Human beings are partly spiritual and partly animal. The animal part defecates, urinates, breathes, and pumps blood. The spiritual part conceives great ideas and imagines itself soaring into outer space or being with God. Buried in the
subconscious, this paradox nevertheless exacts a price. That price is neurosis.
Human beings don’t want to accept that they’re animals and—like animals—have to die and rot away. The fear of death requires psychological defenses if we are to live our everyday lives unmolested by the sheer terror of extinction. Moreover, this magical, wonderful, mystical world around us has to be tamed so that we aren’t distracted from our daily routine. We must become neurotic.
So, for example, we neurotically pursue riches or fame to reassure us of our intrinsic worth and feel an ersatz immortality. And so, when we read about a billionaire or celebrity dying, we are startled by their deaths. Other neuroses, according to Ernest Becker, are religion and spirituality. Many religions envision an afterlife that will defeat death. Most spiritualities conceive of humankind as “a little lower than the angels.” But, immortality and spirituality are neurotic falsehoods, part of an unreal world we create to give ourselves a false sense of security. At least that’s Becker’s argument in The Denial of Death.
Admittedly, we daily sit on a pile of s__t and often eagerly copulate while emitting animal grunts and groans. We may even feel guilty because anuses, penises, and vaginas made us temporarily forget about ideas and aspirations. For a few moments defecation and sex gave us animal pleasure that blotted out Plato’s timeless forms, Spinoza’s God, and the Bible’s New Jerusalem.
So, what character defenses have I personally used to re-imagine reality to my liking? Well, as a young man, I obsessively pursued academic excellence with the goal of one day becoming a Classics professor and writing erudite books. When a stultifying depression ended that dream, I turned to drugs and alcohol. When drunken stupors gave me no real relief and I found myself driving a cab and mopping floors, I learned Spanish to re-affirm my intellectual prowess. My next neurotic defense was the dream of becoming a Great Teacher of English in South America. Somewhere along the way, I turned to spirituality, first in its Catholic form, then in its Quaker iteration. But, according to Ernest Becker, my Quakerism is nothing more than an illusion designed to soothe my fear of death and my disgust at having an animal body.
Becker may be right. I’ve often talked about having two personae, one of which is religious, the other secular and rationalist. The rationalist persona agrees with Becker, but my religious persona is dominant. At great existential risk, I affirm my spirituality as consistent with something real in this world. I believe in the Seed and the Inner Light. I believe in God and trust that God can establish his Kingdom here on Earth. Becker would call me a neurotic fool. I call myself an imperfect disciple of Jesus with a faith in The Eternal.
~ Richard Russell
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