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