Becker’s paradox

How the world stays trapped in its own bad dream

29th April 2010

Beware of what you crave for you will get it. — Euripides, Shakespeare, Emerson

Men cause evil by wanting heroically to triumph over it, because man is a frightened animal who tries to triumph, an animal who will not admit his own insignificance, that he cannot perpetuate himself and his group forever, that no one is invulnerable no matter how much of the blood of others is spilled to try to demonstrate it.  — Ernest Becker, Escape from Evil, 1974

It has been my contention, since the mid-1990s, that the human population of planet Earth has trapped itself in a lie of its own device, which will destroy everything we know and love if we don’t admit it and correct it.

The lie, you must know by now, is that we do not die, when in fact we do, most obviously. This knowledge, this thought, is the one single fact that is always on our mind, though we sashay through the day without ever giving it a single notice, because it is buried so deeply in the trappings of our existences, trappings all chosen for the very purpose of totally anesthetizing that thought from our waking consciousness.

The key process is transference. I am constantly surprised at the number of psychological professionals who don’t fully comprehend what transference means. It means, at bottom, that we can’t face reality, because it’s too depressing, so we have to invent scenarios to make us happy, to make us forget what awaits us with no reason and no rebuttal.

Initially, transference is what happens when people pick a religion. The sublime feelings we as babies feel toward our nurturing parents soon give way to static from society — schools and media — and we as teens learn our parents are not the infallible providers we once thought they were. That feeling of sublime safety goes away, and each of us finds a way to replace that feeling with the fail safe substitute parent called God, or whatever pathway to psychological security you choose to take to guarantee your eternal safety.

But the deeper epiphany about transference is that it is our ONLY method of ideation, as Ernest Becker points out in his book “Escape from Evil,” which is a simplified companion to his 1974 Pulitzer winning “The Denial of Death.” Though I am no psychological professional, I know of no other mainstream writer who deals as frankly and clearly with the No. 1 problem of every living human being in the world.

By saying that transference is our ONLY reality, Becker is saying that humans cannot deal with the reality of death without some patina of self-delusion that in some way immunizes them from oblivion and nonexistence. In saying this, Becker is creating a litmus test for all religions, which he later characterizes as “death-denying” religions.

Seen in our current context, all the religions of the world save Taoism are death denying religions; hence, none are psychologically sound, because they all deny the obviousness of death.

Yet throughout history, this is the promise people have needed to hear. At a certain moment in time, when you are certain not many more moments will follow, all the reason in the world does you not one bit of good. This is where the rubber meets the road in the cosmos, and we are nothing more than insensate microscopic stardust in a macrocosmic tableau. You better have your faith in a handy place. Of course, the best way to do that is to always keep it there. The correct words to say at the moment of passing are “thank you” (as if you didn’t know).

So now we have a universal human need being ministered to by businessmen wielding fairytales and providing that very somatic reassurance that all will be well if we just buy their product, if we just root for their team, if we just support their war . . . it has been the operative formula for thousands of years.

Belief is really a two-part question. Yes, we all need to believe in something good that makes us feel our lives are worthwhile. Individual liberty is about the best thing there is, but even that is an illusion.

We have been deceived and misled by the fearful symmetries of Old Testament hatred, borne of an unprocessed fear that our physical lives are limited, and the imaginary lives we attempt to confabulate for ourselves in some other farflung reality are actually poisoning the attempts at life we are making in the here and now. You can read about it in the Book of Revelation, a nightmare preprogramming of mindlocked believers who are being manipulated into manufacturing the violent end of the world.

The imaginary heavens and bardos legend has bequeathed to us are more stories about life than they are about the afterlife. Becker puts it more bleakly: “ . . . it is the disguise of panic that makes men live in ugliness . . .” From this, Becker concludes, it is possible that evil itself can now be analyzed, and just possibly, can be remedied by reason.

And yet here is Becker’s paradox, as stated in “Escape from Evil.”

134: The most noble human motive [will] cause the greatest damage because it would lead men to find their highest use as part of an obedient mass, to give their complete devotion and their lives to their leaders.

136: The paradox is that evil comes from man’s urge to heroic victory over evil.

153: Man is an animal who must fetishize in order to have “normal mental health.” But this shrinkage of vision that permits him to survive also at the same time prevents him from having the overall understanding he needs to plan and control the effects of his shrinkage of experience. A paradox that sends a bitter chill through all reflective men. If Freud’s famous “fateful question for the human species” was not exactly the right one, the paradox is no less fateful. It seems that the experiment of man may well prove to be an evolutionary dead end, an impossible animal — one who, individually, needs for healthy action the very conduct that, on a general level, is destructive to him.

148: Men put on the chains imposed by the powers of dead ancestors, then shamans, priests, divine kings, heads of state. Today we understand the inner dynamics of this long history of self abasement: men need transference in order to be able to stand life. Man immunizes himself against terror by controlling his fascination, by localizing it and developing working responses toward the sources of it. The result is that he becomes a reflex of small terrors and small fascinations in place of overwhelming ones. It is a forced and necessary barter: the exchange of unfreedom for life. From this point of view history is the career of a frightened animal who has to deaden himself against life in order to live. And it is this very deadening that takes such a toll of others’ lives.

156: Today (written in 1974) we are living the grotesque spectacle of the poisoning of the earth by the 19th century hero system of unrestrained material production. This is perhaps the greatest and most pervasive evil to have emerged in all of history, and it may even eventually defeat all of mankind.

Becker then admits to the most glaring paradox of all: “ . . . we seem to be unable to approach the problem of human evil from the side of psychology.”

Whoa. Here is the greatest synthesizer of 20th century psychiatric thought ‘fessing up and admitting science does not — and will not — have the answer to human evil in the world.

157: “All that psychology has really accomplished is to make the inner life the subject matter of science, and in doing this it dissipated the idea of the soul.”

And from this Becker can pronounce: “Transference is the only ideality that man has.”

One must deceive oneself, because the alternative is just too bleak. Yet, by cloaking our fears in the multiform folds of transference, we are admitting we cannot see reality, and refuse to admit that reality even exists. This is the mindlock.

Somewhere back along the trail I heard or read somewhere that a world without God would be an awful place, full of catastrophe and woe without belief to guide people to sensible lives. I ask you in your hearts to look at today’s world and tell me what belief in God has wrought across the planet.

Is it not merely the fearful lie that we do not die manifesting in reality, or will you tell another lie and say that it is not?

By saying that science cannot solve the problem of evil in the world, and inferring that belief is the only rational choice toward peace, the spotlight falls squarely on our existing religions, which have been utterly unable to create a just society for thousands of years. This is all because they have been based upon a lie.

If we continue to try to live this lie, it will kill us all, and every living thing along with it. Tragically, that is what it was meant to do. This is what happens when you believe in things you don’t understand. This is the lesson we need to learn, and quickly.

As Becker himself put it: “Since men must now hold for dear life onto the self-transcending meanings of the society in which they live, onto the immortality symbols which guarantee them indefinite duration of some kind, a new kind of instability and anxiety are created. And this anxiety is precisely what spills over into the affairs of men. In seeking to avoid evil, man is responsible for bringing more evil into the world than organisms could ever do merely by exercising their digestive tracts. It is man’s ingenuity, rather than his animal nature, that has given his fellow creatures such a bitter earthly fate.”

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