Christianity and the Problem of Human ViolenceChristianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 26: The Fundamental Desire for Self-Esteem
from Guide to Kingdom Living

True Christian living requires us to live according to Kingdom standards which bring Heaven to earth.

Christianity and the Problem of Human Violence: Part 26: The Fundamental Desire for Self-Esteem

By Stephen R. Kaufman, M.D.

Those who survive episodes in which death seemed imminent describe the terror. Yet, in a sense, death is imminent for all of us, and, at some level of consciousness, we know that we will all die in the foreseeable future. Furthermore, we are aware intellectually that we may die at any time. How do we maintain equanimity in the face of death? The answer is that we utilize our impressive denial mechanisms to gain a sense of mastery over death. According to Ernest Becker (The Denial of Death), self-esteem is a critical component of death-denial.

Self-esteem—a sense of competence and importance—makes us feel less vulnerable. If we have a strong sense of self-esteem, we feel less likely to be a victim of life’s vicissitudes (injury as well as death) for two reasons. First, those with strong self-esteem tend to believe that they can adjust to situations and escape relatively unharmed. Second, self-esteem engenders a sense of importance, which leads to a sense that “it couldn’t happen to me.” Although this may appear irrational to outside observers, there is a widespread sense that, if we are important, God (or one of God’s agents) will protect us from harm.

Self-esteem helps us feel that our existence will not end with the termination of our body’s functions. If we have strong self-esteem, we may envision people fondly remembering us, and this is one means by which we may feel as if we can transcend death. Alternatively, we may believe that, as “good” people, God will reward us with eternal paradise. On the other hand, if we believe ourselves unworthy of praise from people or favorable consideration from God, we are more inclined to see death as permanent and total, and consequently psychologically terrifying.

Although the above analysis involves speculation, there is ample evidence that self-esteem is a primary human concern and intriguing (though less overwhelming) evidence that links self-esteem to fear of death. The intense anger many feel after being humiliated appears to be related to their hurt sense of self-esteem. Similarly, self-esteem appears to underlie fierce competition in sports, business, and many other walks of life. People may even gain self-esteem vicariously—consider how good many people feel when “their” sports team wins.

Our dreams shed light on the importance of self-esteem. Dreams often reflect our fears related to our vulnerability, and many people dream about terrifying, perilous situations. Dreams often involve embarrassment and/or public humiliation, such as public nakedness or being unprepared for a presentation.

Terror Management Theory has provided fascinating experimental evidence for Becker’s analysis. A broad range of experiments have shown that thinking about death encourages people to defend their culture, prefer people of similar ethnic background, and even become violent. Strikingly, when people are asked to think about what it will feel like being dead in a coffin, they deny that the mental image is upsetting. But, subsequent testing shows that they are deeply disturbed by the mental image, indicating that people don’t recognize how terrified of death they are. An excellent review of Terror Management Theory is in Zygon 1998 Vol. 33 pp. 9-44.

I have argued that self-esteem is a core human need. Our quest for self-esteem invariably leads to competition, because you can’t be “good” at something unless you are better than other people. When animals compete for a desired object, such as a piece of food or an attractive mate, they express anger during the conflict. Afterwards, their anger quickly subsides; one has won and the other has lost, and they both move on to other concerns. For humans, the struggle is much more important. Getting the desired object is more than just satisfying an immediate desire--is a matter of self-esteem. Losing hurts one’s self-esteem and threatens one’s sense of mastery over death. Such a profound loss engenders anger and bitterness that can easily tear communities apart. As discussed extensively previously, scapegoating violence is the glue that keeps communities together.

Importantly, the self-esteem humans seek is symbolic—real object are not what people, in general, really want. If all people wanted were real objects then, like animals, the passions aroused during competition for the object(s) would subside once one individual successfully competed for it. In contrast, self-esteem is not something one either has or doesn’t have. One’s sense of self-worth may increase or diminish throughout life. If someone feels humiliated, their self-esteem may suffer as long as the offender goes unpunished for the offense. Consequently, the desire for revenge may persist indefinitely.

Because self-esteem is tied to satisfaction of desires, we often have the sense that we “need” things that actually are not essential for contented living, much less essential for survival. However, what we really “need” is self-esteem to soothe our fear of death. And, when it comes to self-esteem, it’s not what one has that matters, it’s what one has in relation to others. People will constantly want more than their peers, regardless of how much they have. Furthermore, even those with the most will not be satisfied, because they can never fully eliminate the fear of death from their subconscious minds. This is the tragedy of materialism—people keep thinking that if they only had more things they would be content, yet no quantity of material goods can overwhelm their fear of death.

In the next essay, I will explore how self-esteem relates to anger and its close relation, fear. I will then discuss how, in our attempts to gain self-esteem, animals are contemporary sacrificial victims. Subsequently, I will address how the life and death of Jesus Christ offers us a non-competitive, non-violent, non-sacrificial way to gain self-esteem.

Go on to: Part 27: Fear and Anger
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