Notes Psychology

Chapter 4: Human Character as a Vital Lie (The Denial of Death)

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If heroism requires courage, why are so few people truly courageous? Even Carlyle, who terrified people, depended on his father for validation. Becker argues that one reason that people lack courage is because they lack authority, and they lack authority because they did not choose to be born –  they have been granted everything: a name, a body, a culture to be part of, a belief system, and a family. They feel constantly that they are a burden and that they owe something to society.

The Jonah Syndrome

Maslow wrote about the impediments that stand in the way of man’s self-actualization – why man is afraid of his own greatness and of his own destiny, even though in some moments, imagining the highest possibilities for himself brings the greatest joy. He called this fear the “Jonah Syndrome.”

It is what we would expect from a weak organism, to shy away from the full intensity of life.

Maslow wrote: “For some people this evasion of one’s own growth, setting low levels of
; aspiration, the fear of doing what one is capable of doing, voluntary self-crippling, pseudo-stupidity, mock-humility are in fact defenses against grandiosity.”

Because life is overwhelming and miraculous, humans need to repress some of it. We cannot gape at every single moment in wonder, because such a life would not be technically possible. We need to maintain some semblance of normalcy by ignoring the majestic and the beautiful, most of the time.

The problem with man is that nature has endowed him with the capacity to take it everything – an ability not available to other animals that are completely dominated by instincts. Man can relate not only to his own kind, but even to other species, he can choose to travel to the past or he can live billions of years into the future.

And everything inside man is strange to him. He does not understand why he was born, what he should be doing, what to make of his dreams and fantasies, and even how he should interpret his thoughts.


Freud’s great discovery was that the cause of so many mental illnesses was man’s inability to accept his own memories, emotions, and impulses.

Repression is a defensive tactic that we automatically use to protect ourselves and our self-image.

Each animal is given a sense of value by its genetic programming, but humans are different, we need to cultivate our own sense of self-worth. Man should learn to repress his smallness in the world, and failure to live up to its rules and its codes. He must repress the insecurities and anxieties of his parents to protect his assuredness in himself

Freud, in his later writings, came to acknowledge what Adler did before him – that children were more afraid of the outer world than of their inner world. This points to a fear mortality and the unknown, and the same is found in the adult, who is fearful of falling to the clutches of machines, beasts, and men.

Life can suck one up, sap his energies, submerge him, take away his self-control, give so much new experience so quickly that he will burst; make him stick out among others, emerge onto dangerous ground, load him up with new responsibilities which need great strength to bear, expose him to new contingencies, new chances. Above all there is the danger of a slip-up, an accident, a chance disease, and of course of death, the final sucking up, the total submergence and negation.


Kierkegaard taught us that anxiety pushes us forward, it gives us energy. Anxiety makes us flirt with our own growth, but also dishonestly. We enter symbiotic relationships to get security, and to get relief from our anxieties, our helplessness, and aloneness but these relationships bind us – they enslave us even more because they support the lie we have created, so we fight against them to become more free.

And the irony is that we do this against our own armor, uncritically. This makes us more driven, but even as we flirt with anxiety, we are unconscious of our motives. We look for stress, we seek it out, we push our limits, but with our screen against despair and not with it. We do this with the stock market, atomic missiles, sports cars, and the success ladder in companies and universities. We do it by marrying against the wishes of our family or choosing a way of life that they frown on.

Character: The Neurotic Defense

Character is a neurotic defense against despair. If you shed that defense, you allow the full flood of despair, the full realization of the human condition, and what men are truly afraid of, and what they struggle against. Freud quipped that psychoanalysis cured the neurotic miser to introduce the patient to the universal misery of life.

Neurosis is a word that describes a complex way of avoiding misery, but it is reality that is the misery.

The sages of ancient times have insisted, that to see reality, one must die and be reborn.

The idea of death and rebirth was present in shamanistic times, in Zen thought, in Stoic thought, in Shakespeare’s King Lear, as well as in JudeoChristian and modem existential thought. But it was not until scientific psychology that we could understand what was at stake in the death and rebirth: that man’s character was a neurotic structure that went right to the heart of his humanness.

The Four Layered Neurotic Structure

This is not easy, because so much of you must die. Frederick Perls thought of the neurotic structure as a thick edifice that had four layers. The first two layers were the everyday layers, they were the tactics that the child learns to get along with others, the trivial use of words to become popular and influence them. This is what is called glib, empty talk, and role-playing layers.

Many people live their lives never getting underneath these two layers. The third layer is a difficult one to penetrate, it is the layer that covers the feeling of being lost and empty, a feeling that is fought with character defenses. Beneath this layer is the fourth and final layer, and this is the “fear of death” layer. And this, Becker argues, is our most basic fear. Only after we explode this layer can be know our authentic self, without fear or disguises or shame.

But even if you get rid of the four layered neurotic shield, can you be happy about your Pyrrhic victory? The person gives up what is illusory and restricting, but only to come up against something worse: genuine despair.
What would the average man do if he was fully conscious of absurdity?

His character was built for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life. But it his gift that allows him to thrive on blindness, and to thrive on impossibilities. It is a human victory, because man can be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a “useless passion” because he is so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with the equipment of an animal, so he can only thrive on fantasies.

The Danger of Peak Experiences

Maslow talked about “peak experiences” where a person comes to see the world in all its splendor and senses his own free inner expansion. He called this state “being cognition” – the openness to the perception of the truth of the world, that was concealed by neurotic ideas and illusions and defense mechanisms. But again, it is a paradoxical triumph. Maslow also talked about the dangers of being-cognition – to see the world clearly is devastating.

Searles saw schizophrenia as the result of the inability to shut out terror. The syndrome is a failure in humanization, a failure to deny man’s real situation in this world.

Take stock of those around you and you will hear them talk in precise terms about themselves and their surroundings, which would seem to point to them having ideas on the matter. But start to analyze those ideas and you will find that they hardly reflect in any way the reality to which they appear to refer, and if you go deeper you will discover that there is not even an attempt to adjust the ideas to this reality. Quite the contrary: through these notions the individual is trying to cut off any personal vision of reality, of his own very life. For life is at the start a chaos in which one is lost. The individual suspects this, but he is frightened at finding himself face to face with this terrible reality and tries to cover it over with a curtain of fantasy, where everything is clear. It does not worry him that his “ideas” are not true, he uses them as trenches for the defense of his existence, as scarecrows to frighten away reality.

Jose Ortega  y Gasset

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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