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Review of Birth and Death of Meaning (Becker, 1962)


Robert Waxman

In The Birth and Death of Meaning by Ernest Becker, the author says man is a social animal (p. 5). As time goes by, reactions by animals become conditioned, and they learn to associate how things fit together in the world. The developing large brain of man helps him adapt to his environment. He begins forming a social structure which is part of the process of evolution.

     Each individual understands the delicate balance between self-assertion and the role he plays in his group (p. 8). This balance is necessary for “an ordered simplification of the environment” (p. 11). Spiritual fears cause man to regulate himself, and spiritual motives cause social changes. However, survival is still a significant factor as he interacts with nature.

     Man is a meat-eating animal and cooperation is needed when hunting for food. The need for food (survival) becomes a more powerful motivating force than satisfying his sexual needs. Having enough food for the group requires successful social interactions and organization. Social organization and planning help him build a culture based on language, and eventually, more evolved social systems.

     The society becomes the basis for the family – not vice versa (p. 13). However, it is difficult for parents to give up control over their families. Becker refers to this problem as “parentalization” (p. 14).

     Becker speaks of three types of reactive meaning: direct reflex, conditioned reflex, and the relationship between objects and the decision to act on visual stimuli. As the mind develops, instead of simply reacting, man understands he has choices. A new social order is developing, and those with superior strength and energy have a higher social status within the group. Emotions start affecting man’s psychological behavior, and the ego begins playing an important role in his daily life. 

          Man begins to see himself as an object. He develops the concept of “I” and becomes conscious of himself in relation to other objects. The potential exits to bring forth all the characteristics of becoming a modern human being. Consequently, man begins reasoning and organizing his life. He is communicating with language, and socializing within his group to form a culture.  Eventually, man’s pride becomes an important motivating force in his social structure, and animal needs such as sex and hunting become less important social factors.       

     Culture is an expression of man’s meanings, history, beliefs, social behavior etc. The personalities of people living in the culture are affected by rules, values, morals and thought-patterns of daily life. To avoid anxiety, man must choose the ‘right’ thing to do (p. 51). If there is a ‘right’, then there must be a ‘wrong’. By understanding both concepts, life becomes “moral and meaningful” (p. 51).

     Each individual views the world in his own way. Identifying objects as either masculine or feminine gives the object meaning. Objects must have names, so man can define his attitude toward them (p. 53). Eventually, the concepts of ‘is’, ‘was’ and ‘will be’ have meaning for him.

     The ego “binds time” to verbs like ‘am’ and the person becomes aware of past and future (p. 54). At this stage, man understands the idea of his finite existence and the meaning of the phrase “I will die” (p. 53). ‘The self’ is acting in a world of measured space and time. Since actions are based on right and wrong, man wants to be right. However, man will only hold himself responsible - for what he wants to be responsible for (p. 56).

     Once the child progresses through the Oedipal transition, his character is formed. A new individual emerges and the biological entity is now a social one. The infant changes from a biological being to a social one. The mother disciplines the child and does not lose control of him. Becker says the beginning of discipline is socialization (p. 59). The child accepts the frustrations of being disciplined, and still wants to please the mother.

     There is still a closeness of an erotic nature between the mother and child, and the child’s fear of “object-loss” becomes his basic anxiety (p. 61). Becker makes it clear that this erotic relationship is not the same as Freud’s theory: the Oedipal Complex. Whereas, Freud argues that the Oedipal complex is based on the infant’s biological sexuality, Becker’s Oedipal transition is a process of “giving up certain satisfactions in order to keep secure the underlying dependence of the child on the mother” (p. 64). The Oedipal transition is complete when the child lets go of erotic ideas, and would rather receive approval from the parents. At this stage, he is identifying with the symbolic, and not the erotic actions of the parents (p. 71).   

     The family is an agent of society. Becker says it is the best organization for parent and child relationships to develop (p. 71). The parents begin the complex task of balancing closeness and discipline. Some parents do not, or cannot, raise an “independent, symbolically functioning animal” (p. 72). These parents are afraid that they will be left alone once the child leaves the home. Becker praises psychoanalysis as an effective method for treating psychological problems stemming from the Oedipal transition (p. 72).

     Self-esteem is the basis for a child to feel that all is right in his world. Becker says “self- esteem is at the very core of human adaptation” (p. 78). Self-esteem is the continuation of the early ego’s efforts to manage anxiety. The ego sends out a warning signal to avoid anxiety. The individual can control anxiety, but by avoiding essential anxiety, neurosis can result. However, the basis of the anxiety remains. Anxiety controls lead to alternate behaviors and choosing between various courses of action. The ego acts as an “anxiety buffer”, and self-esteem allows ‘the self’ to handle past, present and future anxieties (p. 79). The function of the culture is to make self-esteem possible, so the individual feels he has value.

     Man’s place in society either adds or subtracts from his self-esteem. Our imaginary ‘sense of self’ helps keep our self-esteem within a comfort zone. Eventually, the body of the child is no longer the object of approval by the parents. There is a change, and now the child is receiving his approval from symbolic, artificial use of language. ‘Meaning’ is now based on words, and the culture becomes responsible for keeping ‘the self’ as the primary object of meaning. 

     Socialization is learning how to act within the culture in a simplified manner, with the presumption of how others should act in society. Socialization is also learning to act in an automatic way to the rules of society, with an expectation of how others should act as well. An individual’s self-esteem is either reinforced or deflated through socialization. People depend on the culture to support their self-esteem, and feel they are adding value to society through meaningful actions. Meanwhile, these people do not realize - they are giving up their personal freedoms - by depending on society to validate their self-esteem.

     The individual’s self-esteem is dependent on societal patterns of behavior which are learned in childhood. He uses ‘thought’ as a mechanism for imagining various situations in his mind, instead of allowing reality to work-out these situations in the real world. His status tells him how to behave in social situations, and how to feel about himself as he acts. His status makes his behavior predictable, and he derives meaning from his daily routine. Becker makes the point, that if the symbolic world of ‘the self’ is fictional, then status and roles are just dramatic masks that people wear. (p. 85). As the drama of life unfolds, negative images are replaced with positive ones. However, while we are sleeping - the ego cannot control our thoughts - and we receive unconscious messages of worthlessness, helplessness, dependency and inadequacy.  

     Becker probes into the psyche by asking questions relating to the nature of the personality: Who am I? What is the meaning of my life? What value does life have? How am I supposed to feel about me? The answers to these questions are found in our social environment. Specifically, we find our answers in relationships with other people, how we treat others, and the feedback we receive from people who know us. It is important to know if our lives have meaning and value.

     To feel the safety of ‘belongingness’, man must think he is an object of value (p. 91). Man’s prestige is also important since he derives a sense of positive value from his relationships with others in the society. If his prestige is weakened - his self-esteem will suffer - and “massive anxiety [will] explode into destructive aggression” (p. 92). 

     Becker refers to Norman Cameron’s concept of ‘reaction sensitivity’. He says that there are certain stimuli in every situation which the individual can exclude from his perceptions (p. 98). He says single definitions of situations with excluded perceptions lead to an inability to believe in ‘the self’. There is a delicate balance between excluding perceptions (and avoiding reality) and maintaining a persona in society. The individual needs to know what is ‘self’, and what is ‘not self’ (p. 100).

     Personality is a conglomeration of various word descriptions. The “self-system” is filled with ‘word ideas’ that are continually creating and changing the personality. A strong sense of self is conveyed by having control over one’s words. Proper words and phrases give the individual a powerful advantage over others – especially, when trying to control people and situations. Words are the best tools for manipulating interpersonal situations, and are the basis for adapting to, and overcoming anxiety. Words help us protect ourselves by allowing the opportunity to manipulate situations and set the tone for action (p. 106). ‘The self’ is constantly changing, and words and ideas help to create the individual’s identity.

     The world of the individual is basically fictitious. Becker says it is truly remarkable that an individual can see through his anxieties and false creations, and discover the fictional nature of the world he lives in. Becker claims that a great deal of effort by others goes into sustaining and enhancing these societal fictions (p. 108). However, every so often, the individual slips back into playing societal games, and he explodes with “uncontrolled nonsense” (p. 112).

     Becker speaks of “riding” as bad acting and an attempt to build one’s self up, while putting another one down (p. 114). Using a “line” is a similar idea: one is circumventing the usual patterns of behavior to gain an advantage in a social situation (p. 114).

      If an individual does not understand how to use language, he will have a difficult time creating an anxiety-buffer, which will protect him from the outside world. To feel good about one’s identity, ‘the self’ needs a sense of direction. Without one, the identity can disintegrate or deteriorate, by not receiving a sense of its own power through symbolic levels of social interactions (p. 122).

      If an individual does not meet his own (or other’s) expectations, he will feel shame. Consequently, he may lose his self-esteem, which leaves him vulnerable to feeling anxiety. When our defenses against anxiety are compromised, we feel doubtful about ourselves, and question our status and role in society. This is why there is a need for self-validation. The individual needs to hear meaningful words from others, and needs to say meaningful words to others (p. 128).

     Becker says “human action defies fragmentation” (p. 129). However, fragmentation is the norm, when dividing human behavior into various psychological categories. Scientific theorizing has been replaced by the power of explanation. However, Becker says no amount of evidence can prove a theory correct. Only if a theory is falsified by experiment, can it be confirmed (p. 132).   

     Becker says anger is a means of protecting ‘the self’ (p. 134). When anger is directed at oneself, it is an attempt to maintain an identity of helplessness. This person has a perception of low self-esteem and will become depressed (p. 142). Finally, it becomes impossible to live a happy life, and the individual affirms his identity by denouncing himself. This is when the individual says, “life has no meaning” (p. 144). The extended family can help the individual cope with depression better than the nuclear family. The extended family provides a continuing source of self-esteem for the depressed individual.

     Becker says “normal” is not easy to define (p. 150). If the neurotic is not successful in making the transition into social interaction, he is left behind in the Oedipal period. The Oedipal transition is important because the individual is evolving into a social being, rather than remaining a physiological one.

      The symbolic sense of man’s identity is built-up over time and through his actions. Man uses his identity to connect with the community, and performs in accordance with the expected behavior that his role or status demands. Once he fits-in, he becomes dependent on society for psychological stability, and it is difficult for him to find a way out. Societal rules become powerful motivating forces for driving his personality, and for securing a safe reality. If the individual chooses to view the culture as having the highest value, he will become dependent on the culture to satisfy all his needs. Therefore, his identity will become “embedded” within a community of selves (p. 157). Becker sums-up this point by saying, “man is society and history” (p. 157).

Major themes in this book include:

1) Anxiety as a learned fear of object-loss;

2) Self-esteem acting to buffer anxiety;

3) Psychological behavior in a personal world of awareness;

4) Identity as assimilated experiences through social interaction;

5) Role-behavior as society’s structure for conveying socially created meaning;

6) Ritual rites as societal rules to protect self-esteem (p.168).

                                   Works Cited

Becker, E. (1962). The birth of death and meaning. New York: The Free Press.