The grand self-deception
We fabricate our own reality to make sense of our world and also to find the courage to make our way through it. But what happens when deception follows deception and life becomes a heavy burden?
In the Mahabharata, King Yudishthira tells us that the greatest wonder of the world is that "no one, though he sees others dying around him, believes that he himself will die." No matter how much society tries to sough off the facts of ageing, illness, and death, the reality is that they are the only certainties in life; ageing brings with it pain, suffering, separation, and loss; death is most assured. Freud said that it is impossible for us to imagine our own death because "whenever we attempt to do so we can perceive that we are in fact still present as spectators... in his unconscious, every one of us is convinced of his own immortality." The psychologist Ernest Becker spent much of his life trying to understand why we deny death, what psychologists now call "terror management," and how we do so. According to Becker, denial of death takes many forms: heroic transcendence, crusading against justice and inequality (or evils of all kinds), even the drive towards Eros and the unity of knowledge is a quest for immortality. These transcendent meanings symbolically deny death, but its spectre looms large and eats away at man. Through the greater part of the twentieth century, the threat of nuclear annihilation became an ever more imposing and diabolical spectre of doom as countries went into overdrive stockpiling of their nuclear arsenals, reaching a mind-numbing 13,500 nuclear warheads today—as if it really would take more than a tenth of that number to completely annihilate all life atop our world and decimate the ground beneath our feet to a cinder. This fear and anxiety was everything and nothing all at once, a reaction to a threat that was both imminent and yet obscenely reparable. Psychiatrists called the resulting denial and suppression of such an omnipresent anxiety "nuclear numbing". People everywhere seemed to have anaesthetised themselves to any fear, anger, or rebelliousness to their predicament. Constant and unimaginably catastrophic threats to our existence may only be allayed by ignoring or sloughing off the barrage of data and information on the threat and diverting our minds with trivial, yet controllable pursuits—lest the suppressed and therefore vague threat become real and specific and less easily brushed aside. It's easier to ignore this problem which is our problem and foist it off as their problem, their mess. According to Becker, such denial is part of our character armour, and is countered by what we do assert for ourselves—that is, our character. Our character is the source of our inner consistency framed by the roles we choose for ourselves: parent, pundit, mentor, student, influencer, and so on. Our character and persona not only allow us to aspire to dominant positions in society, they also are a means to achieving some measure of immortality. According to Wilhelm Reich, this armour is our character itself: it is the way we behave and the manner in which we speak, walk, and act; it is our characteristic habits—whether and when we smile or smirk, whether we speak coherently or incoherently, with candour or coyness, expansively or sombrely. Character armour is everything we really think we need to do to live and act in safety and security in an uncertain world. Reich goes on to say that it is the fabricating of our personality that is at the heart of our behaviour. This fabrication is a process by which "some things have to be valued more than others, some acts have to be permitted, others forbidden, some lines of conduct have to closed, some kinds of thought can be entertained, others are taboo—and so on. Each person literally closes off his world, fences himself around, in the very process of his own growth and organisation." Becker says that it is this particularising of experiences and ways of being that is at the heart of our current predicament. In closing ourselves off from certain things and indulging too much in others, we constrain ourselves to single areas of life, and so, "if you cannot freely value everything, nor freely weight all things against all other things, then you must give disproportionate weight to some things which do not deserve this weight. You artificially inflate a small area of the world and give it a higher value in the horizon of your perception and action. Moreover, you do this because it represents an area that you can firmly hold on to, that you can skilfully manipulate, that you can use easily to justify yourself—your actions, your sense of self, your opinion of the world." So when threats of a global nature do arise that are beyond our control, we can do nothing but react in our own effete and narcissistic way. Hordes of men line up and latch on to any system of retaliation or transcendence that would serve as a vehicle of heroism for them. The "grotesque spectacle" of the poisoning of the earth that we witness today is, for Becker, caused by this hero system by which men try to triumph over evil and in the process, they ironically cause evils of all other sorts. There appears to be no redeeming him either, because "man is a frightened animal who tries to triumph, an animal who will not admit his own insignificance," for evolution created a "limited animal with unlimited horizons… men have to artificially and arbitrarily restrict their intake of experience and focus their output on decisive action." So man thinks that the salve for his utter insignificance within a universe full of malignant forces that may end him at will and at any moment, is to immortalise himself through heroic accomplishments of science, technology, or art—acts that result in an unrestrained material growth by million of men engaged in numbed effort at millions of things. Here's the point though: that in one way or another we all engage in actions and enterprises that we hope will subdue these existential fears; that these problems stemming from the eroding of the earth's natural resources are "my" problem and "our" problem; and that our war against evil is what paradoxically feeds this very evil. The grand self-deception then is obliviousness to the impacts of our seemingly inconsequential acts—that our small and large decisions are of no great consequence. For, in this era of practicality and logic, the very antithesis of traditional society with its emphasis on natural morality, no idea is impracticable. Where creativity was previously guided by a definite purpose, whether individual or altruistic, the jettisoning of traditional values in favour of "truth" and "objectivity" meant that ideas could be acted out without any thought to their moral implications, and the only real limitations are the rules of nature and of man. Traditional teachings, naive though they may seem to be, carry within them the germ of free thinking that is also ethically constrained by propriety, proportion, and responsibility.
The idea of death; the fear of it, haunts the human animal like nothing else; it is a mainspring of human activity—activity designed largely to avoid the fatality of death, to overcome it by denying it in some way that it is the final destiny of man.—Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (New York: Free Press, 1973)
...the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn't just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed.—Mitch Albom, The Five People You Meet in Heaven
We are certainly not prepared for pain and death. We keep running away from them while our legs can carry us instead of turning around and facing them and getting to know them. So we end up dealing with pain more and more out of bewilderment as ordinary vicissitudes buffet our world, and the loss of loved ones lets slip our already frenetic grasping of the threads that bind us to life—even though we know, deep down, that these things are inevitable. Buddhism tells us that people fear death because they are either attached to their body so that the notion of it perishing makes them despair, or they are so habituated to sensual pleasures that they cannot accept an end to such sensations. At the heart of their despair is this need to incessantly cling to experiences and to greedily savour the pleasurable ones, instead of just living from moment to moment. Alan Watts says that life and death; and pain and pleasure; are not opposite forces, but all part of the ceaseless movement of change and "to try to cling to life, is therefore like holding your breath: if you persist you kill yourself." Examine closely what it means to be alive and you will find that it is not fragmented into good and bad, but is a continuous movement of exuberant encounters as well as the tedium of routine; the euphoria of love as well as the despondency of jealousy, possessiveness, and domination. There will be joy and there will be fear; and finally this this divine dance, this movement must culminate in death.