Our Big Little White Lies

Treat Thompson



The Tally by Toni Hamel

My third grade teacher told me there’s nothing wrong with a little white lie. She said sometimes you need them to protect people’s feelings. What she didn’t mention was that the only way to live is by lying…to ourselves.

We lie so much that we put ourselves into psychosis. Our delusion disconnects us from reality. And thank god for that—reality would drive us insane.

The problem with reality starts with the dilemma of being human. Ernest Becker described it as being both above nature and hopelessly bound by it.

Man has a symbolic identity that brings him sharply out of nature. He is a symbolic self, a creature with a name, a life history. He is a creator with a mind that soars out to speculate about atoms and infinity, who can place himself imaginatively at a point in space and contemplate bemusedly his own planet. This immense expansion, this dexterity, this ethereality, this self-consciousness gives to man literally the status of a small god in nature, as the Renaissance thinkers knew.

Yet, at the same time, as the Eastern sages also knew, man is a worm and food for worms. This is the paradox: he is out of nature and hopelessly in it; he is dual, up in the stars and yet housed in a heart-pumping, breath-gasping body that once belonged to a fish and still carries the gill-marks to prove it. His body is a material fleshy casing that is alien to him in many ways—the strangest and most repugnant way being that it aches and bleeds and will decay and die.

Man is literally split in two: he has an awareness of his own splendid uniqueness in that he sticks out of nature with a towering majesty, and yet he goes back into the ground a few feet in order blindly and dumbly to rot and disappear forever. It is a terrifying dilemma to be in and to have to live with.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

We suffer by having to live with an overwhelming awareness of life.

While animals only experience what’s directly in front of them, we experience what’s in front of us, we think about how yesterday was, and we wonder how tomorrow will be, where our careers are going, who we will marry, what will happen when the sun cools out, what’s the point of being alive, what is being alive, and what are we anyways.

Ernest Becker calls it an experiential burden.

[Man] 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.

Man can’t even take his own body for granted as can other animals. … Man’s body is a problem to him that has to be explained. Not only his body is strange, but also its inner landscape, the memories and dreams. Man’s very insides—his self—are foreign to him. He doesn’t know who he is, why he was born, what he is doing on the planet, what he is supposed to do, what he can expect. His own existence is incomprehensible to him, a miracle just like the rest of creation, closer to him, right near his pounding heart, but for that reason all the more strange. Each thing is a problem, and man can shut out nothing.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

Being a mortal with this level of awareness is too much to live with.

That’s why we start telling big lies very early in life to repress reality indefinitely. Otherwise, we’d be paralyzed by how overwhelming life is.

The world as it is, creation out of the void, things as they are, things as they are not, are too much for us to be able to stand. Or, better: they would be too much for us to bear without crumbling in a faint, trembling like a leaf, standing in a trance in response to the movement, colors, and odors of the world. I say “would be” because most of us—by the time we leave childhood—have repressed our vision of the primary miraculousness of creation. We have closed it off, changed it, and no longer perceive the world as it is to raw experience.

… We change these heavily emotional perceptions precisely because we need to move about in the world with some kind of [composure], some kind of strength and directness; we can’t keep gaping with our heart in our mouth, greedily sucking up with our eyes everything great and powerful that strikes us.

The great boon of repression is that it makes it possible to live decisively in an overwhelmingly miraculous and incomprehensible world, a world so full of beauty, majesty, and terror that if animals perceived it all they would be paralyzed to act.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

Our biggest lies are the characters we play and the societies we participate in.

We build our lives around culture, passions, relationships, careers, and laws because, compared to the universe, they are much more manageable things to spend a lifetime conquering.

Everything that man does in his symbolic world is an attempt to deny and overcome his grotesque fate. He literally drives himself into a blind obliviousness with social games, psychological tricks, personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of his situation that they are forms of madness—agreed madness, shared madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same.

We don’t want to admit that we are fundamentally dishonest about reality, that we do not really control our own lives. We don’t want to admit that we do not stand alone, that we always rely on something that transcends us, some system of ideas and powers in which we are embedded and which support us.

This power is not always obvious. It need not be overtly a god or openly a stronger person, but it can be the power of an all-absorbing activity, a passion, a dedication to a game, a way of life, that like a comfortable web keeps a person buoyed up and ignorant of himself, of the fact that he does not rest on his own center.

All of us are driven to be supported in a self-forgetful way, ignorant of what energies we really draw on, of the kind of lie we have fashioned in order to live securely and serenely.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

The same repression happens with our awareness of death. We can’t function with the constant fear of death, so we deny it entirely.

In normal times we move about actually without ever believing in our own death, as if we fully believed in our own corporeal immortality. We are intent on mastering death…. A man will say, of course, that he knows he will die some day, but he does not really care. He is having a good time with living, and he does not think about death and does not care to bother about it—but this is a purely intellectual, verbal admission. The affect of fear is repressed.

As Santayana once put it: a lion must feel more secure that God is on his side than a gazelle. On the most elemental level the organism works actively against its own fragility by seeking to expand and perpetuate itself in living experience; instead of shrinking, it moves toward more life.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

These defences make us feel comfortable in the world.  Our courage to live comes from the confidence our delusions bring. It’s an invention to live in peace.

This despair [man] avoids by building defenses; and these defenses allow him to feel a basic sense of self-worth, of meaningfulness, of power. They allow him to feel that he controls his life and his death, that he really does live and act as a willful and free individual, that he has a unique and self-fashioned identity, that he is somebody—not just a trembling accident germinated on a hothouse planet that Carlyle for all time called a “hall of doom.”

Man had to invent and create out of himself the limitations of perception and the [composure] to live on this planet.

The hostility to psychoanalysis in the past, today, and in the future, will always be a hostility against admitting that man lives by lying to himself about himself and about his world, and that character, to follow Ferenczi and Brown, is a vital lie.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

But what does life look like without these defences? Ernest Becker argues it looks schizophrenic.

The tragedy of life that Searles is referring to is the one we have been discussing: man’s finitude, his dread of death and of the overwhelmingness of life. The schizophrenic feels these more than anyone else because he has not been able to build the confident defenses that a person normally uses to deny them.

The schizophrenic’s misfortune is that he has been burdened with extra anxieties, extra guilt, extra helplessness, an even more unpredictable and unsupportive environment. He is not surely seated in his body, has no secure base from which to negotiate a defiance of and a denial of the real nature of the world.

…He has to contrive extra-ingenious and extra-desperate ways of living in the world that will keep him from being torn apart by experience, since he is already almost apart.

We see again confirmed the point of view that a person’s character is a defense against despair, an attempt to avoid insanity because of the real nature of the world. Searles looks at schizophrenia precisely as the result of the inability to shut out terror, as a desperate style of living with terror.

Frankly I don’t know anything more [clear] that needs to be said about this syndrome: it is a failure in humanization, which means a failure to confidently deny man’s real situation on this planet.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

So, even though we build our lives around fairy tales and man-made ideas with no natural value, it’s still much better than the alternative.

When you get a person to emerge into life, away from his dependencies, his automatic safety in the cloak of someone else’s power, what joy can you promise him with the burden of his aloneness? When you get a person to look at the sun as it bakes down on the daily carnage taking place on earth, the ridiculous accidents, the utter fragility of life, the powerlessness of those he thought most powerful—what comfort can you give him from a psychotherapeutic point of view?

What would the average man do with a full consciousness of absurdity?

[Man] wants to be a god with only the equipment of an animal, and so he thrives on fantasies.

Ernest Becker, The Denial of Death (1973)

I’ll happily swap the misery of reality for the misery of life in society.