Rating: 7/10

The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker book cover on the LBS website

See book on Amazon.com.

High-level thoughts

Personally, this would have been a low rating book if not for just two or three chapters that ended up being a complete breakthrough. I couldn’t stop taking notes and shuffling my many thoughts that kept rising during these intense moments.

Here the definite highlights are the exploration of neuroticism and transference. This is why I eventually ended up with a significantly higher opinion of this book, although it is one of the toughest reads I've ever had. The writing here is heavily grounded in theoretical psychoanalysis, which might turn a lot of people off, but if you manage to plow through it all there are lots of gems to be found.

Here you get to dive into such great minds like Otto Rank, Sigmund Freud, Søren Kierkegaard and many others. If you've ever read the biography or learned about Steve Jobs (the founder of Apple), you might have started disliking him as you got to know his actual personality. Here I got a similarly bad taste of Sigmund Freud, as I didn't study him before. His thinking and obsessive over-sexualization feel ridiculous. What also left a bad taste from the book overall was an unusually heavy focus on the male gender while a female perspective was secondary or often completely sidelined.

Overall, this was a true revolution for my understanding of psychology, belief systems, religion and some aspects of life and death in general. If you get the book, get ready for an incredible ride. Below you can study some of the highlights that I made myself while reading it.


  • Introduction
  • Society as a mythical hero system
  • Animal versus a conscious man
  • Freedom and anxiety
  • Transference and its effect on group psychology
  • Relationships
  • Narcissism
  • Neurosis
  • Fall of religion and rise of psychology
  • Death


The following three strands give an overview of the book. As in the foreword by Sam Keen and Daniel Goleman:

First strand (the world): "The world is terrifying. To say the least, Becker’s account of nature has little in common with Walt Disney. Mother Nature is a brutal bitch, red in tooth and claw, who destroys what she creates. We live, he says, in a creation in which the routine activity for organisms is “tearing others apart with teeth of all types—biting, grinding flesh, plant stalks, bones between molars, pushing the pulp greedily down the gullet with delight, incorporating its essence into one’s own organization, and then excreting with foul stench and gasses the residue.”

Second strand (controlling our anxiety): "The basic motivation for human behavior is our biological need to control our basic anxiety, to deny the terror of death. Human beings are naturally anxious because we are ultimately helpless and abandoned in a world where we are fated to die. “This is the terror: to have emerged from nothing, to have a name, consciousness of self, deep inner feelings, an excruciating inner yearning for life and self-expression—and with all this yet to die."

Third strand (defence mechanisms and repression): "Since the terror of death is so overwhelming we conspire to keep it unconscious. “The vital lie of character” is the first line of defense that protects us from the painful awareness of our helplessness. Every child borrows power from adults and creates a personality by introjecting the qualities of the godlike being. If I am like my all-powerful father I will not die. So long as we stay obediently within the defense mechanisms of our personality, what Wilhelm Reich called “character armor” we feel safe and are able to pretend that the world is manageable. But the price we pay is high. We repress our bodies to purchase a soul that time cannot destroy; we sacrifice pleasure to buy immortality; we encapsulate ourselves to avoid death. And life escapes us while we huddle within the defended fortress of character."

Society and culture as a mythical hero system

"This is what society is and always has been: a symbolic action system, a structure of statuses and roles, customs and rules for behavior, designed to serve as a vehicle for earthly heroism. Each script is somewhat unique, each culture has a different hero system. What the anthropologists call “cultural relativity” is thus really the relativity of hero-systems the world over."

"It doesn’t matter whether the cultural hero-system is frankly magical, religious, and primitive or secular, scientific, and civilized. It is still a mythical hero-system in which people serve in order to earn a feeling of primary value, of cosmic specialness, of ultimate usefulness to creation, of unshakable meaning. They earn this feeling by carving out a place in nature, by building an edifice that reflects human value: a temple, a cathedral, a totem pole, a sky-scraper, a family that spans three generations. The hope and belief is that the things that man creates in society are of lasting worth and meaning, that they outlive or outshine death and decay, that man and his products count. When Norman O. Brown said that Western society since Newton, no matter how scientific or secular it claims to be, is still as “religious” as any other, this is what he meant: “civilized” society is a hopeful belief and protest that science, money and goods make man count for more than any other animal. In this sense everything that man does is religious and heroic, and yet in danger of being fictitious and fallible."

"The minority groups in present-day industrial society who shout for freedom and human dignity are really clumsily asking that they be given a sense of primary heroism of which they have been cheated historically. This is why their insistent claims are so troublesome and upsetting: how do we do such an “unreasonable” thing within the ways in which society is now set up? “They are asking for the impossible” is the way we usually put our bafflement."

"Everything painful and sobering in what psychoanalytic genius and religious genius have discovered about man revolves around the terror of admitting what one is doing to earn his self-esteem. This is why human heroics is a blind drivenness that burns people up; in passionate people, a screaming for glory as uncritical and reflexive as the howling of a dog. In the more passive masses of mediocre men it is disguised as they humbly and complainingly follow out the roles that society provides for their heroics and try to earn their promotions within the system: wearing the standard uniforms—but allowing themselves to stick out, but ever so little and so safely, with a little ribbon or a red boutonniere, but not with head and shoulders."

"If we were to peel away this massive disguise, the blocks of repression over human techniques for earning glory, we would arrive at the potentially most liberating question of all, the main problem of human life: How empirically true is the cultural hero system that sustains and drives men?"

"To lose the security of heroic cultural illusion is to die—that is what “deculturation” of primitives means and what it does. It kills them or reduces them to the animal level of chronic fighting and fornication. Life becomes possible only in a continual alcoholic stupor. Many of the older American Indians were relieved when the Big Chiefs in Ottawa and Washington took control and prevented them from warring and feuding. It was a relief from the constant anxiety of death for their loved ones, if not for themselves. But they also knew, with a heavy heart, that this eclipse of their traditional hero-systems at the same time left them as good as dead."

"Man will lay down his life for his country, his society, his family. He will choose to throw himself on a grenade to save his comrades; he is capable of the highest generosity and self-sacrifice. But he has to feel and believe that what he is doing is truly heroic, timeless, and supremely meaningful. The crisis of modern society is precisely that the youth no longer feel heroic in the plan for action that their culture has set up. They don’t believe it is empirically true to the problems of their lives and times."

"When we are young we are often puzzled by the fact that each person we admire seems to have a different version of what life ought to be, what a good man is, how to live, and so on. If we are especially sensitive it seems more than puzzling, it is disheartening. What most people usually do is to follow one person’s ideas and then another’s, depending on who looms largest on one’s horizon at the time. The one with the deepest voice, the strongest appearance, the most authority and success, is usually the one who gets our momentary allegiance; and we try to pattern our ideals after him. But as life goes on we get a perspective on this, and all these different versions of truth become a little pathetic. Each person thinks that he has the formula for triumphing over life’s limitations and knows with authority what it means to be a man, and he usually tries to win a following for his particular patent. Today we know that people try so hard to win converts for their point of view because it is more than merely an outlook on life: it is an immortality formula."

Animal versus a conscious man

"But nature has protected the lower animal by endowing them with instincts. An instinct is a programmed perception that calls into play a programmed reaction. It is very simple. Animals are not moved by what they cannot react to. They live in a tiny world, a sliver of reality, one neuro-chemical program that keeps them walking behind their nose and shuts out everything else. But look at man, the impossible creature! Here nature seems to have thrown caution to the winds along with the programmed instincts. She created an animal who has no defense against full perception of the external world, an animal completely open to experience. Not only in front of his nose, in his umwelt, but in many other umwelten. He can relate not only to animals in his own species, but in some ways to all other species. He can contemplate not only what is edible for him, but everything that grows. He not only lives in this moment, but expands his inner self to yesterday, his curiosity to centuries ago, his fears to five billion years from now when the sun will cool, his hopes to an eternity from now. He lives not only on a tiny territory, nor even on an entire planet, but in a galaxy, in a universe, and in dimensions beyond visible universes. It is appalling, the burden that man bears, the experiential burden."

"What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity? He has fashioned his character for the precise purpose of putting it between himself and the facts of life; it is his special tour-de-force that allows him to ignore incongruities, to nourish himself on impossibilities, to thrive on blindness. He accomplishes thereby a peculiarly human victory: the ability to be smug about terror. Sartre has called man a “useless passion” because he is so hopelessly bungled, so deluded about his true condition. He wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies."

Freedom and anxiety

"Why does man accept to live a trivial life? Because of the danger of a full horizon of experience, of course. This is the deeper motivation of philistinism, that it celebrates the triumph over possibility, over freedom. Philistinism knows its real enemy: freedom is dangerous. If you follow it too willingly it threatens to pull you into the air; if you give it up too wholly, you become a prisoner of necessity."

"Depressive psychosis is the extreme on the continuum of too much necessity, that is, too much finitude, too much limitation by the body and the behaviors of the person in the real world, and not enough freedom of the inner self, of inner symbolic possibility. This is how we understand depressive psychosis today: as a bogging down in the demands of others—family, job, the narrow horizon of daily duties. In such a bogging down the individual does not feel or see that he has alternatives, cannot imagine any choices or alternate ways of life, cannot release himself from the network of obligations even though these obligations no longer give him a sense of self-esteem, of primary value, of being a heroic contributor to world life even by doing his daily family and job duties."

"From this discussion of transference (below), we can see one great cause of the large-scale ravages that man makes on the world. He is not just a naturally and lustily destructive animal who lays waste around him because he feels omnipotent and impregnable. Rather, he is a trembling animal who pulls the world down around his shoulders as he clutches for protection and support and tries to affirm in a cowardly way his feeble powers."

Transference and its effect on group psychology

"The qualities of the leader, then, and the problems of people fit together in a natural symbiosis. I have lingered on a few refinements of group psychology to show that the powers of the leader stem from what he can do for people, beyond the magic that he himself possesses. People project their problems onto him, which gives him his role and stature. Leaders need followers as much as they are needed by them: the leader projects onto his followers his own inability to stand alone, his own fear of isolation. We must say that if there were no natural leaders possessing the magic of charisma, men would have to invent them, just as leaders must create followers if there are none available."

"This aspect of group psychology explains something that otherwise staggers our imagination: have we been astonished by fantastic displays of grief on the part of whole peoples when one of their leaders dies? The uncontrolled emotional outpouring, the dazed masses standing huddled in the; city squares sometimes for days on end, grown people groveling hysterically and tearing at themselves, being trampled in the surge toward the coffin or funeral pyre—how to make sense out of such a massive, neurotic “vaudeville of despair”? In one way only: it shows a profound state of shock at losing one’s bulwark against death. The people apprehend, at some dumb level of their personality: “Our locus of power to control life and death can himself die; therefore our own immortality is in doubt.” All the tears and all the tearing is after all for oneself, not for the passing of a great soul but for one’s own imminent passing. Immediately men begin to rename city streets, squares, airports with the name of the dead man: it is as though to declare that he will be immortalized physically in the society, in spite of his own physical death."

"We can now understand fully how wrong it would be to look at transference in a totally derogatory way when it fulfills such vital drives toward human wholeness. Man needs to infuse his life with value so that he can pronounce it “good.” The transference-object is then a natural fetishization for man’s highest yearnings and strivings. Again we see what a marvelous “talent” transference is. It is a form of creative fetishism, the establishment of a locus from which our lives can draw the powers they need and want. What is more wanted than immortality-power? How wonderful and how facile to be able to take our whole immortality-striving and make it part of a dialogue with a single human being."

"If transference represents the natural heroic striving for a “beyond” that gives self-validation and if people need this validation in order to live, then the psychoanalytic view of transference as simply unreal projection is destroyed. Projection is necessary and desirable for self-fulfillment. Otherwise man is overwhelmed by his loneliness and separation and negated by the very burden of his own life. As Rank so wisely saw, projection is a necessary unburdening of the individual; man cannot live closed upon himself and for himself. He must project the meaning of his life outward, the reason for it, even the blame for it."


"If a woman loses her beauty, or shows that she doesn’t have the strength and dependability that we once thought she did, or loses her intellectual sharpness, or falls short of our own peculiar needs in any of a thousand ways, then all the investment we have made in her is undermined. The shadow of imperfection falls over our lives, and with it—death and the defeat of cosmic heroism. “She lessens” = “I die.” This is the reason for so much bitterness, shortness of temper and recrimination in our daily family lives. We get back a reflection from our loved objects that is less than the grandeur and perfection that we need to nourish ourselves. We feel diminished by their human shortcomings."

"Our interiors feel empty or anguished, our lives valueless, when we see the inevitable pettinesses of the world expressed through the human beings in it. For this reason, too, we often attack loved ones and try to bring them down to size. We see that our gods have clay feet, and so we must hack away at them in order to save ourselves, to deflate the unreal over-investment that we have made in them in order to secure our own apotheosis."

"In this sense, the deflation of the over-invested partner, parent, or friend is a creative act that is necessary to correct the lie that we have been living, to reaffirm our own inner freedom of growth that transcends the particular object and is not bound to it. But not everybody can do this because many of us need the lie in order to live. We may have no other God and we may prefer to deflate ourselves in order to keep the relationship, even though we glimpse the impossibility of it and the slavishness to which it reduces us. This is one direct explanation—as we shall see—of the phenomenon of depression."


"When you combine natural narcissism with the basic need for self-esteem, you create a creature who has to feel himself an object of primary value: first in the universe, representing in himself all of life. This is the reason for the daily and usually excruciating struggle with siblings: the child cannot allow himself to be second-best or devalued, much less left out. “You gave him the biggest piece of candy!”“You gave him more juice!”“Here’s a little more, then.” “Now she’s got more juice than me!” “You let her light the fire in the fireplace and not me.” “Okay, you light a piece of paper.” “But this piece of paper is smaller than the one she lit.” And so on and on. An animal who gets his feeling of worth symbolically has to minutely compare himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second-best. Sibling rivalry is a critical problem that reflects the basic human condition: it is not that children are vicious, selfish, or domineering. It is that they so openly express man’s tragic destiny: he must desperately justify himself as an object of primary value in the universe; he must stand out, be a hero, make the biggest possible contribution to world life, show that he counts more than anything or anyone else."


"In order to function normally, man has to achieve from the beginning a serious constriction of the world and of himself. We can say that the essence of normality is the refusal of reality. What we call neurosis enters precisely at this point: Some people have more trouble with their lies than others. The world is too much with them, and the techniques that they have developed for holding it at bay and cutting it down to size finally begin to choke the person himself. This is neurosis in a nutshell: the miscarriage of clumsy lies about reality."

"But we can also see at once that there is no line between normal and neurotic, as we all lie and are all bound in some ways by the lies. Neurosis is, then, something we all share; it is universal. Or, putting it another way, normality is neurosis, and vice versa. We call a man “neurotic” when his lie begins to show damaging effects on him or on people around him and he seeks clinical help for it or others seek it for him."

"But the whole thing becomes more complex when we see how the lies about reality begin to miscarry. Then we have to begin to apply the label “neurotic.” And there are any number of occasions for this, from many ranges of human experience. Generally speaking, we call neurotic any life style that begins to constrict too much, that prevents free forward momentum, new choices, and growth that a person may want and need."

"Neurosis has three interdependent aspects. In the first place it refers to people who are having trouble living with the truth of existence; it is universal in this sense because everybody has some trouble living with the truth of life and pays some vital ransom to that truth. In the second place, neurosis is private because each person fashions his own peculiar stylistic reaction to life. Finally, beyond both of these is perhaps the unique gift of Rank’s work: that neurosis is also historical to a large extent, because all the traditional ideologies that disguised and absorbed it have fallen away and modern ideologies are just too thin to contain it. So we have modern man: increasingly slumping onto analysts’ couches, making pilgrimages to psychological guru-centers and joining therapy groups, and filling larger and larger numbers of mental hospital beds."

"It begins to look as though modern man cannot find his heroism in everyday life any more, as men did in traditional societies just by doing their daily duty of raising children, working, and worshipping. He needs revolutions and wars and “continuing” revolutions to last when the revolutions and wars end. That is the price modern man pays for the eclipse of the sacred dimension. When he dethroned the ideas of soul and God he was thrown back hopelessly on his own resources, on himself and those few around him."

"The Neurotic Type First, as a problem of personal character. When we say neurosis represents the truth of life we again mean that life is an overwhelming problem for an animal free of instinct. The individual has to protect himself against the world, and he can do this only as any other animal would: by narrowing down the world, shutting off experience, developing an obliviousness both to the terrors of the world and to his own anxieties. Otherwise he would be crippled for action. We cannot repeat too often the great lesson of Freudian psychology: that repression is normal self-protection and creative self-restriction—in a real sense, man’s natural substitute for instinct."

"The ironic thing about the narrowing-down of neurosis is that the person seeks to avoid death, but he does it by killing off so much of himself and so large a spectrum of his action-world that he is actually isolating and diminishing himself and becomes as though dead. There is just no way for the living creature to avoid life and death, and it is probably poetic justice that if he tries too hard to do so he destroys himself."

"There is a type of person who has difficulty fetishizing and narrowing-down; he has a vivid imagination, takes in too much experience, too large a chunk of the world—and this too must be called neurotic."

"We said that partializing the world is biting off what an animal can chew. Not to have this talent means constantly biting off more than one can chew. Rank puts it this way: The neurotic type … makes the reality surrounding him a part of his ego, which explains his painful relation to it. For all outside processes, however unmeaningful they may be in themselves, finally concern him … he is bound up in a kind of magic unity with the wholeness of life around him much more than the adjusted type who can be satisfied with the role of a part within the whole. The neurotic type has taken into himself potentially the whole of reality."

"To live is to engage in experience at least partly on the terms of the experience itself. One has to stick his neck out in the action without any guarantees about satisfaction or safety. One never knows how it will come out or how silly he will look, but the neurotic type wants these guarantees. He doesn’t want to risk his self-image. Rank calls this very aptly the “self-willed over-valuation of self” whereby the neurotic tries to cheat nature. He won’t pay the price that nature wants of him: to age, fall ill or be injured, and die. Instead of living experience he ideates it; instead of arranging it in action he works it all out in his head."

"The neurotic exhausts himself not only in self-preoccupations like hypochondriacal fears and all sorts of fantasies, but also in others: those around him on whom he is dependent become his therapeutic work project; he takes out his subjective problems on them. But people are not clay to be molded; they have needs and counter-wills of their own. The neurotic’s frustration as a failed artist can’t be remedied by anything but an objective creative work of his own. Another way of looking at it is to say that the more totally one takes in the world as a problem, the more inferior or “bad” one is going to feel inside oneself. He can try to work out this “badness” by striving for perfection, and then the neurotic symptom becomes his “creative” work; or he can try to make himself perfect by means of his partner. But it is obvious to us that the only way to work on perfection is in the form of an objective work that is fully under your control and is perfectible in some real ways. Either you eat up yourself and others around you, trying for perfection; or you objectify that imperfection in a work, on which you then unleash your creative powers. In this sense, some kind of objective creativity is the only answer man has to the problem of life."

"From this point of view the difference between the artist and the neurotic seems to boil down largely to a question of talent. It is like the difference between an illiterate schizophrenic and a Strindberg: one ends up on the backwards and the other becomes a culture hero—but both experience the world in similar ways and only the quality and the power of the reaction differ."

"From all this we can see how interchangeably we can talk about neurosis, adolescence, normality, the artist—with only varying degrees of difference or with a peculiar additive like “talent” making all the difference. Talent itself is usually largely circumstantial, the result of luck and work, which makes Rank’s view of neurosis true to life. Artists are neurotic as well as creative; the greatest of them can have crippling neurotic symptoms and can cripple those around them as well by their neurotic demands and needs. Look what Carlyle did to his wife. There is no doubt that creative work is itself done under a compulsion often indistinguishable from a purely clinical obsession."

"The neurotic is having trouble with the balance of cultural illusion and natural reality; the possible horrible truth about himself and the world is seeping into his consciousness. The average man is at least secure that the cultural game is the truth, the unshakable, durable truth. He can earn his immortality in and under the dominant immortality ideology, period. It is all so simple and clear-cut. But now the neurotic: He perceives himself as unreal and reality as unbearable, because with him the mechanisms of illusion are known and destroyed by self consciousness. He can no longer deceive himself about himself and disillusions even his own ideal of personality. He perceives himself as bad, guilt laden, inferior, as a small, weak, helpless creature, which is the truth about mankind, as Oedipus also discovered in the crash of his heroic fate. All other is illusion, deception, but necessary deception in order to be able to bear one’s self and thereby life."

"And so, the question for the science of mental health must become an absolutely new and revolutionary one, yet one that reflects the essence of the human condition: On what level of illusion does one live?"

"The result is that the sinner (neurotic) is hyperconscious of the very thing he tries to deny: his creatureliness, his miserableness and unworthiness. The neurotic is thrown back on his true perceptions of the human condition, which caused his isolation and individuation in the first place. He tried to build a glorified private inner world because of his deeper anxieties, but life takes its revenge. The more he separates and inflates himself, the more anxious he becomes. The more he artificially idealizes himself, the more exaggeratedly he criticizes himself. He alternates between the extremes of “I am everything” and “I am nothing."

"Man lives his contradictions for better or worse in some kind of cultural project in a given historical period. Neurosis is another word for the total problem of the human condition; it becomes a clinical word when the individual bogs down in the face of the problem—when his heroism is in doubt or becomes self-defeating. Men are naturally neurotic and always have been, but at some times they have it easier than at others to mask their true condition. Men avoid clinical neurosis when they can trustingly live their heroism in some kind of self-transcending drama. Modern man lives his contradictions for the worse, because the modern condition is one in which convincing dramas of heroic apotheosis, of creative play, or of cultural illusion are in eclipse. There is no embracing world-view for the neurotic to depend on or merge with to mask his problems, and so the “cure” for neurosis is difficult in our time."

"Does the neurotic lack something outside him to absorb his need for perfection? Does he eat himself up with obsessions? The myth-ritual complex is a social form for the channelling of obsessions. We might say that it places creative obsession within the reach of everyman, which is precisely the function of ritual. This function is what Freud saw when he talked about the obsessive quality of primitive religion and compared it to neurotic obsession. But he didn’t see how natural this was, how all social life is the obsessive ritualization of control in one way or another. It automatically engineers safety and banishes despair by keeping people focussed on the noses in front of their faces."

"The defeat of despair is not mainly an intellectual problem for an active organism, but a problem of self-stimulation via movement. Beyond a given point man is not helped by more “knowing,” but only by living and doing in a partly self-forgetful way. As Goethe put it, we must plunge into experience and then reflect on the meaning of it. All reflection and no plunging drives us mad; all plunging and no reflection, and we are brutes. Goethe wrote maxims like these precisely at the time when the individual lost the protective cover of traditional society and daily life became a problem for him. He no longer knew what were the proper doses of experience. This safe dosage of life is exactly what is prescribed by traditional custom, wherein all the important decisions of life and even its daily events are ritually marked out."

Fall of religion and rise of psychology

"The inner life of man had always been portrayed traditionally as the area of the soul. But in the 19th century scientists wanted to reclaim this last domain of superstition from the Church. They wanted to make the inner life of man an area free of mystery and subject to the laws of causality. They gradually abandoned the word “soul” and began to talk about the “self” and to study how it develops in the child’s early relationship with his mother."

"The great miracles of language, thought, and morality could now be studied as social products and not divine interventions It was a great breakthrough in science that culminated only with the; work of Freud; but it was Rank who saw that this scientific victory raised more problems than it solved. Science thought that it had gotten rid forever of the problems of the soul by making the inner world the subject of scientific analysis. But few wanted to admit that this work still left the soul perfectly intact as a word to explain the; inner energy of organisms, the mystery of the creation and sustenance of living matter."

"But the triumph of scientific psychology had more equivocal effects than merely leaving intact the soul that it set out to banish. When you narrow down the soul to the self, and the self to the early conditioning of the child, what do you have left? You have the individual man, and you are stuck with him. I mean that the promise of psychology, like all of modern science, was that it would usher in the era of the happiness of man, by showing him how things worked, how one thing caused another. Then, when man knew the causes of things, all he had to do was to take possession of the domain of nature, including his own nature, and his happiness would be assured. But now we come up against the fallacy of psychological self-scrutiny that Rank, almost alone among the disciples of Freud, understood."

"The doctrine of the soul showed man why he was inferior, bad, and guilty; and it gave him the means to get rid of that badness and be happy. Psychology also wanted to show man why he felt this way; the hope was that if you found men’s motives and showed to man why he felt guilty and bad, he could then accept himself and be happy. But actually psychology could only find part of the reason for feelings of inferiority, badness, and guilt—the part caused by the objects—trying to be good for them, fearing them, fearing leaving them, and the like. We don’t want to deny that this much is a lot. It represents a great liberation from what we could call “false badness,” the conflicts artificially caused by one’s own early environment and the accidents of birth and place."

"Psychotherapy can allow people to affirm themselves, to smash idols that constrict the self-esteem, to lift the load of neurotic guilt—the extra guilt piled on top of natural existential guilt. It can clear away neurotic despair—the despair that comes from a too-constricted focus for one’s safety and satisfactions. When a person becomes less fragmented, less blocked and bottled up, he does experience real joy: the joy of finding more of himself, of the release from armor and binding reflexes, of throwing off the chains of uncritical and self-defeating dependency, of controlling his own energies, of discovering aspects of the world, intense experience in the present moment that is now freer of prefixed perceptions, new possibilities of choice and action, and so on. Yes, psychotherapy can do all these things, but there are many things it cannot do, and they have not been aired widely enough. Often psychotherapy seems to promise the moon: a more constant joy, delight, celebration of life, perfect love, and perfect freedom."

"It is when psychology pretends to do this, when it offers itself as a full explanation of human unhappiness, that it becomes a fraud that makes the situation of modern man in impasse from which he cannot escape. Or, put another way, psychology has limited its understanding of human unhappiness to the personal life-history of the individual and has not understood how much individual unhappiness is itself a historical problem in the larger sense, a problem of the eclipse of secure communal ideologies of redemption."

"In this sense, as Rank saw with such deep understanding, psychoanalysis actually stultifies the emotional life of the patient. Man wants to focus his love on an absolute measure of power and value, and the analyst tells him that all is reducible to his early conditioning and is therefore relative. Man wants to find and experience the marvelous, and the analyst tells him how matter-of-fact everything is, how clinically explainable are our deepest ontological motives and guilts. Man is thereby deprived of the absolute mystery he needs, and the only omnipotent thing that then remains is the man who explained it away. And so the patient clings to the analyst with all his might and dreads terminating the analysis."

"But now we see the historical difference between the classical sinner and the modern neurotic: both of them experience the naturalness of human insufficiency, only today the neurotic is stripped of the symbolic world-view, the God-ideology that would make sense out of his unworthiness and would translate it into heroism. Traditional religion turned the consciousness of sin into a condition for salvation; but the tortured sense of nothingness of the neurotic qualifies him now only for miserable extinction, for merciful release in lonely death."

"Best of all, of course, religion solves the problem of death, which no living individuals can solve, no matter how they would support us. Religion, then, gives the possibility of heroic victory in freedom and solves the problem of human dignity at its highest level. The two ontological motives of the human condition are both met: the need to surrender oneself in full to the rest of nature, to become a part of it by laying down one’s whole existence to some higher meaning; and the need to expand oneself as an individual heroic personality. Finally, religion alone gives hope, because it holds open the dimension of the unknown and the unknowable, the fantastic mystery of creation that the human mind cannot even begin to approach, the possibility of a multidimensionality of spheres of existence, of heavens and possible embodiments that make a mockery of earthly logic—and in doing so, it relieves the absurdity of earthly life, all the impossible limitations and frustrations of living matter."

"Finally, then, we can see how truly inseparable are the domains of psychiatry and religion, as they both deal with human nature and the ultimate meaning of life. To leave behind stupidity is to becomes aware of life as a problem of heroics, which inevitably becomes a reflection about what life ought to be in its ideal dimensions. From this point of view we can see that the perversions of “private religions” are not “false” in comparison to “true religions.” They are simply less expansive, less humanly noble and responsible. All living organisms are condemned to perversity, to the narrowness of being mere fragments of a larger totality that overwhelms them, which they cannot understand or truly cope with—yet must still live and struggle in."


"We saw that there really was no way to overcome the real dilemma of existence, the one of the mortal animal who at the same time is conscious of his mortality. A person spends years coming into his own, developing his talent, his unique gifts, perfecting his discriminations about the world, broadening and sharpening his appetite, learning to bear the disappointments of life, becoming mature, seasoned—finally a unique creature in nature, standing with some dignity and nobility and transcending the animal condition; no longer driven, no longer a complete reflex, not stamped out of any mold. And then the real tragedy, as André Malraux wrote in The Human Condition: that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering and effort to make such an individual, and then he is good only for dying."

"The characteristic of the modern mind is the banishment of mystery, of naive belief, of simple-minded hope. We put the accent on the visible, the clear, the cause-and-effect relation, the logical—always the logical. We know the difference between dreams and reality, between facts and fictions, between symbols and bodies. But right away we can see that these characteristics of the modern mind are exactly those of neurosis. What typifies the neurotic is that he “knows” his situation vis-à-vis reality. He has no doubts; there is nothing you can say to sway him, to give him hope or trust. He is a miserable animal whose body decays, who will die, who will pass into dust and oblivion, disappear forever not only in this world but in all the possible dimensions of the universe, whose life serves no conceivable purpose, who may as well not have been born, and so on and so forth."

"Modern man is drinking and drugging himself out of awareness, or he spends his time shopping, which is the same thing. As awareness calls for types of heroic dedication that his culture no longer provides for him, society contrives to help him forget. Or, alternatively, he buries himself in psychology in the belief that awareness all by itself will be some kind of magical cure for his problems. But psychology was born with the breakdown of shared social heroisms; it can only be gone beyond with the creation of new heroisms that are basically matters of belief and will, dedication to a vision"

"Becker, like Socrates, advises us to practice dying. Cultivating awareness of our death leads to disillusionment, loss of character armor, and a conscious choice to abide in the face of terror. The existential hero who follows this way of self-analysis differs from the average person in knowing that he/she is obsessed. Instead of hiding within the illusions of character, he sees his impotence and vulnerability. The disillusioned hero rejects the standardized heroics of mass culture in favor of cosmic heroism in which there is real joy in throwing off the chains of uncritical, self-defeating dependency and discovering new possibilities of choice and action and new forms of courage and endurance."

"The fallacy in all this sterile utopianism is that fear of death is not the only motive of life; heroic transcendence, victory over evil for mankind as a whole, for unborn generations, consecration of one’s existence to higher meanings—these motives are just as vital and they are what give the human animal his nobility even in the face of his animal fears. Hedonism is not heroism for most men. The pagans in the ancient world did not realize that and so lost out to the “despicable” creed of Judeo-Christianity. Modern men equally do not realize it, and so they sell their souls to consumer capitalism or consumer communism or replace their souls—as Rank said—with psychology."

"I am talking matter-of-factly about some of the surest giants in the history of humanity only to say that in the game of life and death no one stands taller than any other, unless it be a true saint, and only to conclude that sainthood itself is a matter of grace and not of human effort. My point is that for man not everything is possible. What is there to choose between religious creatureliness and scientific creatureliness? The most one can achieve is a certain relaxedness, an openness to experience that makes him less of a driven burden on others. And a lot of this depends on how much talent he has, how much of a daimon is driving him; it is easier to lay down light burdens than heavy ones."

"We said earlier that the question of human life is: on what level of illusion does one live? This question poses an absolutely new question for the science of mental health, namely: What is the “best” illusion under which to live? Or, what is the most legitimate foolishness? If you are going to talk about life-enhancing illusion, then you can truly try to answer the question of which is “best.” You will have to define “best” in terms that are directly meaningful to man, related to his basic condition and his needs. I think the whole question would be answered in terms of how much freedom, dignity, and hope a given illusion provides. These three things absorb the problem of natural neurosis and turn it to creative living."

"What is the ideal for mental health, then? A lived, compelling illusion that does not lie about life, death, and reality; one honest enough to follow its own commandments: I mean, not to kill, not to take the lives of others to justify itself. Rank saw Christianity as a truly great ideal foolishness in the sense that we have been discussing it: a childlike trust and hope for the human condition that left open the realm of mystery. Obviously, all religions fall far short of their own ideals, and Rank was talking about Christianity not as practiced but as an ideal."

"We might interject here that from this point of view, one of the crucial projects of a person’s life, of true maturity, is to resign oneself to the process of aging. It is important for the person gradually to assimilate his true age, to stop protesting his youth, pretending that there is no end to his life."