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Becker's Vital Lie

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Becker's vital lie starts off with the notion of heroism. Heroism, in this sense, is the drive to have the world aware of our existence. It is universal and inherent in all of us. The two concepts of heroism are narcissism, which is natural self-interest, and self-expansion, which is the desire to sustain our existence. Becker points out that our attempts at getting others to know that we exist stems from our fear of death. We are not aware of it, but that fear is present behind all our normal functions. Becker believes that the fear of death is innate and plays a central role in our character development. It is the driving force behind our actions, belief, thinking, and everything we do as humans. The fear of death also ties into what Becker calls the existential dilemma. To exist as humans is to be caught in this existential dilemma, the notion that humans are wholly organic and wholly symbolic. The organic body is limited to death and determination and is finite. The symbolic body is the freedom of thought and defiance of finitude and determination. The word "existential" describes how humans exist, the very condition of being human, and the characterizations of our existence. "Dilemma" describes the struggle between two opposing sets of demands. It is distinguished from a problem because a problem implies a solution. The attempt to resolve the dilemma would destroy the very condition that makes us human.

Becker uses the existential dilemma to reinterpret Sigmund Freud's explanation of childhood developmental stages. Freud believed that we should never underestimate what goes on in the psyche of a young child because it will show how that child will shape himself as an adult. He observes that from infancy to age six, the child goes through developmental stages, in which the child experiences conflicts with his parents. For Freud, the source of this conflict is sex, but Becker points out that it is the child's struggle to reestablish his heroism. Becker, using the existential dilemma, interprets the first stage, called the oral stage, as the stage of total narcissism. The infant leads a thoroughly symbolic existence and is not yet aware of his body's limitations. Freud calls the next stage the anal stage, where the child could develop mechanisms called anal character traits, which is an indication that he is tremendously determined to avoid any life threats. Becker says at the anal stage the child, although not aware of it, is experiencing the existential dilemma. The move from the oral to anal stage represents a total defeat of the child's narcissism and the move from existing symbolically to existing organically.

Freud observes a set of conflicts children have with their parents. As the child grows, the child tries to restore the loss of heroism that was experienced in the anal stage by trying to feel invincible. The child runs into conflict with his parents when they try to protect him and remind him that he has a body over his ascendancy. In the third stage, the phallic stage, the child switches from showing positive feelings to showing contempt for the mother. Becker points out that because the child easily witnesses the transformations of the mother's body and her physical duties as homemaker, the mother represents all body and reminds him of his own limitations.

Becker's notion of the vital lie is layers of coping mechanism that are used to cover up the reality of our organic body, to obscure our vulnerability, to evoke self-expansion, to bring balance to the organic and symbolic, and mostly to stay sane. To be human is to be dishonest about the full reality of our organic predicament. The vital lie is not a conscious decision but a way of life. We are born into a culture that is already coping with the existential dilemma and is grounded in this masking and repackaging of the organic. As we mature, we develop this masking technique that gradually becomes the backbone of our structure. Our personalities differ because we process the vital lie and cope with the dilemma in different ways.

I consider the phenomenon of social networking websites such as to be an example of our culture's influence in shaping our vital lie. Anyone can sign up for free, create a profile page, add people as "friends," write in an online journal or blog, view and comment other pages, and showcase up to twenty-four members as "top friends." Those who participate in such sites repackage their organic bodies behind the computer screen. Posting pictures of ourselves and expressing our thoughts in a blog is an attempt at sustaining our existence digitally and being the center of the universe. When people leave comments



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