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Which do you most fear: Death or Life?

In the last post, I talked about Maslow's hierarchy of needs and Nietzsche's project of achieving greatness. What stops us being the best we can be? Is it just down to plain laziness? Of course, this is a problem for all of us, to one degree or another.

For Nietzsche, our love of comfort and security is a legacy of the slave morality we have lived under as part of the dominant Christian cultural worldview that has held sway in the west for over 1,500 years. Christian virtues of meekness, mildness, self-effacement, altruism and concern for one's neighbour were nothing but a cheap and crafty inversion of the polar opposite values of strength, passion, pride, egoism and the exercise of power in all its forms. The weakest, the vast majority, did not have these virtues, nor could they hope to obtain them, so they simply turned them on their heads and called the bad good and the good evil. At a stroke, their impotence was valorised and their natural superiors became sinners, even monsters. This is Nietzsche’s account anyway.

Christianity glorified doing nothing; passivity, inoffensiveness, being a cog in the machine, hiding your light under a bushel, flying under the radar, not rocking the boat, rejecting human ambition in this world through the creation of a separate and purportedly superior supernatural realm where the meek would inherit the earth and all unfairnesses would be righted. There was no need to aspire and overcome in this earthly realm - all such striving was in vain; all achievements, fleeting and temporal. Only in the eternal realm was there any lasting glory.

This goes beyond entrenching lassitude and resignation. It is to undermine the value of all human enterprise and all human dignity in the world. Consider that in the dark ages, even washing was considered excessively prideful - a sin.

Nietzsche also addresses the obvious point that making the masses content with their lot is a useful device for keeping the underclasses in their place and protecting the privileged position of an oppressive, hierarchical, priesthood. The divine ordinance was this: peasants, accept your meagre lot without complaint and you will receive your rewards in heaven.

As entrenched as this worldview is in our worldview, there are factors other than cultural history that play their part in our inertia and enervate our attempts at self-overcoming. Maslow, who we have met already, thought that there is an actual fear of greatness in most human beings. In The Farther Reaches of Human Nature he writes:

‘We are generally afraid to become that which we can glimpse in our most perfect moments … We enjoy and even thrill to the godlike possibilities we see in ourselves … and yet we simultaneously shiver with weakness, awe, and fear before these very same possibilities.’

This fear of greatness might be the biggest obstacle to achieving one's ultimate potentialities. We might not be aware of this fear because we are all very capable of rationalising away our failure to commit to our own flourishing.

The psychologist Otto Rank provided a very elegant model to explain what might be going on when we sabotage our own success. He identified two great anxieties for human beings: The fear of death and the fear of life.

The fear of death is more that just the fear of dying. It is the fear of disappearing into the background; becoming lost in the crowd of humanity; an insignificance. We ‘die’, in a way, when we become indistinguishable. We live out our brief span quietly in obscurity and return to the universe having never made our mark - almost as if we had never lived at all! This anxiety compels us to try and stand out, to exceed, to make our mark on history, to be of some significance in the great cosmic drama.

Otto Rank posing with Sigmund Freud

But in opposition to this fear of death dwells the fear of life. The terrible anxiety of exposing ourselves, of taking risks, of looking foolish or speaking ‘heretically’, of being the focus of public disapproval, disdain and mockery. This fear of life pushes us back into the safety and anonymity of the crowd. This fear of life is indistinguishable from Maslow's fear of greatness.

Our lives are spent vacillating back and forth between these opposing drives. Rank (pictured with Sigmund Freud) argued that as we get older the fear of death tends to grow, as our real mortality becomes more salient. In Will Therapy (1931) he writes that a crisis:

‘Seems to break out at a certain age when the life fear which has restricted the I’s development meets with the death fear as it increases with growth and maturity ... The individual then feels himself driven forward by regret for wasted life and the desire to retrieve it. But this forward driving fear is now death fear, the fear of dying without having lived, which, even so, is held in check by fear of life’.

To realise our highest potentialities we must harness our fear of death and overcome our fear of life. We must be prepared to take the greatest risk - that of standing out from our fellows. We must be prepared to fail and fail publicly over and over again. We must let mockery and disapproval shower down upon us and keep going regardless. We must let people say of us that we have ideas above our station. The way of greatness is the way of loneliness.

'Today the concept of greatness entails being noble, wanting to be by oneself, being able to be different, standing alone and having to live independently.’

We must strive to shake off the worldview of the crowd, of our peers, of the culture in which we have been raised. We achieve this through self-examination, the formulation of our own brand new values, being iconoclastic if that is where our discovery of self takes us. This is a path that requires courage, grit and dogged determination.

‘He shall be greatest who can be loneliest, the most concealed, the most deviant, the human being beyond good and evil, the master of his virtues, he that is over-rich in will.’

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