Ambivalence and the Decision Tree
Two deep models shaping your behavior whether you know it or not
By Kirby Farrell
Kirby has been writing for our blog, The Denial File, since he created it in 2011. He now shares his posts online with both us and Psychology Today, where he writes a regular column called “Swimming in Denial.” This entry was featured in both venues in August 2012. Please visit The Denial File link near the top of the page for more of this kind of writing from Kirby.
Let’s see, where were we? Ah yes, rounding a bend in da Nile, catching a glimpse of the insoluble ambivalence we were talking about. The idea sounds simple, but it’s not so easy to appreciate how it shapes your life. Ambivalence can be paralyzing, exasperating, or intimidating when you have to admit that we’re of two minds (at least) about everything. The idea began to intrigue me when I found to my amazement that most (smart) college students I asked were unable to define ambivalence. They confused it with ambiguity and equivocation. The concept that we have conflicted feelings and attitudes about everything seemed strange to them, or only hazily familiar. For a decade now I’ve kept asking the question, always with the same result, even with a small sample of international students. This is really crucial, rock-bottom-important stuff. They sort of know they have complicated inner life, but they’re fuzzy about the word—the concept—that would give them some control over it. What’s going on here?
Here’s a hypothesis:
A generation or two ago most college students knew something about slide rules and Freudian lingo. Thinking about inner life, you used terms like repression and ambivalence—sometimes clumsily, but that’s another story. Freud, you recall, saw personality beset by conflicting forces. The challenge was to face up to the storm of reality and keep your balance. For Freud, you were a detective of inner life trying to identify the often invisible pressures pushing you off the sidewalk. It was all about keeping an eye on the shadows and continual problem-solving. It was all process, with no trophy answers and lifetime guarantees. And it was a moral drama too. It prodded you to admire courage and honesty and the ability to harmonize tensions—what the Victorians used to call character.
The Freudian heyday was the hair-raising twentieth century with its insane industrial killing, sickening Depressions, and social revolutions smoked down to a roach that burned your fingers. Adversity could knock you off your bicycle, but so could swinish affluence.
Now a generation has grown up in the post-Vietnam age of computers and consumer utopia. The deep trope underlying inner life now is no longer Freud’s vision of wrestling with ambivalence every day, but the decision tree. Life is a sequence of consumer choices. Yes, no. This one or that. The underlying scheme directs you to pick the right schools, the right career, the right spouse, the right neighborhood, the right child, the right pediatrician, the right schools, the right grief counselor. If you get each branch of the decision tree right, you collect $200 and reach utopia as in a board game. Or you best every enemy in sight and rest your tired thumbs in video game triumph. The model implies that utopia means success, prestige, perfect contentment, a framed ownership certificate, envious eyes on your awesome wardrobe, your McMansion, and your leased BMW.
Decision tree behavior is easy to caricature because you and I know that in reality it’s artificial.1 It fits a culture saturated in airbrushed commercialism in which political candidates can be caught lying repeatedly yet trusted for their wealth and lifestyle. Decision tree thinking asks if you made successful choices invading another country, not what motives were pulling the trigger or who suffered along the way. It turns denial into a plastic sterling silver trophy cup on the mantel. Since it doesn’t honor the sweaty effort to balance conflicted motives, it values more: more success, more money, more more. Hence the nation’s catastrophic financial bubbles and unending piggybank-busting wars.
The decision tree also serves a culture that privileges executive freedom and enforces factory controls. After all, it’s industry that raised living standards by systematizing work in scale. The boss and the timeclock rule working lives. The decision pretends that you, too, can escape that crushing monotony and take home an obscene Wall Street salary if only you choose right at every juncture.
Described this way, the model arouses your ambivalence, doesn’t it? It’s attractive simplicity may even set your teeth on edge. Actually you’ve been ambivalent all along, but American culture smothers ambivalence under the couch pillows. Unless you’re an idiot or a ranting talkshow ideologue, real life mixes up the two models. These days ambivalence is harder to deal with partly because Freud & co. are out of fashion and so many successful people seem to be telling you that decision trees are as infallible as tech. But like Microsoft Word, choice isn’t what it’s cracked up to be.
The truth is, ambivalence is everywhere and worth knowing about. For instance, you’re telling somebody what you really want to get done today, and you sit there earnestly elaborating the details, over and over and over, until your friend finally gets up saying, “Well, I shouldn’t keep you,” pulling the ambivalence alarm to get you moving.
You want to be an ichthyologist or a pet store owner, but it will close off the thousand other careers you’ve dreamed of. You love intimacy, but you resent its demands too. You enjoy sex but there are times when part of your brain is echoing G. K. Chesterton’s harumpf that “the sensation’s only momentary, and the positions are ridiculous.” When hormones are boogeying, you nearly faint at the sight of a beautiful body. Yet bodies are also hilariously grotesque, with a big toe on one end, a bony pod of thinking meat on the other, and in the middle, teeth, thirty feet of plumbing, wrinkles, erratic hair, and assorted orifices. You love your body. It feels sexy and promises to generate more life at those times when you forget that you’re also trapped in it and if you stick around long enough, it will decay and die and take you with it.
The mind-blowing paradox is that ambivalence generates anxiety, and as Ernest Becker saw, anxiety spurs us to create culture as our primary means of managing those deepest of creaturely conflicts. No wonder the bipeds are continually renovating houses, religions, and scientific theories. No wonder we’re tirelessly reinventing the cultures that shelter and inspire us and make us believe our lives have enduring significance. We love them. We fear and hate them. We scrutinize and recreate them.
But that’s a betel nut to chew another day.
1. The best caricature of decision-tree thinking I know is in one of the most profound American novels ever published, John Barth’s devastatingly tragicomic The End of the Road (1958). Not to be missed.
Kirby Farrell is an English professor at UMass Amherst and the creator of The Denial File. Visit The Denial File link near the top of the page for more of this kind of writing from Kirby.
View Kirby’s site at people.umass.edu/kfarrell
Of Recent Interest:
Alan Kemp’s Death, Dying and Bereavement
By Daniel Liechty
Of Recent Interest… is the book Death, Dying and Bereavement in a Changing World by Alan R. Kemp (Pearson Education 2014). Many schools and universities now offer courses focusing on death and dying. One recent survey indicated that student interest in this topic remains significantly high and is rising. It is therefore an opportune time for a new textbook to serve this market, and this one by Alan R. Kemp will most certainly be seen as one of the best available.
Death and dying is by its nature an interdisciplinary concern, yet textbooks often reflect mainly the perspective of one discipline, whether it be psychology, sociology, law, economics, medicine, social work or religion. Other books claim to be interdisciplinary, but despite the authors’ best intentions, it is usually glaringly obvious which perspective dominates and gets the most attention. One major value of Kemp’s book is that it truly reflects an integration of the disciplines. In reading this book, I could not have made more than a stab-in-the-dark guess as to what Kemp’s professional field was, which I mean as a major compliment, indicating how well and even-handedly he presents that material. Kemp writes in a lively style, and is motivated in his approach by his recognition that we are once again in the midst of a significant social shift in our assumptions about death and dying.
If we think of the social location of death in pastoral and agricultural societies, we understand that death was highly visible. As many as a third of the young died before the age of five, death of women during childbirth was also very high, not to even mention how common was death from infections, accidents and disease. Small wonder that life expectancy remained stubbornly under 50 years for centuries. That said, it was nonetheless the case that especially among the middle and upper class, death occurred among family and friends in the home setting. A very major shift in the social location of death and dying occurred with the industrial revolution (which moved people from rural to urban settings) and then especially with the advent of scientific medicine, which grandly extended life expectancy even while moving the location of healthcare from the family home to the hospital setting. Alan Kemp
Death became rarer and much less visible, which is the assumption on which most current attitudes are based. Kemp wants us to recognize that as we move out of the industrial society, there is once again a very significant shift of attitudes, assumptions and norms underway in many different areas of our lives in relation to death and dying. Although we are in the middle of these shifts, and therefore can only speculate about where they might be heading, the burden of Kemp’s work is to sniff out the changes we do see, alert us to some that we might not yet have seen but are right around the corner, and to get us thinking more actively about where all of this may be heading.
Again, one of the facets of Kemp’s book that really sets it apart from others at least for the EBF constituency is the explicit attention Kemp gives to the ideas of Ernest Becker and to Terror Management Theory. In fact, in my estimation, Kemp’s is the best three or four page summary of TMT I have seen. If Kemp’s text receives the wide course adoption I expect it will, it may very well be that along with the film Flight From Death, Kemp’s text will be one of the most important vehicles for “getting the word out” about Becker and TMT to a broadly general audience. This is a really good book, one to which I know I will return often.
Daniel Liechty is Professor of Social Work and a member of the Graduate Faculty at Illinois State University. He discovered Becker earlier than most of us, and has edited and introduced the Ernest Becker Reader. He has a PhD in Historical Theology and and DMin in Pastoral Counceling.
He inaugurated and moderates the Becker listserv, “Generative Death Anxiety. He is a superb writer and our main book reviewer, having created the ORI (Of Recent Interest) column of the newsletter. Dan also serves as Vice-President of the EBF.
Clearing House News
At 10 AM in a downtown UCC Seattle Church on Mother’s Day, 11 May 2014, Sheldon told a substantial audience in his signature style “that ancient theological wisdom and contemporary empirical findings from experimental existential psychology converge on identifying the importance of gratitude and humility for personal and interpersonal well-being.”
Sheldon has always been respectful of Becker’s interest in and appreciation of religion. He was an atheist until their first child was born in 1966. That experience led him to explore his Jewish inheritance and the religious existential philosophers Kierkegaard, Buber, and Tillich. Only eight years later, he gave his death-bed day-long interview to Sam Keen. Through Sam's generosity, both an abbreviated CD and a transcript of the whole day are available and treasured by the EBF. In this interview, Becker makes it unequivocal that he believes in God.
Sheldon reported on a 2014 book, The Slavery of Death, by Richard Beck, professor of psychology at Abilene Christian University, in helping make the case for a convergence of theological wisdom and contemporary experimental existential psychology.
Sheldon’s handout is available at ernestbecker.org, and the video footage can be found at https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=d4wXfP6So7o
Dan Liechty will be writing a review in the next newsletter.
Dr. Steen Halling was honored in May as a new Professor Emeritus at Seattle University. Steen has been a pillar of support for the EBF just about ever since we started 20 years ago. Without him our ability to sponsor conferences and lectures on that campus would have been severely hampered if not impossible. Our thanks and good wishes to him as he moves to Whidbey Island. We are very fortunate that Professor Kevin Krycka is taking his place for us and we have every reason to hope that Steen will continue to grace our occasions when he can. Our deepest heartfelt thanks, Steen.
Steve James reports that The New York Chapter of the Ernest Becker Foundation sponsored a panel discussion at Left Forum at John Jay College on June 1 titled Prejudices, Fantasies, and Justice. The panel, consisting of Kirby Farrell, Jeff Kirchmeier, and Jerry Piven, discussed a variety of topics relating to violence in America. Some of the highlights included a timely discussion of rampage killings and NRA responses, the concept of “redemptive violence” in our culture, Terror Management Theory as it relates to legal as well as policy decisions, gun control, and the psychology of violence. A video version of the discussion will be available and excerpts will be broadcast on the Here and Now show on MNN TV in New York and on YouTube.
Steve says he will be in touch as soon as they have the video edited.
I just learned that 2 PhD dissertations1 reference my interest in the relations of humor to death. My article Laughing at Death: The evolution of humor to disarm fundamentalism uses a Becker quote:
“... the laughter: this is really a reflection of a very advanced stage of faith and grace, and it’s another thing the youth do not understand. It is deadly earnest to them, this world they face, and they simply cannot laugh without making some kind of triumph over it. Perhaps when and if they succeed in getting back on the road, getting over some of their alienation, they might understand the smile and the laugh.” (Bates, 1977, p. 224)
I wish I had been able to title my article Smiling at Death … but that refinement lacks the necessary punch that laughter arouses.
I have not yet had the privilege of reading what these dissertations have to say. But it excites me that Smiling(!) at Death is getting some attention. When I mentioned that interest of mine in my bio at www.ernestbecker.org I linked it to the whole article, which is occupying a gazillion words of space and at the end says:
“The author realizes this article on laughter doesn’t have many laughs. For that part of the story you’ll have to consider inviting him to give his cartoon version in person. All you have to do is corral a group, provide a PowerPoint projector, pay his way, and he’ll come.”
To date I have had zero invitations and I’ve aged a lot, so my jokes may just as well go through the pearly gates with me. Speaking of the pearly gates reminds me of Heidegger and a Hippo Walk Through Those Pearly Gates, a hilarious joke book by Cathcart and Klein. I wrote a blurb for the paperback edition:
“Lusty peals of laughter await you everywhere in this pearly-gated gig. Hilariously, anthropologist qua philosopher of death Ernest Becker is a guide, glad to have his reputation for darkness lightened. Laughter, Becker said, can reflect an advanced stage of faith and grace, and that, wondrously, is what Cathcart and Klein have accomplished.”
1Dissertations are by Patti Kwok and Anthony Biduck.
Prejudices, Fantasies, and Justice
The New York Chapter of the Ernest Becker Foundation will sponsor a panel discussion at Left Forum 2014 at John Jay College in New York Sunday, June 1, 10:00am - 11:50am. The panel is titled Prejudices, Fantasies, and Justice. Panelists will discuss issues related to violence in America including: gun advocacy, stand your ground laws, the war on drugs, mass incarceration, the death penalty, and the legal system. It will investigate ways in which law becomes part of the violence it is meant to manage. These and other contemporary social issues will be explored in terms of human motivation, particularly through understanding of our own and others’ prejudices, fantasies, and delusions. The speakers will be drawing on the work of interdisciplinary thinker Ernest Becker, including “The Denial of Death,” “Escape from Evil,” and “The Birth and Death of Meaning,” to shed light on these most vexing issues of the day.
Kirby Farrell, Ph.D. is a professor in the Department of English at University of Massachusetts-Amherst. His most recent books include “Post-Traumatic Culture: Injury and Interpretation in the 90s” and "Berserk Style in American Culture," “Play Death and Heroism," “Women in the Renaissance," and “The Mysteries of Elizabeth I." He has lectured in the U.S. and abroad on literature and culture, and for the Ernest Becker Foundation on the psychology of violence and social justice.
Jeffrey L. Kirchmeier, J.D., Professor of Law at CUNY School of Law, is the author of numerous law review articles about criminal procedure, constitutional law, and the death penalty. His writings have appeared in journals, books, and practice publications. He remains active in death penalty work, and is a member (and former Chair) of the Capital Punishment Committee of the New York City Bar Association. His awards include a President's Commendation by Arizona Attorneys for Criminal Justice.
Jerry S. Piven, Ph.D., Psychologist and Author, has taught at NYU, New School University, and Case Western Reserve University. He is the editor of several books and author of several others, including Death and Delusion: A Freudian Analysis of Mortal Terror, The Madness and Perversion of Yukio Mishima, and numerous articles on psychoanalysis, religion, and history. He has recently completed Slaughtering Death: On the Psychoanalysis of Terror, Religion, and Violence.
Stephen James, moderator, is a member of the New York Chapter of the Ernest Becker Foundation. He is a producer of communications media in the New York area, and has spent the last 30 years writing, producing, and directing programs for local PBS, corporate video, streaming media, e-learning, Internet/intranet websites, print, and corporate meetings and events. He is currently executive producer at Creative Media Productions, a business communications company, and is a graduate of Boston College.
Left Forum is the largest annual gathering of the broad Left in the United States. Each year thousands of conference participants come together to discuss pressing local, nation and global issues; to better understand commonalities and differences, and alternative to current predicaments; or to share ideas to help build social and political movements to transform the world. The conference date is May 30th-June 1st .
The EBF NY Chapter's Panel at Left Forum
Prejudices Fantasies and Justice
Sunday, June 1, 2014 at 10:00am - 11:50am, Session 5 in Room 3.8
John Jay College of Criminal Justice, The City University of New York
524 West 59th Street New York, NY, 10019
(Between 10th and 11th Avenues, entrance closer to 11th)
For more information:
or call 212-817-2002
Sheldon Solomon in Seattle May 11
By EBF Staff
On Sunday May 11 at 10 a.m, Sheldon spoke at Plymouth Congregational Church (Hildebrand Room) in Seattle on “Death Awareness/Acceptance and Gratitude” from both the theological and empirical perspectives. A summary of Sheldon's talk: "I will argue that ancient theological wisdom and contemporary empirical findings from experimental existential psychology converge on identifying the importance of gratitude and humility for personal and interpersonal well-being."
Download a PDF handout for Sheldon's talk here.
By EBF Staff
Relevant in an assessment of Ernest Becker’s theory that denial of death gives rise to some of our most important cultural innovations is the root question of how human religions actually come into being. Is it possible that we can examine the historical record and identify certain specific characteristics shared by those humans who’ve succeeded at founding new religions? If this were so, is the quality of that evidence such that it supports an inference that a new candidate for world-savior, one who appears at some as-yet undetermined time in the future, will display the same characteristics? And perhaps a more basic question is this: how does it happen that a mere human, a man or woman no less impressionable and no less fallible than we humans all are, nevertheless comes to believe—and to believe with unshakeable self-confidence—that he or she was contacted by a supernatural power and entrusted with the task of proclaiming a new path of human salvation?
These issues will be addressed in an illustrated talk on March 16th at the First Baptist Church of Seattle. The speaker will be science writer Philip T. Nicholson, author of Meditation & Light Visions: A Neurological Analysis, and of a number of scholarly articles on religious mysticism. Nicholson also publishes a non-sectarian website,
www.religiousvisionsoflight.com, which features video animations of meditation-induced light visions along with descriptions excerpted from mystical texts.
Event at a Glance
Medical Writer and Independent Scholar
M.S.P.H., Harvard School of Public Health
J.D. Stanford University School of Law (Law & Psychiatry Program)
B.A., Princeton University (Honors in Philosophy)
Author of Meditation and Light Visions: A Neurological Analysis, 2010
Will speak on:
"The World's Next Savior: Does the Past Predict the Future?"
In the Parlor, Seattle First Baptist Church
1111 Harvard at Seneca
Sunday March 16, 1 p.m.
A box lunch will be served for $5 in the parlor after the morning church service, which runs from 11 to noon.
There is no charge for the presentation, but we need a head cound and a box lunch count.
Please call Neil at 206-232-2994
By Daniel Liechty
Of Recent Interest… is the major article published this month in the Journal of Humanistic Psychology, “Ernest Becker at Simon Fraser University (1969-1974),” (JHP 54(1), pp. 66-112). The article was written by Jack Martin, BA, MEd, PhD, who is Burnaby Mountain Professor of Psychology at Simon Fraser University. This will be viewed for many years to come as a very important contribution to Becker scholarship, and is thus far the definitive narrative for those final years of Becker’s life.
The opening pages of the article present the background for Becker’s intellectual development in the years prior to the invitation to join the faculty at Simon Fraser. Here Martin relies heavily on established sources, but adds to our understanding of these sources through personal interviews with people who knew Becker during those years, especially psychiatrist Ron Leifer, Becker’s wife Marie Becker-Pos, and also a small group of personal friends and acquaintances who socialized with the Beckers in a non-professional capacity. The basic facts of Becker’s life during those years have been covered before, by Ron Leifer in his entry on Becker in the Encyclopedia of the Social Sciences, and by me in the opening chapter of my book, Transference and Transcendence, which is also the basis for the summary that appears on the EBF website. Martin enhances these basic facts with interview material such that we really start to get a “feel for the man” who was struggling through the issues of family background, creating his own way in the world, and the rocky issues Becker faced in trying to get his academic career off the ground.
By EBF Staff
Greg Bennick, from Seattle (humanitarian, speaker, EBF Advisory Board member, and co-producer of Flight From Death) spent the last year on the road worldwide speaking about Becker’s ideas and introducing audiences to the film. His venues were colleges, punk music venues, art spaces and even private homes. He spoke in over twenty countries, including the first-ever national speaking tour of Russia by an American spoken word artist.
For the tours, Greg had Flight From Death translated into a number of different languages, including Russian, and through the use of a live translator in predominantly non-English speaking countries, either showed the film or directly engaged audiences in question and answer sessions all over mainland Europe, Russia, Ukraine and Canada and Mexico as well. In 2014 Greg will be bringing the film and its ideas to Chile, Argentina and Brazil as well as a return trip to Russia.