Compiled and edited by Frederick Mann
The Denial of Personal Disadvantage
Denial: Research Notes
Personal advantages and disadvantages, related anecdotes, denial, and important differences between humans and other animals
Las Vegas Casinos: Advantages and Denial
The Denial of Death
During November, 2001, I posted the following message to a number of discussion lists:
DENIAL & UNREALITY IMPERATIVE For some time I've been interested in what I call the "Unreality Imperative," which I describe as the strong urge to distort or deny aspects of reality -- creating and/or accepting "unreal beliefs" -- because confronting them and seeing certain aspects of reality for what they are is considered too "uncomfortable," "threatening," or "painful." 'Wings of Illusion' and 'The Corruption of Reality' by John Shumaker are two important and relevant books. Schumaker uses the term "paranormal belief imperative" to include religious/paranormal belief. I use the wider ranging "unreality imperative" and argue that some areas not covered by Schumaker also belong in the unreality domain. Schumaker's basic thesis is that certain aspects of reality are unpalatable to human consciousness/intelligence. To cope with this, we developed a "counter-intelligence" that enables us to escape harsh reality with unreal beliefs such as religion, the paranormal, etc. (It also seems to me that much of political language and belief belongs to the "counter-intelligent" unreality domain.) Much of "culture" is a result of the unreality imperative. Many humans are to some extent slaves of their culture. Schumaker calls culture, "the master hypnotist." Schumaker claims that human nature is paradoxical in that we are creatures of opposites. The same person can behave in a highly intelligent manner on some occasions, while behaving stupidly on other occasions. In 'The Corruption of Reality,' Schumaker backs up the possibility of such opposite behavior by citing relevant brain research. He claims we have both intelligence and "counter-intelligence" (stupidity circuits?). This could account for the phenomenon of someone manifesting great intelligence in some areas of life, while appearing not quite so intelligent in other areas. So far, I've paid very little attention to DENIAL, specifically identifying the different mechanisms of denial people typically use to "escape" from reality. Obviously, denial is a central aspect of the unreality imperative. A trenchant example of denial is the victim of a serial wife-beater who believes some "miracle" will change him. So she stays with him suffering repeated beatings year after year, until eventually he kills her. Deadly denial of reality! Some consider the major function of those who call themselves "government" to be the provision of defense. On September 11th, 2001, a massive failure in the provision of defense occurred. Nevertheless, afterward, "faith in government" soared. This seems to me to involve denial of reality. Does anyone know of a comprehensive classification/taxonomy of different forms and mechanisms of denial?
The most interesting response I received was from Alexander Fürstenberg:
>(It also seems to me that much of political language >and belief belongs to the "counter-intelligent" >unreality domain.) Absolutely. >Much of "culture" is a result of the unreality imperative. >Many humans are to some extent slaves of their culture. >Schumaker calls culture, "the master hypnotist." After all, the control of its members is the function of society. Freedom can be only achieved by consciously understanding the mechanisms at work and voluntarily choosing the type of society one wants to be a part of. >So far, I've paid very little attention to DENIAL, >specifically identifying the different mechanisms >of denial people typically use to "escape" from >reality. Obviously, denial is a central aspect of >the unreality imperative. "Denial" is just one form of reality corruption. There are a host of other mechanisms at work: almost one hundred forms of logical fallacies, more then a dozen forms of subconscious defense mechanisms, etc. Then we have deliberate distortions by other people: trickery, deceit, sophistry, political strategems, etc., etc. One could make a systematic presentation of all these attacks on objective reality. >Some consider the major function of those who call >themselves "government" to be the provision of defense. >On September 11th, 2001, a massive failure in the >provision of defense occurred. Nevertheless, afterward, >"faith in government" soared. This seems to me to >involve denial of reality. Yes. Each legislative period after another we are electing officials who promise more economic freedom and protection against crime, and all we get is less of it instead of more. Things like 9/11 and other anti-western/anti-enlightenment crimes must not be allowed to happen again. >Does anyone know of a comprehensive classification/taxonomy >of different forms and mechanisms of denial? I would like to see one myself. If I only had time, I would create one myself. This is a subject as vast as it is fascinating. Imagine: having epistemological MATRICES of Rationality & Understanding protecting oneself against Matrices of IRRATIONALITY & Lies, ensuring always a maximum of efficiency & ethics. There is so much that could be done to create a safe society without crime and self-inflicted madness. Such pro-reason taxonomies are integral parts of it.
The Denial of Personal Disadvantage
More recently, I was doing a Google search for "denial" and I struck gold! "The denial of personal disadvantage!" Many people have personal disadvantages in some areas of their lives. Some of them DENY to themselves that they suffer from these disadvantages.
In 'Denial and Acknowledgement: The Impact of Information About Human Rights,' Stanley Cohen describes denial:
"The dictionary definition of the term "denial" refers simply to the assertion that something is not true or does not exist. In a common everyday usage, the term covers various processes by which people block, shut out, repress or cover up certain forms of disturbing information or else evade, avoid or neutralize the implications of this information.
...[D]enial is an adaptive, instinctual measure built into the organism to protect it from damaging emotion. The defensive evasion or distortion of what one sees or knows is always assumed to be unconscious: "The subject... is never spontaneously aware that he or she 'denies.' Almost always an outside observer is required to notice the phenomenon"."
In 'States of Denial,' Stanley Cohen provides a list of common phrases related to denial:
Denial can be descibed as:
See Tools for Handling Loss: Dealing With Denial.
It's interesting to me that in the references to "denial of personal disadvantage" I found on the Internet, the phenomenon was usually described in terms of women or members of minorities being discriminated against and then denying or underestimating the disadvantages stemming from such discrimination. However, I found no references to anyone discussing denial of personal disadvantage as a central phenomenon that applies to practically all humans. See Denial: Research Notes.
There are "Disadvantage Factors" that may have created or contributed to disadvantages in your life. Some of these factors may interfere with the development of your natural talents into strengths -- see #TL03H: How to Discover Your Talents and Develop them into Strengths. Select the Disadvantage Factors that might apply to you:
If you suffer from any personal disadvantages related to the above, denial may prevent you from discovering the causes and/or taking effective action to overcome the disadvantages.
Denial: Research Notes
Faye Crosby is a social psychologist specializing in social justice. She is interested in the relation between objective (i.e., consensual) and subjective reality; she has looked at individual attitudes in the context of social change and stability.
While testing the theory of relative deprivation, Professor Crosby discovered a phenomenon entitled "the denial of personal disadvantage." Crosby found that people typically imagine themselves to be exempt from the injustices that they can recognize as affecting their membership or reference groups. One line of her research documents the cognitive and motivational bases of the denial of personal disadvantage.
Given how widespread is the denial of personal disadvantage, organizations need to avert unrest through monitoring and other proactive systems like affirmative action. Yet affirmative action is very controversial. Professor Crosby's current work investigates the bases of people's reactions to affirmative action. She is now using her affirmative action work to launch a new series of studies on how people can undertake non-revolutionary changes in rules that come to be revealed as unfair. She is also examining other ways, such as mentoring, of enhancing the peaceful evolution of work organizations.
Women acknowledge presence of workplace discrimination; rarely believe it applies to them
By Deborah Gilbert
News and Information Services
Women know that sexual discrimination exists in the work place, but rarely believe it applies to them. The working woman's "not me" attitude is an example of the "denial of personal disadvantage" phenomenon, according to psychologists at the U-M and Smith College.
Diana I. Cordova of the Institute for Social Research and Faye Crosby and Karen Jaskar of Smith College analyze the prevalence and roots of the "not me" stance in a chapter of a new book, Group Motivation: Social Psychological Perspectives.
While conducting their research, they heard a classic "not me" illustration. During World War II, a dozen women attended Smith College and then went on to train as engineers at Harvard Uni-versity. But they ran into a problem. Harvard provided no restrooms for them.
The women, however, never considered that as sexual discriminationnot even when they reminisced about their experiences more than 40 years later.
This small anecdote illustrates not only the existence of sex discrimination over time, but also the extent of self-delusion, the researchers say.
Were the Smith alumnae simply the product of an earlier, less feminist era or was their denial more typical than that? The researchers describe numerous studies conducted over the past 20 yearsincluding studies of Black activists, French Canadians, gay men, and minority M.B.A.sthat suggest that denial of personal disadvantage is widespread.
Two studies led by Crosby in the 1980s show how powerful the pattern of denial is in women. The study included 182 men and 163 women of comparable age, education, training and occupational level. Even though the women earned significantly less on average than their male counterparts, and even though most acknowledged sex discrimination as a serious social problem, only 13 felt that they and all women were shortchanged, and "were able to see their work place experiences in relation to women as a whole," the researchers write. The rest felt "personally exempt."
Whether women feel they personally are being discriminated against depends on several factors:
* Women who compare themselves with sub-groups where men predominate, such as a firm of male lawyers, will feel discriminated against. Those who compare themselves with other women in the field feel satisfied.
* If they identify themselves strongly as employed women or career women, they are more likely to spot discrimination against them. "This tendency is consistent with social identity theory," the researchers note, which argues that when social characteristics ("I am a career woman") become more salient than individual ones ("I play tennis"), the woman begins to think and act like a member of a group -- in this case, a working woman who is concerned about salary.
* The format in which the sex discrimination information is presented affects what they see. One instance of discrimination, no matter how blatant, won't do it.
"For instance, in several studies, students were presented with a hypothetical company where sex discrimination was rife across all 10 departments," the researchers say.
One-half of the students received the sex, performance and salary data for the departments in a single large table. The other one-half saw the data one department at a time, in sequence. Those who saw the data in the large table were much more likely to spot sex discrimination.
"Clearly the cognitive or information processing component is important," the researchers say.
They add that basic emotional factors also trigger denial:
* All of us need to believe we live in a just, predictable world where we are rewarded for our efforts. Thinking otherwise is threatening because it means we might fall victim to unexpected and undeserved misfortune. Discrimination is unjust, so women find it literally unthinkable.
* Everyone is distressed to think that co-workers and supervisors are anything less than totally admirable, so women avoid the discriminatory evidence before them.
* People need to see themselves as special, as unaffected by the law of averages and outside the march of history. They need to believe that their unique attributes will help them achieve good outcomes and avoid bad ones. Acknowledging sex discrimination means they are not different than others.
"Ostrich Women" (editor's title)
by Christine Taziar
"Inequality is alive and well in the academy," said Dr. Sandra Pyke, speaking at Wilfrid Laurier University March 9 about "The Gendered Academy: Issues of Equality and Equity."
A York University psychologist, she was delivering one of the Laurier Lectures, timed to happen during International Women's Week.
Said Pyke: "Universities are the leaders and shapers of human destiny in the university and in the community. And they are man-centred.
"Universities at one time were male preserves. They were used to cultivate the male elite. Women were denied access because they were viewed as being intellectually inferior. Among the reasons for keeping women out of academia included the belief that they had a smaller brain size, and that too much intellectual stimulation could have serious gynaecological repercussions, even so far as to cause a woman to become infertile."
"Sex biases in research still exist, but they are hidden under much more sophisticated guises. For example a textbook was comparing menopausal women to non-menopausal women. The menopausal women were referred to as patients while the non-menopausal women were called normals. Menopause, a natural biological process, is labelled an illness by male scientists. Thus there is an appearance of change, but equality still eludes us."
When accessibility to post-secondary education was granted to women, Pyke said, it was still differential and selective compared to the opportunities available to men. Women initially followed teaching and nursing careers. There has been an increase in female participation in post-secondary education, but there is a smaller proportion of women in graduate school - about 45 per cent in master's programs and 36 per cent in PhD programs.
Engineering and applied sciences are also areas where women are still underrepresented.
The increase in female participation may be exaggerated, said Pyke, because there has also been a decline in the number of men pursuing graduate studies. And most women in universities are still in the lower academic ranks.
A woman's employment status has little impact on the contribution of her husband to housework and child care, she said. It is not surprising then, she added, that many female academics opt out of family structures. These women are more likely to divorce or not marry at all, and have fewer children, if any.
Pyke offered a "chilly climate theory" of academia. Access for women is insufficient, she said, because there are patriarchal values and beliefs in place. Women don't belong in this environment, and the system apparently does not feel the need to respond to them. To be successful in the academic world women must assume a similarity to men, and follow the rules that men created to cater to their own needs.
Sexual harassment is also part of Pyke's chilly climate theory. Out of 455 UW female students surveyed, only 22 per cent said that they had never experienced harassment. The effectiveness of existing sexual harassment policies has not been researched well enough, said Pyke. However, there is a reluctance to use existing procedures to file formal complaints. People involved in investigating harassment complaints emphasize that each incident is different, and each case is treated as separate and unique. Pyke argues that they overlook the root cause of harassment: the imbalance of power in universities.
The competitiveness of the university environment is distressing for women, she said. "Many women don't fit the monastic model of university life." If they did, she added, they would have to cope with stress and exhaustion from the demand of dual roles of student at school and caregiver at home.
Pyke also discussed the barriers that she believes women face.
"Some women think that they are unaffected by sexism or systemic discrimination, which is also called "denial of personal disadvantage". Viewing oneself as a victim is threatening, so women deny to themselves that they are victims. However, when things go badly, such as being exposed to anti-feminism, these "ostrich women" tend to blame themselves for the situation instead of viewing it as discriminatory."
Another barrier is the data forms that are currently used. "Discrimination is underestimated when the data providing information about it is incomplete, piecemeal and out of context," said Pyke.
A less obvious barrier for women is understanding the term equality itself. Equality by definition means sameness; therefore, concluded Pyke, group differences must mean inequality. "This is a paradox, since the ideology of gender is that women and men are fundamentally different."
She also discussed proposals for a zero tolerance policy, pointing out that many argue that principle to be a threat to freedom of speech. "That freedom of speech is perverted when personal views are presented in the guise of academic freedom. Academic freedom has come to mean access, not the right to live freely in a tolerant environment. The freedom for students to learn and for faculty to teach has become threatened."
She went on: "Substituting women for men is not a solution. Universities are the repositories of the finest minds. They should use these resources to reflect the highest values of society. Women should not just survive, but change the system. For this goal to be realized, we need greater individual resistance, and more collective resistance.
"There is a timeliness and readiness right now for change. Universities have become conservative in nature, and are no longer revered. They may have [lost] the will to change."
Personal advantages and disadvantages, related anecdotes, denial, and important differences between humans and other animals
Fortunately, I was born with certain advantages. When I was five years old my father taught me checkers. He thought of himself as highly intelligent. At school he had usually been near the top of his class. The first game we played, my father beat me. I must have been a quick learner, because the second game I beat him. After that he refused to play checkers with me ever again!
My father was obviously at a disadvantage playing checkers against me. I'm sure he refused to recognize that. He denied his disadvantage. Because he couldn't confront and admit his disadvantage, he also couldn't do anything about it. As far as I know, he never did anything to increase his brain power. He lived most of his life at a disadvantage. He constantly complained about his health, the weather, the neighbors, his employees, the economy, the interest he had to pay to the bank and the taxes to the government, etc. He smoked and drank too much, which subjected him to further disadvantages. He died at age 49 from liver failure.
He most likely had a pattern for dealing with his disadvantages:
After the second game, he refused to play checkers with me because doing so would force him to admit that he didn't have the brain power to beat his 5-year-old son. If you have a disadvantage in some area of your life, you may be able to hide it -- deny it -- by avoidance and/or inaction.
Around 1972, I met a group of four people who had been meeting once a week to discuss issues of freedom and philosophy. They seemed like intellectual giants compared to me, but were kind and generous enough to allow me into their group. After about three years of discussion and debate and reading the books they suggested, I felt that I was at least their intellectual equal on the subject of freedom.
For much of my life I have felt that I was inadequate (disadvantaged) in some areas and had to do something to improve. Generally, I took action to overcome disadvantages and gain advantages. A few years ago I played six chess games against the world correspondence chess champion -- a professional chess master, earning his living as a chess teacher. A few months before I met him, I had started playing several games a week over the Internet. I also bought some books on the latest chess opening developments. I selected a few lesser-known openings, studied, and practiced them.
The point is that I recognized that In general I was at a substantial disadvantage compared to the champion. So I took action to overcome my disdavantage and to gain some advantages that would at least give me a "fighting chance." The outcome of the six games was: two wins, two losses, two draws! Now, I don't deceive myself that I was the champion's equal. Had he challenged me to play for money I would have declined respectfully!
About 15 years ago, a friend and I often played friendly chess over lunch. Generally I played in a carefree manner, and my friend won a few games. One day he said that he thought he was at least as good as I was. I said, OK, let's play 10 serious games. If I win all 10 games, you give me 100 francs. If you draw or win just one game, I'll give you 1,000 francs. In other words the score had to be 10-0 for me to win the bet. Any other outcome, and he wins the bet. He accepted the challenge, probably thinking I was crazy to make such a "one-sided" bet. I proceeded to win all 10 games. (After that, we continued to play friendly, carefree games, and he won a few.)
What this illustrates is that my friend had no idea that he was at a huge disadvantage when playing chess against me. He denied his disadvantage. He also never did anything to become a better player. Some psychological research has been done to indicate that disadvantaged people consistently underestimate their disadvantages -- do a Google search for "denial of personal disadvantage."
I found two interesting references on the Internet:
When I saw the phrase "denial of personal disadvantage" it hit me like a ton of bricks! People in general are not aware of their disadvantages. Maybe it's too threatening to their brittle self-esteem to admit their disadvantages. So they deny them and do nothing about them. They stick their heads under the sand, like "ostriches" -- "The Denial of Personal Disadvantage Among You, Me, and All the Other Ostriches!"
Part of the phenomenon of denial is that many people -- maybe as high a percentage as 99% -- when reading the above, say to themselves, "This applies to most other people, but not to me!" Well, dear reader, I have news for you. The chances are about 99% that it not only applies to you, but that it applies to you with a vengeance!
There's a very important difference between humans and other animals. Most animals automatically develop their advantages to the point of reaching their full potential. Not so with humans. Most of us need to make a deliberate, conscious, and persistent effort to overcome our disadvantages and develop our advantages.
Another very important difference between humans and other animals has to do with the development of new advantages. The advantages that a lion in the wild now enjoys are little different from the advantages its ancestors enjoyed 100,000 years ago. Humans, on the other hand, are constantly discovering and developing new advantages. We live in a competitive world where many people are constantly acquiring new advantages to gain the upper hand. If you're not constantly gaining new advantages, you become uncompetitive and get left behind.
There's yet another very important difference between humans and other animals. Most of us sometimes use part of our minds to interfere negatively and even destructively with our built-in advantages. Many of us typically, habitually, and unconsciously put ourselves at a huge disadvantage in at least some areas of our lives.
Las Vegas Casinos: Advantages and Denial
The Las Vegas casinos win because each game is designed with a "house advantage." Generally, depending on the game and how good the players are, the house advantage is anything from about 1% to 20%. This means that in the long run, for every $100 the players bet, the casinos win anything from $1 to $20. The games are all rigged so that on average the players lose. They lose several billion dollars every year... to pay for all the bright lights and to fuel the Las Vegas economy.
So why do millions of people visit Las Vegas every year to play games where they suffer disadvantages and in aggregate are guaranteed to lose? How many hope to win against the odds? Sure, some play for the fun and adrenalin rush, and are happy to spend a few hundred or a few thousand dollars for the excitement and enjoyment.
But why do so many players effectively play to lose? Is there a kind of loser-mindset that involves the denial of personal disadvantage? Does this denial of personal disadvantage also spread, like cancer, into other areas of their lives?
What about all the lottery players? Some even drive a hundred miles or more to the nearest State where they can buy tickets. The chances of winning are far less than the chance of being struck by lightning! Typically, lottery gamblers play at a huge disadvantage.
Contrast this with how Bill Gates operates. He will literally do anything he can get away with -- and quite ruthlessly -- to increase Microsoft's advantages in the marketplace. This includes arrangements with PC manufacturers and suppliers to sell PCs with Microsoft products already loaded into them, buying out and swallowing start-up companies with competing products, and buying control of the NBC media network. Essentially, Bill Gates is the richest man in the world because he plays the game of gaining advantages, increasing those advantages, and exploiting them effectively, ruthlessly, and to the fullest, more so than anyone else on Earth!
Bill Gates plays his business game with a winner-mindset that pervades everything he does in business. (That of course doesn't prevent him from making the occasional mistake. Even the most winningest players strike out sometimes!)
It's also worth looking at the professional gamblers who make a living, beating the Las Vegas casinos. First, they are fully aware of the basic house advantage of each game. They know that the only way to win is to do something that switches the advantage into their favor. In the case of blackjack, they count cards and bet in certain ways. They also know a great deal about the statistics involved -- specialized knowledge often provides advantages. Analagous to lions gaining advantages by hunting in groups, some blackjack professionals pool their bankrolls and play in teams. The statistics are such that each professional can play as if he or she personally owns the entire pooled bankroll. So each professional can play with a much bigger bet size than he or she could afford if playing alone. This multiplies the advantage each team player enjoys. Of course, casinos don't like professionals who can beat them. Their surveillance systems are partly aimed at detecting professionals. Like lions, professionals use camouflage to reduce the chances of detection. Both sides are involved in an "advantage contest." Some professional craps players shift the advantage to their side by manipulating the dice. See Money Skill #105: Acquire a winning edge and WBM#7 - The Winning Edge.
The Denial of Death
Reviewed by Edward Kim
June 21, 2002
[Acknowledgment: Original downloaded from http://www.chosunjournal.com/death.html.]
Death is the one aspect of reality nobody faces without somehow masking it out of fear. That is the premise of one of the most powerful books I have ever read. Reading Ernest Becker's Pulitzer Prize-winning book, The Denial of Death, is a little like suffering from acrophobia and climbing Mt. Everest or having claustrophobia and locking oneself in a car trunk. But facing the fears in this book is far more daunting because in those scenarios just mentioned hope is still left in tact; you may eventually come down from the mountain or emerge from the trunk, or even perhaps triumphantly overcome these phobias.
But death, as this book relentlessly explains, affords no such hope. You can build foundations with your name on them, or start a prestigious family lineage, but such crass attempts at immortality, which every eternal soul encased in decaying flesh yearns, are only grasping of wind. In the end we only become worm food, a gigantic clump of what we regularly flush down the toilet. We can play more games, watch more movies, get high on more drugs, get more drunk on social status, in order to forget our mortality. But death does not forget us nor does it let us forget reality for very long.
We get our periodic reminders of our appointment with death through news of natural disasters, genocides, and lumps in breasts. Such painful reminders cannot be ignored. We saw this with the death of Princess Diana. The reason millions of strangers mourned her death was not so much out of sympathy for her but rather from the traumatic realization that it provoked; that even the most privileged of our kind is vulnerable to awful tragedy. News of her death ripped off that fairy tale veil so many had used to cover their own creatureliness. For the same reason we cannot comfortably watch on television a paralyzed, wheelchair-bound Superman who disturbingly reminds us of our own fragility and powerlessness.
As my own struggle to finish reading this book testifies (as perhaps your own struggle to finish reading this essay may also confirm), thinking of death without trying to ignore or disguise it is hard. Indeed doing so leads to neurosis (for people who confront the precariousness and vulnerability of life all too realistically) or schizophrenia (for people who face their weaknesses eyes wide open and must deal with them unrealistically).
Thus most of us try to be "normal" (in Kierkegaard's words, "philistine") and live in between these two extreme reactions to reality. We must tell ourselves white lies in order to pass each day without going through excessive handwashing on the one hand or hearing haunting voices on the other. In what forms average people creatively delude themselves makes up some of the most provocative and insightful portions of the book, and is thus worth going over in brief before concluding with why people should even bother with confronting their fear of death.
Synthesizing the works of Freud, Kierkegaard, and other noted psychologists, Becker utilizes concepts like "transference," "causa sui project," and "fetish" to help explain how people avoid the terrors of reality. How, for example, masturbation, homosexuality, and primal scene responses are all explained by a person's struggle to reconcile his mortal body, his immortal spirit, and a chaotic world.
In another example, Becker shows how people deify their parents, mates, and leaders to help allay their fears of a hostile world out of their control. How these pseudo-gods are used to affirm their own significance in a universe in which everything and everyone is treated merely as shifting matter. Becker points out that even atheists who mock the superstition of religious people ignore the plank in their own eye. Renowned atheist Freud fainted twice in his life, both times as a result of perceived threats to his own deity project, his legacy as the father of modern psychology.
With penetrating analysis, Becker reveals how even culture itself encourages a person's denial of his or her finite creatureliness. Culture idolizes celebrities, sex goddesses, moguls, psychologists, and nationalism. It induces a person to identify with these higher states of existence in order to gain vicariously a sense of divinity through their fame, beauty, power, perception, and pride.
I have read several good books and very few great ones in my life so far. The good ones can be analyzed and studied without much confusion or waste of time. The great books, however, analyze and study you. They compel deep introspection and reflection and ultimately liberation which truth always brings. The Denial of Death is a great book.
It has given me an invaluable paradigm through which to examine my own experiences from childhood to the present in an honest, understanding way. My fear of heights, planes, rollercoasters, and public speaking have been put into perspective. My lapses into thirst for familial and societal approval, my incessant desire for more options, and my susceptibility to panic attacks after 9-11 have all come into focus through Becker's microscope. Not coincidentally the book is also one of the best, though unintended, commentaries on the Bible I have ever read. It is gratifying as a Christian to read the best of psychological clinical research bolster and almost catch up with the Bible's teachings on idolatry, original sin, and existence.
Nevertheless, there is one fault in the book worth mentioning. That is, Becker does not give much incentive to live in the truth of reality. He writes in his concluding chapter:
"I think that taking life seriously means something such as this: that whatever man does on this planet has to be done in the lived truth of the terror of creation of the grotesque, of the rumble of panic underneath everything. Otherwise it is false."
But this begs the question, "What is wrong with living a false life?" Or perhaps more to the point, "Why live courageously?" Why should a person choose a sober life with its realization that the planet "is being turned into a vast pit of fertilizer" over a life in which the pains of reality is numbed by being drunk on work, fun, and relationships?
Christianity provides an obvious incentive to living a true life even if that means more melancholy and less fun. That is, eternal life in heaven. If the amount of rewards in heaven is proportionate to the amount of suffering one is willing to endure for Christ's sake (Matt 5:11f), then of course one might be willing to forsake the world's anesthesia for greater, longer lasting rewards. Indeed Becker in his exposition of Kierkegaard's works acknowledges the unparalleled brilliance of the Christian method in confronting death honestly.
But Becker himself seems unwilling to endorse such an incentive, apparently in order to maintain his credibility as a serious scholar in pagan academia. Thus his achievement is limited (though it is worth reemphasizing that it is an astounding achievement nonetheless) to exposing people's hypocrisy, of showing how and why people act like they will live forever even if they say they know that they will not.
By making people self-conscious of their lies, perhaps they will then begin to see the futility of "making a name for themselves" and thus look to alternatives to what their culture offers. It is this search, instigated by the book's exposé of man's illusions, that is the main contribution of Becker's work to Christianity in our time.
See also: 'Flight from Death: The Quest for Immortality.' and related books.
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