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If the world of physics involves exploring our universe and studying the nature of matter, the world of psychology involves venturing into our deepest motivations and how our mind works.
Sigmund Freud taught about our sexuality as our primary motivation. Alfred Adler coined inferiority complex, to which we humans are driven to compensate for that feeling. Karen Horney proposed that our underlying motivation is our desire for security in relationships. Abraham Maslow drew the hierarchy of needs due to our motivation for self-actualization.
Those are just a few, and there are many more. However, another interesting human motivation is our denial of death.
Yes, you and I are going to die someday and it scares us, and we do what we can to leave something that says, “I was here and I was epic.”
Enter cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who said that our drive for immortality is what motivates us and defines many of our irrational behaviors due to our denial of death. According to him, death is our core insecurity and it strikes deeply in our sense of self.
To cope with this fear of death, acknowledging our need for self-esteem and survival, Becker said that we humans unconsciously work against this insecurity. We have a deep-seated defense mechanism against the knowledge of our own mortality. For him, everything that we humans have created is all a big lie to comfort us about the inevitability of death.
While we are stuck in our physical world, we deal with symbolism in our minds to cope. Thus, Becker argued that there exists a duality between the physical and the symbolic world of human meaning. And to achieve the symbolism perceived, heroism is the method that is dominantly seen in many cultures and literature. With heroism, we then we end up focusing mainly on the symbolism we place on ourselves at the expense of the physical world. This leads to the creation of what is called the “immortality projects”.
Examples of immortality projects are cultures and belief systems. These help one’s sense of self to feel superior above the physical reality and part of something bigger. Something that can exist forever compared to our limited physical bodies. Something that can make us feel that our lives have meaning.
However, according to Becker, our immortality projects are plagued with conflicts. The need for one to feel superior against the physical realm extends onto others, be it people, other cultures, or belief systems. This is where an individual or a group says, “I’m right and everybody else is wrong.” Or, “Our way of life is superior.” In other words, it’s that need to always be special, certain, and right. Practically, we invest so much of our identities into symbolism. In reality however, it’s just the need to be a special snowflake competing against many other special snowflakes with regards to who is the most special snowflake.
Thus, according to Becker, immortality projects are considered to be a fundamental driver of human conflict. It makes us racist. It leads to wars. It leads us to do horrible things to others. And more importantly, it leads to blind conformity to illusions, which Becker says are what immortality projects essentially are. This is because they stem from symbolism to cope with the insecurity of our present limited state, instead of actually solving, you know, real physical world or life problems.
That is also why our obsessions with superheroes or anything involving hero systems such as in sports or movies reflect a lot about our insecurities or anxieties.
“Some of us prefer illusion to despair.”
―Nelson Muntz, The Simpsons
Ernest Becker detailed all of this in his book The Denial of Death, which then led to the birth of Terror Management Theory. This says that we all have a basic psychological conflict from our desire to live but knowing that death is inevitable, and with it comes the feeling of fear or terror which can only be managed through culture, belief systems, and other symbolism we can rely on.
Becker’s claims were then substantiated under Terror Management Theory by over 300 experiments and counting. They involved subjects who behaved irrationally and became aggressive in their perspectives and decision-making when reminded of death.
For instance, when reminded of death, judges presiding over criminal cases would hand down harsher punishments compared to judges who weren’t. Individuals with religious affiliations (Jews and Christians) gave aggressive opinions towards those who had a different religion and gave positive opinions towards those who were similar; while those who weren’t reminded of death at all didn’t give any preference about who they like. (Happy Chrismukkah.)
There’s also the “Hot Sauce Experiment” where test subjects were asked to put hot sauce (as the hot sauce symbolizes aggression) in a tiny cup for another participant who has a different background. You can guess what happened: The participants holding the hot sauce put more of it into the cup when reminded of death, while those who weren’t reminded of death didn’t put much in. The experiment shows that when we are reminded of death, we become aggressive towards someone who is not similar to us.
These experiments show that death plays deeply into our human psyche. When we’re reminded of it, it brings out our sense of tribalism. It brings out the worse in us. It makes us idiots. It also provides a good basis for the rise of authoritarianism, nativist sentiments, or xenophobia around the world. And so it appears that the belief systems we have in place haven’t really effectively taught us to come to terms with the concept of death, let alone deal with many of life’s trivialities.
Ernest Becker won the Pulitzer Prize for his book. The lesson we can get from him is that we must strive to rise beyond the labels and symbolism we create to appease our insecurities, and come to terms with where we are, which is our present reality. We must strive to define and dissect our fears, facing the surmounting tasks that stand before us head on. As in, being here, being present, instead of flying up somewhere else in our delusions. Also, it serves as a lesson not to take everything too seriously, for it doesn’t help at all if we just fear.
DEATH AND INSECURITY
Death comes to us as the perceived biggest loss. Death also comes in little things such as the death of a relationship, career, or a phase in life. Under the context of spirituality, the important death is of the ego, which enables one to transcend and become one with a higher consciousness. Or simply going beyond the illusion of the self.
On a social level alone, we always find ways to obsessively compare our lives to others just to feel good. Comparison is okay, but you must use it mainly to help improve yourself, to find some specific measure or metric, or to get some idea. However, if obsessively done and used only for compensatory purposes, it’s narcissism. Besides, comparison is not always an accurate measure for each of our lives have different sets of circumstances and context.
We have fake friends who keep in touch just to compare their lives with yours so as to feel good if your life is crap. It’s Schadenfreude, as the Germans call it. We like deriving pleasure from other’s misfortune.
―Nelson Muntz, The Simpsons
We also know others who avoid whatever serious issues they have, which end up snow-balling and adding more onto their many insecurities. Others simply surrender over time, which then leads to their loss of locus of control (perception of control over one’s life), such as those victims of relationship abuse.
Alfred Adler saw these three unhealthy coping strategies as overcompensation, avoidance, and surrender.
For example, the slang preggers means pregnant. But in some cultures or other contexts, it can mean getting knocked up and left alone. I use this word sometimes to joke around with my female friends as they joke with the word too. You probably do as well. Most of them would just laugh at the term, even play along, but others get defensive or become upset.
It turns out that those who just laughed and played along were secure and happy in their relationships or in themselves. Meanwhile, those I saw who got defensive or became upset were actually in toxic relationships and not secure in themselves.
No surprise there.
Those who are secure in themselves can laugh at themselves or see the humor in the situation, even the humor of life. Meanwhile, those who aren’t secure of themselves will take themselves or things way too seriously.
The anger or defensive behavior is an overcompensation to cover the feeling of insecurity due to the fact that there is a serious problem in their relationships which they’re avoiding and haven’t come to terms with. It’s also a cover for the feelings of inadequacy or the sense of inferiority which Adler talked about. Eventual surrender due to shame can then take place, because in other cultures or family systems, it’s considered shameful for a woman to be a single parent. It is then piled on with more shame due to whatever abuse that takes place in the relationship. She can try to be the hero but she would just be a sacrificial lamb.
The conditioned societal shame alone would have a strong hold on someone with a fixed set of belief systems. So, yes, those who took the “preggers” word too seriously were actually feeling the pressure that what if they don’t end up living happily ever after with their chosen man
child of their dreams? Will they succumb to shame and just stay in a toxic relationship? Or, will they finally stand up for themselves and stop worrying about what other people think?
The pressure is on us men too. Due to the societal perception of masculinity, we’re forced to conceal our emotions and act strong. Be the hero. Save the day. Always look good. But in reality, this leads to more pain. There’s no shame in being vulnerable. There is no need to bring others down just to feel good. We’re pressured to be solely focused on certainty, finding magic pills, instead of learning to embrace the uncertainties that come with living life. This is where the concept of accepting failures or endings is applicable, or simply when the idea of death comes in, that the moment we stop fearing it, we start living.