Reflections on Human Motivation

August 30, 2013

Ernest Becker's "Escape from Evil" is one of the most sobering, humbling  and mind-opening books I’ve read in a long time. It is a companion to Becker's Pulitzer Prize winning book, "The Denial of Death", which I re-read after many years just following my first reading of "Escape from Evil". My notes below include some modification of my reaction to "Escape.." based on the subsequent reading of "Denial of Death".
This may be the most profoundly illuminating descriptions of human motivation which I have ever read. I identify with it again and again.. There is however a central assertion and conviction of Becker's with which I disagree, at least as I understand Becker.  More below.
Becker’s basic thesis is that  much of what we do, positive and perverse, is designed and motivated, knowingly or unknowingly, to deny the reality of death and to try to secure our immortality. We do this by seeking the "heroic", by differentiating ourselves as unique even, often by seeking to establish our superiority vs. the "other".
There is much in this thesis with which one has to agree including, of course, the drive to avoid death.  Most of all I agree that the driving  motivation in all our lives is to be significant, to have a purpose in life that matters, to have a life that counts, while we are here and hopefully one that has meaning after one’s death.
What one hopes to realize through one’s children and grandchildren and what they will do is a manifestation of this. (Even last week as I learned that John’s and Maggie’s newly born son would carry my name, I must confess to a sense of satisfaction that my name and that of my son’s would be continued.)  Also I am sure that the desire to have a life that matters on a personal level has been part of my motivation to write books and papers and something as trivial as a blog, leaving thoughts behind which will be deemed by some to be of value.  Even my continuing with my diaries reflects the desire of wanting something which I have learned or experienced to live pastmy life.  It is a desire in Becker’s terms to “immortalize” my life and in that sense it is self-serving even as it seeks to benefit others.
Becker makes it clear that one of the perversities of human nature is that the deep-seated desire to matter, to count, leads us all to too often establish our own significance by comparing ourselves versus some “other.”  We elevate ourselves, we take self satisfaction, we aim to achieve a measure of worth, even “heroism” by contrasting ourselves to another person or group whom we define and/or join with others as less worthy and in the worst of cases “inhuman.”  That is what came to pass as blacks were lynched, Jews were killed and as tribal conflicts in parts of Africa, Afghanistan and other countries cause the deaths of hundreds of thousands today.
As Becker says, man “is in the constant struggle not to be diminished in his importance.”  Think of this in the context of today's news.  How  could people not feel “diminished” as they’re pulled over on the road or stopped on the street simply because they are Black or wearing baggy clothes.  
As William James expressed it:  “Failure, then failure! so the world stamps us at every turn.  We strew it with our blunders, our misdeeds, our lost opportunities, with all the memorials of our inadequacy to our vocation.  And with what a damning emphasis does it then blot us out…The subtlest forms of suffering known to man are connected with the poisonous humiliations incidental to these results.” 

Close to home, I can still recall several African-American women at P&G tell me of a feeling like this as they were in a meeting with a superior and he or she looked past them to a more junior white person (who reported to one of them), conveying knowingly or unknowingly, the judgement that the white person would be more likely to have the answer. 
Becker goes on to highlight the role of money and all that money can buy, and the mental state of security which money afford, as increasingly the basis for power and for establishing one’s advantage and superiority vs. others.  To be sure, money has always been a sign of and source of power.  Look at the pyramids in Egypt and the palaces in Russia.  But today, Becker would assert, particularly with the greater secularization of our society, and with fewer people believing that what really matters is the world to come and how one prepares for it, the signs of power and accomplishment, evidenced by money and what it buys, has become more and more important. 
The insight conveyed by this perspective,  almost 40 years after Becker wrote it, is altogether evident.  One need only think of the battles that go on in boardrooms as CEOs compare their salaries to other CEOs. Or one baseball player compares his contract to another.  They really don’t need more money.  What they do need (or so they believe),is the public signal and personal affirmation that the higher salary will represent.  The cars one drives,  the clothes one wears; the vacations one takes, the way one flies, the house one lives in are all chosen and displayed to at least in part demonstrate and affirm that one matters and has "made it"; in other words to establish one’s superiority. 

Becker would go on, I suspect, to characterize acts of charity in no small measure as self-serving, as another means of establishing one’s self-esteem.  And I would acknowledge there is truth to that, a lot of truth.  And he would, I expect ,go even further, attributing to a artist like Michelangelo or Tolstoy a desire to achieve immortality. And who is to say that was not part of their motivation. Certainly not I. 

But I believe Becker reaches a too simplistic and in the end pessimistic conclusion on all thisbelieve  there is amotivation in creating a great piece of art or carrying out a good job at work, or performing a brilliant operation in a complex surgery, or giving of one's time or fortune or carrying out an act of kindness to help another person or a great cause,  there is in all these acts the simple instinct of doing what should be done because it is right to do it.  There are artists who painted pictures and who wrote books, I am sure, who were driven to bring that picture or story to life whether anyone ever saw or read it or not. There are people who have given of themselves to others not caring if this was recognized by anyone else. I believe that drives like these are anchored  in a person's  doing what they felt their sense of self and/or their relationship to a higher power, call it what you will,  commanded that they do in the moment.   That’s an instinct that is indisputable.And I do not believe it has much  to do with the fear of death or even the desire to achieve immortality. It is an instinct to do what you believe is right, in the moment.

Becker’s personal view of reality it seems to me, accurate as it is in so many ways, is one that has gives little credence to  the spiritual, to  the genuine possibility  that there is a transcendent power or instinct, undefined as it is, that calls on us to be our best, to do what is right because it is right, because this is what we need to do to matter.  Is this at the same time a manifestation of an instinct to achieve immortality?  Maybe in part but I believe it is much more than this. 

It was after writing this statement that I started to read, "The Denial of Death". And here, in his typcial brilliant exposition, far clearer and more eloquent than anything I could muster, Becker asserts this possibility. In attacking what he describes as "sterile utopianism, he describes their "fallacy is (not recognizing) that fear of death is not the only motive of live, heroic transcendnce, victory over evil for mankind as a whole, for unborn generations, consecration of one's existence to higher meaning--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". And yet, Becker seems to go on quickly to express grave doubt and lack of faith in the lasting strength and impact of such a motivational source as he identifies with this sobering perspective of Andre Malraux in "The Human Condition"--that it takes sixty years of incredible suffering to make such an individual (the one described above) and then he is good only for dying. This painful paradox if not lost on the person himself--least all himself". Just having had my 75th birthday, I must say I do not share this forlorn view even as I recognize my inevitable death and inability to complete what I regard as most important. I will keep trying.

Stepping back, Becker rightly asserts that the drive of people flows from an instinctive desire to elevate ourselvesin our self esteem and that accomplishing this leads us to often compare ourselves to others.  That’s a fact that will never leave us.  

Also, it must be acknowledged that establishing one’s significance versus others importantly includes gaining power and other visible signs of achievement, including money. I personally can identify myself in such motivations.  However, I believe  Becker’s singular focus on money and the goods it can acquire is overblown by a considerable degree.  Many of the people who have sought power to achieve ends, including ends which are positive such as helping the sick or  terribly destructive ends such as liquidating a population felt to be "alien" are not driven by the pursuit of money other than money's being the means to carry out these goals, which in the end are a representation of what they believe is needed for them to matter. 

In the end, I draw back to my basic belief--my faith-- that we are here on earth to make the most of our God-given (or if you don’t believe in God, name your source) potential and that, if we are to fulfill that potential, we have to direct our abilities, importantly to help others in the world around us.  In doing that, we must never lose the recognition that “everyone counts,” that we are all driven by the same instincts and similar fears, needs and ambitions and that we need to continue to learn how to better honor our beliefs and help one another in this passing journey which all of us are part of. 

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