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What Makes You Human?

Your answer goes deeper than you might think. Introducing The Birth and Death of Meaning and the beginning of a new series exploring the works of its author Ernest Becker.

Rhonda Robinson


February 10, 2014 - 9:30 am


Have you ever gazed into the eyes of a newborn? Could you feel the pull of your soul into hers?

Hold your answer. We’ll get back to that.

At the sincere behest of a respected reader, I’ve begun a new series; the exploration into the works of Ernest Becker. Our introduction to Becker begins with Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man. 

At first blush his point seems overly simplistic.

“[D]ualism of experience–the fact that all objects have both an inside and an outside…It is one of the great mysteries of the universe, that has intrigued man since remotest times. It is the basis of the belief in souls and spirits. Man discovered it and elaborated it because of his own self-reflexivity, the real and apparent contradiction between the inside of his body–his thoughts and feelings, and the outside…These are hardly new or startling thoughts, but they help us to introduce the problem of man’s distinctive interiority…”

Becker goes on to explain that this reality “presents a poignant problem that dogs us all our life.” I would suggest that not only does it “dog us” it also imprisons or sets us free. How we view the “inside” of man, is directly related not only to our own value and happiness but our right to pursue that happiness.

One of the most noticeable aspects of reading Becker is his constant referral to human beings as “organisms.”

No doubt this is normal fare for most, especially in a college setting. However, it struck me as odd. Consider contrasting this terminology with that of an airline pilot. He does not give an account of how many organisms are on board. Rather the organisms that fill his seats are officially counted as “souls.”

Does it matter? Yes. How we view one another, and the terminology used is exceedingly important. It is a direct reflection of value. Granted, psychology is a scientific study, but the terminology does reflect the interpretation of its subjects.

The more I thought about Becker’s introduction to dualism the more I realized just how extraordinary our dualism actually is. Although as he said, it may not be a new or a startling thought, it is an astonishing fact.

Have you ever been in a phone conversation and, without a word from the other person, “feel” their response? What about our “inside’s” ability to feel excruciating pain? Anyone that has ever felt profound grief understands how devastating that pain is.

We are the only “organisms” endowed with language, both spoken and written. Is that not one “inside” connecting to another “inside”? Our ability to hurt, destroy, uplift and love one another are acts solely of the self, spirit or inside, whatever you choose to call it.

Becker points out that from an early age, from our first lie, we learn to protect our inner selves from the world around us. We are selective to whom we reveal all aspects of that self.

For many years I worked in a domestic violence shelter. We saw scores of women with black eyes and bruised arms. But if you looked deeper, you could see where the real abuse took place–their inner selves. Every woman I met would tell you they would rather have a broken bone than suffer the mental, verbal abuse. A broken bone heals– a blow to the inner self, seldom does.

How many of us have been hurt, even had our lives altered by something a parent, or someone we admired, said to us? These wounds can last the span of a lifetime.

I submit that we are far more than organisms. We are created in the image of God. In that, it is our “inner” selves that are created in His image. We alone hold the ability to conceive of an idea, and then create it. We can put forth something into the universe that did not exist before. We alone, not only have the ability to conceive of a future, but have a need to see inside our mind’s eye the future for which we hope.

If that were so each and every person on this earth is indispensable, we come into the world wholly unique. However, that’s not the way Becker sees it.


“The child proceeds through different levels of mastery and self-control, until at the end of his early growth and training he is unrecognizable: what began as a merely biological miracle that popped into the world, has now become a social person: the animal stranger is now a member of a social group. When the process of socialization is completed, a new type of being has been created. Socialization means the formation of human beings out of helpless, dependent animal matter. Little wonder that the idea is basic to the science of sociology: it explains the original formation of the social self.”

According to the author, the world around the child presses in and creates the social being out of a mere organism–the outside creates the inside.

Full disclaimer: I have never studied children in a laboratory or clinical setting. My observations are of numerous rug rats in their natural habitat over a period of thirty-six years.

It’s my experience that from the earliest awareness at the breast these “organisms” display the will and power of an intact and fully formed inner self. The amount of personality packed within a helpless frame is almost incomprehensible.

I’ll ask you again. Have you looked deeply into the eyes of your newborn child? Did you feel your soul connect with hers?

We are far more than socially constructed organisms. We are created as a higher being, not because of our intellect. Rather, because our inner self is not organic and cannot be duplicated.

If I am right, then we can hold these truths to be self-evident, “that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights…” If I’m wrong, we are merely pliable creatures with only the rights granted to us by our social constructs.

Join the conversation:

Birth and Death of Meaning: An Interdisciplinary Perspective on the Problem of Man.



Photo credits: Shutterstock,  Max Bukovski,  hxdbzxy,  vlavetal

Rhonda Robinson writes on the social, political and parenting issues currently shaping the American family. She lives with her husband and teenage daughter in Middle Tennessee. Follow on twitter @amotherslife

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For what be its worth, I would like to chime in on the current undertaking by Rhonda Robinson. The note I wish to strike is one that still resounds in me, some 40 years after my first encounter with Ernest Becker, prompting me to read more and more upto an interview with the man shortly before his death. (I once had a student in a class for achievers at my university who had attended classes of Becker at another university. Becker revealed, so to speak, the "organism" in all us men as he often lay down in the grass of a student quad and watched those young beautiful "organisms", better known as female students, pass by. It was good to know that I, a man of "pure" intellect (ha!) was not alone.) I would like to impress upon Robinson's readers that she is mediating to them an opportunity to enrich their self-understanding within the "conditio humana". I will note my first reaction as sort of advertisement.

I was at the time an Associate Prof. swirling around in literature and some philosophy. A colleage visited me during the Christmas break. While at the airport my colleague bougth Becker's "The Denial of Death" (for which Becker won a Pulitzer Prize) in order to have something to read. And read he did!! Well, he gave me the book as a gift. And I put it aside for browsing later on ("What could be so good about an airport book?", I thought.) Eventually I got around to the book and read and read and read, then other books by Becker, even pushing aside my research projects to spend some years reading Becker and books on psychology and sociology. The man had stimulated me as no other. He was introducing me the madness, the "vital lie", that consttutes us humans in our normality. At that time universities required during the first two years a certain number of general education courses (making up for the failure of American highschool education). I would, if I had the power, require EVERY college student to read "The Denial of Death". Indeed, 12th graders in highschool would profit enormously.

What I am trying to do with tale of my encounter with Becker, is to express my delight that Rhonda has taken up the subject. I do hope that her readers will be inspired to "encounter" that really insightful thinker, Ernest Becker. (I am also taking delight in observing how Rhonda herself react to Becker. We went in different directions, i.e., Rhonda focusing upon a child--an "organism" just beginning the story of BECOMING human and I spent hours reading books on the theoretical and, more interesting, the literary response to "death". << Could a difference between men and women be at work here? >> Of all the periods that occupied themselves with "death", the Baroque period is the most insightful as the effects of the 30 Years War were still present in the European mind. I wonder at times if Becker, a somewhat secularized Jew, did not have at the back of his mind the 6 Year War against Jews, namely Hitler's imposed Holocaust. Whatever the man aided me to understand my own depths.

Just a note: The book reviewed for this article is pedagogically an excellent introduction into Becker's methodology and his psychology. I look forward to Rhonda's further articles on Becker and find pleasure trying to guess how she will react.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
Weirdly and wildly off topic; the Europeans gave every piece of land a name. Bag Ends, from Tolkien is one minor example from literature. I puzzled over this until I perceived they needed a way for "soldiers" to get back to where they came from. The governments could dislocate their men, but there needed to be a way to get them back again. You can only go back to what you can name.
1 year ago
1 year ago Link To Comment
>>>I’ll ask you again. Have you looked deeply into the eyes of your newborn child? Did you feel your soul connect with hers?
From her birth I could look into my daughters' eyes and read her mind, to a degree that came to startle her. My son was a closed book to me, even though he was the child most like me.
Make of that what you will, but I know they are souls created, not by me, but given into my temporary care.
1 year ago
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