Monday, January 19, 2009

The search for happiness Part 2

In our first discussion of happiness, I rooted my argument squarely in Christianity, with the teachings of Jesus Christ and Mother Teresa (See below Part 1). Suffice it to say that the point was that humans are never happy being selfish, and only happy when they give to others.

Now I would like to turn some attention to what some might view as the other extreme -- the legacy of Sigmund Freud and the writings Ernest Becker. As we know, Freud became an atheist during his lifetime. Becker was not an atheist, but attempts reconciliation of some of Freud's concepts on happiness in life.

My good friend, Gerry Zyfers reminded me that in Becker's work we find a similar concept to one of "giving to others leads to happiness." Gerry wrote me, "I think Becker's basic point was that human beings have a mythology about their own independence, but we are radically dependent on others to give us a sense of meaning and even sense of self. To have meaning you need a meaningful role in a meaningful society. Hence meaning is derived from society. When you recognize other people, you reach out to other people. You engage and give to other people. It helps give them meaning and life, and in turn, you get it back. It’s a virtuous cycle." Indeed, Gerry is correct that in Becker's 1974 Pulitzer Awarding winning Denial of Death he writes, "Man is overwhelmed by his loneliness and separation and negated by the very burden of his own life. If Rank, Camus and Buber are right, man cannot stand alone but has to reach out for support." (Chapter, the Nexus of Unfreedom).

But is this the same concept of seeking and finding happiness? Jesus taught that happiness comes from pouring oneself into the service of others. Interestingly, the etymology of the word God comes from the word "to pour." There is some debate whether God pours into you or you pour into God or both. I argue that while Becker fully embraces the German concept of a dialectic of the individual and their environment (including other people), that there is a fundamental difference in motivation. But let me spend a moment recapping some of Becker's philosophy.

Becker argued that humankind has a innate drive for procreation. Our brain stem is coded for survival. Instinctively we respond to a threat with "fight or flight." What makes us human, and distinct from animals, however, is our consciousness. With consciousness comes the realization of mortality. The transition from child to adult is accompanied by the realization that death is inevitable. We fear death. We fear the pain of death, the loss of control, and leaving others behind. But as humans, we have the ability to think in symbols. We can understand cause and effect. We can exert some control over our reality. We can dream of the future and reflect upon the past.

This is where Ernest Becker redefined the problem. Culture is a shared set of beliefs about the nature of reality developed to help us deal with our death anxiety. Culture is a collective fabrication used to maintain security in an unsure world. The idea of an eternal soul soothes the fear of mortality. Symbols of immortality are in all religions and cultures. Becoming part of a collective leads to an emotional escape from mortality. Individual achievement is driven by a desire for immortality. Achievement, collective and individual, is driven by a need for permanence. We all want to make some "Hall of Fame" because we feel like we will be remembered after we are dead and gone. Becker felt that creativity was also driven by the need to be immortal. The creation of art was not merely an expression of one's perception of society, but also the desire to leave something which lasts beyond a human lifespan. Moreover, achieving wealth provides for power and control of others. In the face of mortality, wealth allays fear by presenting the myth that a person can "buy their way clear." Interestingly, a lack of success, as defined by each culture, is equivalent to social death. Each culture defines sanity for its collective citizens. Hence, war is caused when people fight to exert their belief system over an opposing or threatening one. Basically, people will fight to remain sane.

Returning the Becker quote above, we find that he affirms that individuals cannot be alone. It is too terrifying. We all die alone. We can only find sanity in the norms and values and customs of the unique circumstances in which we find ourselves. We can only define ourselves in the context of our environment. Even the pursuit of virtue is done as a response to our fear of death.

Hence, Becker defines a human motivation which is very different than that taught by Jesus Christ. They are profoundly different. For Christ, the motivation was for a unification with God via eternal life through the giving of oneself to others. It is an act of hope, not of fear.

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