a new kind of courage. Although Becker believed that life always seeks to expand and that mankind has an urge toward a “cosmic heroism” that is much larger than we have known, he did not express great optimism at the end of his book. He may have realized that he was dying when he wrote, “Who knows what form the forward momentum of life will take in the time ahead or what use it will make of our anguished searching.”
One thing seems clear. If a “therapeutic revolution” emerges as the result of man’s new ability to understand himself as well as the tragic consequences of the hero system, it will do so in the West. One cannot imagine a terrorist submitting to psychoanalysis or relinquishing what seems an insane concept of religious heroism. However, if Western man sets himself free from the need to be heroic in the old way, perhaps he can be wise instead. Therein may lie our best hope for Becker’s “forward momentum.”
There is more to come, but I will stop here for the moment. This really is a remarkable book. I am very grateful to the gentleman who gave it to me.