The Existential Perspective:

A Commentary and Reflection on ideas presented in The Social Construction of Reality and The Denial of Death

by Paul O'Brien

There are basically two books that can set the stage for some extremely powerful existential issues issues: The Social Construction of Reality by Peter Berger and The Denial of Death by Ernest Becker. Let me start with the first book. As you can tell from the title, Berger argues that the way we humans view reality is not the way reality really is; what we're really seeing is a vision or perspective of reality that we've constructed for ourselves. In fact, our views and opinions about what is true or real depend upon our social views and opinions.

For example, take science. People, especially in recent times, really trust science as being accurate and objective. Unfortunately, it is neither of those things if you think about it. What determines, for instance, if an experiment is objective? Well, a bunch of scientists get together at some conference and talk about it, and once they're done, they vote or something like that to establish rules and definitions for what a good experiment should do. There isn't some ultimate, objective criteria for what an objective experiment should be; it's just something a bunch of people agreed to accept, and that's it.

For all we know, these socially accepted policies and definitions could be very far from the truth. We've already seen such mistakes in science in the past, haven't we? A good example is how Aristotle said that humans have a certain amount of teeth in their mouth. Well, you know what? No one bothered to check that number for hundreds of years! One day somebody actually counted the number of teeth in their mouth and realized that Aristotle was wrong... it was that simple.

Take another example, our justice system. We believe that a defendant is innocent until proven guilty, right? Well, is this belief objective? No, it's not if you think about it. The reason we accept it is because of the social history of the United States. When America was still just a bunch of colonies, one of their reasons for revolting was because the British laws were too strict; taxes were too high, British soldiers were invading their privacy, etc. In addition, many people were being tried and convicted of crimes that many people felt that they didn't commit. Americans wanted more freedom and more tolerance, so they politically revolted. Once they won independence, what happened? A bunch of political leaders from all the different colonies gathered together to make a Constitution that would create a new political system. This system would ensure that citizens would have freedom and tolerance. Since British law was so strict in their opinion, they agreed upon a system that would protect the rights of the innocent.

As a result, we have a judicial system that, as it is said, "lets ten guilty men go free to keep one innocent man from being imprisoned." In other words, our country values keeping innocent people out of jail more than putting guilty people in jail. Why? Because we detested the way justice used to be served before we became an independent country. Now, is the American judicial system ultimately objective or accurate? Not at all. In fact, as we've seen with the O.J. trial, many people are pretty pissed off at our system. I've heard some people say horrible things like, "Somebody should serve justice and just kill O.J., because everyone knows that he did it." But you see, isn't this its own injustice? This is the sort of tyranny that our country's Founding Fathers were trying to avoid.

So the point of Berger's book is this: we don't really get an objective or accurate look at reality. The way we view reality and the things that we find acceptable are merely things we've socially created or agreed to accept. American society has agreed that it's acceptable for women to wear pants or shorter skirts, but not too long ago, either of those things would have been considered both disrespectful and sinful. The thing is, society will undoubtedly change its mind again about this matter; maybe one day we will find shorter skirts unacceptable and return to longer dresses, or maybe one day it will be acceptable for a woman to walk around butt naked. Who knows? It all depends upon what we as a society will agree to accept. There is not an objectively good standard for fashion, is there? Not at all; it all depends on what your culture accepts. But see, fashion isn't the only thing we socially construct; we do it to law, justice, religion, science, medicine, philosophy, love, you name it. All these things have changed radically over time, but only because a social group got together and agreed to change them.

This is a little disheartening. We would like to think that when we change our minds about such important points, it's because we're coming closer to the truth, or because we're moving toward something better or more real. But the problem is, we don't know what the truth is; we don't have an objective standard for truth (because we can't find it); and we don't know what reality is really like. Are you really pretty, for instance, or really smart? Or are you pretty and smart simply because our culture has established these ideas and rules about what beauty and intelligence are? Couldn't you be considered both ugly and dumb from a different culture's standards? Of course you could.

This is beginning to sound like relativism. Watch how closely it relates, because here is the definition for relativism in Andrew Flew's Dictionary of Philosophy: "The relativist recognizes: first, the importance of the social environment in determining the content of beliefs both about what is and what ought to be the case; and, second, the possible diversity about such social environments... To be a relativist about value [that is, what's right or wrong] is to maintain that there are no universal standards of good and bad, right and wrong... To be a relativist about fact is to maintain that there is no such thing as objective knowledge of reality independent of the knower."

So you can see the close connection between The Social Construction of Reality and what you already know about relativism. Berger's book shows and argues for how our social environment determines all of our beliefs, and his argument is clear and convincing. We also recognize that social standards can vary widely, right? Culture changes dramatically both over time and over distance. You probably know just from your own personal experiences how very different society and culture is. If this is true, then our concept of what's right and wrong is also the product of culture, and since culture varies, these concepts of value vary too. It's wrong in India to kiss a woman in public, but it's perfectly acceptable in the U.S. It's wrong in the U.S. for the police to search your house without just cause, but this is considered acceptable in India. You see what I mean?

So now look at how we view the truth. In the modern Western world, we believe that the truth is what we can see, touch, hear, etc. We're empiricists, and we believe that science is truthful, right? But 600 years ago, this same Western world believed in things beyond the senses, namely spirits, angels, and God. What was true was what the Bible said or what religious leaders commanded. Our whole perspective about what the truth is, how we get it, and how we can use it changes dramatically over time and distance, just like our standards of value. As we've seen from Indian mystics, their notion of truth is something internally attained by reaching higher levels of consciousness. The American notion of truth tends to be what we can sense, or what scientists are doing in laboratories. Which is ultimately right and wrong? Which is really closer to the objective truth? How the hell would we know?!?

So that's that book. Now let me talk about The Denial of Death which is one of my all time favorites. The last book addresses issues that affect us as a society or culture, but this book addresses issues on a more personal level. Whereas Berger's book talks about "us" as a group, Becker's book talks about "you" and "me" as individuals. That's why I think it's so much more personally heavy and grim.

Let's break it down. Becker first says that we as humans all fear death. By death, he doesn't just mean losing our physical life, like if a car runs us down and kills us. After all, most animals have this kind of fear too. Rather, humans fear both physical death and the loss of personal meaning and significance. We all want to believe that our life has meaning, or at least some sort of purpose, right? We psychologically and philosophically fear the possibility that our life has no meaning, and that when we die our life will leave no impression on the world.

As a result of this fear, Becker states that we tend to take on "immortality projects." What he means is, we tend to accept or create roles for ourselves that will help ensure that our lives do have meaning and will live on even after we physically die. We strive to make our lives meaningful, and we try to engage in activities that will somehow affect the world in a longlasting way.

Here's where the real problems start to unfold. First of all, look at the way we live our everyday lives. We shower each day to smell good, we comb our hair, we wear nice and modest clothes. When you and I see each other, for example, we say "hello, Paul" and "hello, so and so" and we're both very polite, courteous, and all of those things. But this truth is, we're just animals. We were born naked, we naturally smell bad, and we shit and piss and puke and fart. We're not pretty animals, but we like to deny these facts about ourselves. We build special little rooms where we can shit in private, and create soaps that will make us smell better than we really do. We wear clothes to cover up our ugly nakedness; we dress up to make us look and feel prettier than we really are. We also act calmer and more patient than we often really feel.

So in a way, much of our everyday lives is designed to ignore the ugly aspects about life. I can pretty much assume, for instance, that the thought of someone shitting right in front of you is pretty damn abhorrent, right? But why? That person shits every day, and so do you and I. We just don't like thinking about it, even though it's one of the most natural things a person can do. Now, why do you think we deceive ourselves this way? Becker and other psychoanalysts have an answer: it's because these ugly aspects of ourselves remind us that we're just animals too. When we see a chicken crossing the road, none of us believes that that chicken has a special purpose in life, do we? But if we're just animals too, maybe we don't have a special purpose either. In fact, we don't mourn the death of a chicken at all; once it's dead, no one really gives a damn. But if we're just animals too, maybe no one cares about us either. Maybe our deaths are just as meaningless and anonymous as a chicken's or a worm's. So when we deny or ignore these animalistic aspects of ourselves, like shitting and pissing, we're trying to overlook the fact that as animals, we may have no meaning or purpose in life.

Some people object to this right away, of course. Many religious people say that God made us special, and that he gave us a purpose. That's all well and good, but many of us don't buy it. Who is this God? How do you know he exists? How do you know that he gave us a purpose? It's all very vague and strange to many of us. Still, some people choose to believe in God, and in so doing, believe that God has a purpose for us. In a way, if you accept this for whatever reason, the problem of death is answered. Not only does God give your life meaning, but he even gives you an afterlife after your death that will last forever.

So maybe this issue wouldn't really disturb someone who really does believe in God and an afterlife, right? But it would still very much affect a disbeliever like myself... and maybe you too. Speaking only for myself on a personal level, I can't accept the idea of God at all. It makes no rational or intuitive sense to me. I still respect theists very much, because I ultimately don't know who's right or who's wrong. Who knows? Maybe God really does exist and I'm wrong. Still, I have a strong personal conviction and intuition that God doesn't exist, and I live my life that way.

For us disbelievers, however, the problem of death looms largely over our lives. I honestly don't know if I have a purpose, or if my life will have any longlasting meaning. I don't believe in an afterlife or fate, so in this sense, the problem of death is very serious. Evolution shows that humans are just animals like any other creature, so why would we be special? Science time and again shows that life often works randomly, so why would we be somehow designed to have a purpose? I don't know, I don't know.

So let's get back to the book, because it goes even deeper. When we're children, we think we're immortal; we think the world revolves around us, don't we? When we're hungry, we scream at the top of our lungs to command the world to feed us. When we want to shit, we just do it! And when the shit in our diapers makes us feel uncomfortable because it feels gross and smells awful, we cry until someone cleans it up. Psychoanalysts have often noticed that the moment a child realizes that they shit, it's a traumatic moment. Why? First if all, we don't want to shit. We just do it because we have to. We think we can control our bodies, but shitting reminds us that we can't. Second of all, shit comes from inside us. And what is shit? This completely gross stuff that we naturally hate. And yet this awful shit is coming out of our bodies! So in a way, shitting is a human being's first lesson that we don't have total control over our bodies and that our bodies are quite imperfect.

Life continues to teach a child just how flawed and mortal they really are. We learn that the world doesn't revolve around us, and we learn that we can feel great pain if we're not careful. In other words, we soon realize that we're just animals and that our original feelings of power and immortality were simply wrong. But since we don't want to accept that fact, we create meaning for ourselves to make us FEEL powerful and immortal. Becker called this our "causa sui" project, which means "cause of itself" in Latin. We don't want to feel dependent on our mother and father anymore, and we don't want to feel weak. We want to become self- reliant, to be our own parent and our own creator. So we start to live our lives with these little lies that help make us feel better, because in truth, we do depend on other people and are weak.

Now you can see that we try to give our life meaning with these feelings and illusions that we create for ourselves. Becker calls this desire for meaning and the fear of death the two primary principles in our life: we seek to avoid death, and at the same time, we seek to achieve more life.

Think of this as a spectrum, then. On the left side is death, the thing we fear most. This is meaninglessness, purposelessness, and physical death. On the right side is life, the thing we seek most. This is meaning, purpose, and immortality. When we think of ourselves as rational people who transcend the physical world, we're on the righthand side of the spectrum. When we realize that we're just shitting animals, we're on the lefthand side.

There are unique problems at either extreme. Imagine a person who is too convinced that they have meaning and purpose. They do not think of themselves as an animal at all, but rather as a special, almost angelic entity. This may make them feel good at one level, but life and experience constantly reminds them that they are animals. If this person is too out of touch with the fact that they're flawed and animalistic, then they become neurotic.

The person who feels compelled to wash their hands constantly to avoid germs and disease is this kind of person; they can't accept the fact that we're germy creatures who get dirty all the time. The best example of someone who is too much on this end of the spectrum is the schizophrenic. Schizophrenia is not having multiple personalities, but rather when someone sees or hears things that aren't there. There are many symptoms for schizophrenia, like not eating, not sleeping, and becoming paranoid.

So it's possible to strive for too much meaning. After all, we are animals who need to eat, sleep, and go to the bathroom. To strive too much is to make out world become very focused just on ourself, just like a little child's does. When someone laughs, we might think it has something to do with us. But when we believe too much that we're angels or special or perfect, life teaches us harsh lessons. We need to remember that we're flawed animals.

One is also neurotic, however, if they're too much on the other end of the spectrum. The person who is too aware that they're an animal, and that they have no meaning in life becomes depressed. A depressed enough person has trouble just performing normal activities, like getting out of bed each morning or going to school. Whereas the schizophrenic tries to conquer life and loses, the depressed person lets life conquer them too easily. They not only lose hope, but they stop trying to do anything at all. They lose heart and meaning. This person tends to sleep a lot, stay very quiet, mope around, and go off by themselves.

As you can see, either end of the spectrum is neurotic. So what about the middle? Well, it's neurotic too! Why? Because it's also a lie, through and through. It only appears normal because we socially accept it as normal. We all have our own lies and illusions that we use everyday. Let me go through some of them now.

Some people have so much trouble creating meaning in their lives, they try to gain purpose from someone else, someone they consider higher than themselves. We see this happen when a child idolizes their parent, or a fan worships a rock musician, or someone obeys their priest, or a cult member just accepts the word of their leader. This is called "transference," because it's an attempt to transfer meaning and responsibility onto something or someone else. In this case, a person transfers their responsibility to a leader, and the leader makes their life feel meaningful.

Of course, we know this is bullshit. Take this example: imagine there's a bowl of candy laying out on a table around a group of people. No one knows who's candy it is, and no one really wants to risk eating candy that isn't theirs. But if one daring person takes that first piece of candy, the rest will all take a piece too. If someone comes in and blames everyone for eating the candy, the group will turn to this first guy and say, "He took it first!" In other words, they transfer responsibility to this first person, even though they're as guilty as anyone else. It's just a lie of transference. Children shouldn't idolize their parents, because their parents are human and imperfect too. Cult leaders and priests are often not only mistaken, but corrupt and evil as well.

Here's something else we do, though, that comes a lot closer to home. Just as a group transfers their power to a leader to gain meaning, we often transfer our power to another person for the same reason. It's called love! We often think that if only we met the right person, our life would suddenly be happier and that our life would suddenly have great meaning. Whether it's sex or romance or companionship you're after, it's all because you think you will find meaning in and through that other person. The problem is that this person is human and flawed too, just like you. You seek meaning to avoid the reality of your own flaws, but seeking solace in love is only to embrace the flaws of someone else. People who try to find meaning in sex quickly realize just how much it confirms that we're just animals. Lovers soon realize just how imperfect their partner is.

Many women do the same thing with children. They think that somehow their life will find meaning and satisfaction once they get married and start a family; but why? Children can die. Children are also human and flawed, and their lives have no more meaning than their parents' lives. It's just a placebo. And yet, don't we all buy into it? I know I do. I often believe that one day I will fall in love with someone, and that will make my life happier and more meaningful. Sometimes I even hope to have a family and raise kids. But why? What real good will it do? Will it really provide me with the philosophical and personal satisfaction I seek? That remains to be seen.

Here's another illusion we tend to have. Many artists think that their art gives their life meaning. We, as a society and human race, tend to believe that a painting or a piece of music is transcendent and meaningful. But why? First of all, it's only material like anything else, and all material things decay and fade away. Secondly, the only meaning these artworks have is meaning we give to them. But as Social Construction of Reality showed us, culture changes in unknowable ways. Today's masterpiece may be tomorrow's forgotten trash. Scholars do the same thing as artists. Scholars think their book or their ideas will last in the world and will give them a sort of immortal meaning. But seriously and honestly, it doesn't work out that way. Books go ignored and ideas are soon forgotten.

Nothing lasts forever, you see, not just physically but meaningfully. If you become a famous person some day, even after you die some people will remember you for a while. But I guarantee that over time, people will forget you. If not forgotten, people's memory of you will become so distorted and inaccurate that it won't even resemble you anymore. It'll be some strange, fictionalized version of you. Nothing is immortal... nothing. Everything must die, whether we want to accept it or not.

This is the heart of existentialism. Some existentialists are Kierkegaard, Jaspers, Heidegger, Sartre, and to some extent Nietzsche. They all essentially believed that all of our individual and collective efforts will eventually amount to nothing. They fully embraced the fact that nothing lasts forever, and this caused them each great anxiety, as you can imagine. Their main goal was just to accept personal responsibility for their life despite meaninglessness. Why? Because that's all they could do.

There's no answer, you see. Kierkegaard and Rank thought they had an answer, though, so you be the judge. They both believed that the best thing we can do in life is destroy all the illusions we hold, which basically means to deconstruct all the lies we socially and personally have constructed. If you throw out all of these lies, however, your ego is nearly shattered. You realize just how meaningless and fragile you really are. Once you come to this brutally honest stage, both men say that we need to just embrace a higher power and accept our humble position beneath it. Kierkegaard, in a famous passage, calls this the "leap of faith;" he personally embraced God, and he is the only christian existentialist that I can think of. Rank embraced a kind of modern, New Age type of mystical higher power, like the mystics we talk about in World Religions class do.

The problem is, many of us can't accept that answer, and Becker is one of them. I think that embracing any sort of higher power is virtually identical to transferring your meaning to anything or anyone else. Why is it any different? Why is faith in a higher power any better than faith in a lover? This is especially tough considering just how strange and unknowable this higher power is. Like I've already said, I didn't believe in God when we began this existential journey, so why should I start now? It's still strange and unbelievable to me.

The Denial of Death simply ends there, you see. He offers no answer because he has no answer. That's it.

Let me conclude this since I've written so much already. You may wonder if I have found any personal solution to this problem of death. Like I said, there isn't an ultimate answer... and that's part of the problem! Still, maybe a personal answer can be offered, like Kierkegaard's leap of faith.

Let me be very honest and personal about this, without being specific. At one point, this problem of meaning nearly did kill me, physically, in an existential way. The problem, you must understand, is multi-faceted; it's not just physical death, but realizing that I had no purpose or meaning in life. When you're trying to figure out what career you want in life, this problem becomes even more intense. If there is no meaning in life, what's the point of choosing this career over that one? What's the point of living at all?

Like many people, I considered suicide very seriously for quite a while. This was not the temper-tantrumed, adolescent kind of suicide. That kind is like a bratty child saying, "Oh yeah? Well, once I kill myself, they'll sure be sorry!" or a spoiled child saying "Life sucks! Fuck it!" No, the suicide I considered was very calm and numb. My thoughts and feelings had reached such an existential depth that I felt virtually egoless, like I barely existed at all. It seemed to me that since I felt so lifeless, there really wouldn't be much of a difference between living and dying.

But this was only a consideration, and I never attempted it like some friends I know did. It seemed pointless to end this life when it, despite its possible meaninglessness, was all I had and all I ever planned to have.

Still, there came a point when even though I was alive, I felt quite dead. I was just numb, drifting along with no hopes or aspirations. In this sense, I really did die. But now I recall what a close friend said about finding happiness in life. She said she found joy in the small things, like a butterfly going by or a song here and there. When you're dead in the way you feel, that's absolutely true; when you're dead, the simplest sign of life becomes a mountain of meaning and joy. I remember looking up at the full moon one night and simply smiling like I had seen the face of God. I know it's just a rock in the sky, but it was so beautiful and bright... it brought me immeasurable pleasure. I can't explain it.

Maybe this all relates to the mysticism we sometimes read about. Remember how the mystics say "die before you die," or that "you must die... consciously." Hmmm... there might be something to it.

I don't claim to have any answers, but I certainly thank you for reading.

What do you think? Let me know...