The Fear of Insignificance: Book Review


In The Fear of Insignificance, psychotherapist Carlo Strenger provides a compelling and far-reaching account of the illnesses of modern life. He shows how the human predicament described by Ernest Becker forty years ago has been compounded by technology, globalization, and the ascendance of escapist philosophies that militate against living an integrated, generative, and purposeful life. To treat this ailment, he suggests a return to the insights and wisdom of the Epicureans, various Enlightenment thinkers, and the existentialists. And while the book is eminently readable – ideas are illustrated through Strenger’s clinical case studies as well as through works of art and literature – it also draws heavily from difficult thinkers such as Kierkegaard, Heidegger, Sartre, and Jaspers to provide much of the foundation and cement to hold it together. And throughout the work, Becker is present, providing Strenger with a powerful theoretical framework.

Strenger begins with a description of the dystopian side of the massive global changes that have taken place in the last generation or so. In a chapter ominously called “The Defeat of the Mind,” he defines a new breed of human, “Homo globalis,” which lives in an interconnected world; not only technologically, but also financially, culturally, politically, and socially. Setting aside the massive disparities in wealth that have resulted as power and money have accrued to those who thrive in this system, Strenger focuses on the psychological havoc it wreaks. If Becker is right that man derives self-esteem by “minutely comparing himself to those around him, to make sure he doesn’t come off second-best,” then how much more painful is this task when Facebook constantly feeds us a stream of “friends” in carefully curated photos of joy and success? How much more difficult not to be “second best” when competing against a global workforce, and where a slew of websites allows employers to award jobs to candidates from every corner of the world? A growing portion of our lives and activities are measured, from teaching ability (by students at universities) to writing prowess (by readers at Amazon), and in many of these venues we are competing not against those in our local community, but against millions of others on every continent. Strenger predicts that one day a single digit could measure each of us. In fact, a firm called “Klout” is already doing just that. These technologies are widespread and are only becoming more sophisticated and omnipresent.

Just-Do-ItBut the ranking, and “commoditization of the self” which it supports, is only half the problem. For those who don’t score near the top in looks, income, power, or social connections (Strenger hazards that includes around 99.999% of us), we are bombarded by a simple message to increase our standing: work harder. Strenger illustrates this cultural collusion with one of the most successful marketing efforts ever, Nike’s ubiquitous Just Do It campaign. The message, over more than twenty-five years, has been simple: with enough hard work, anything is possible. Or, as Michael Jordan and Muhammad Ali exhort us in one of them: “Impossible is nothing.” This is just one example of how the “global infotainment network” fills us with messages that ignore what Karl Jaspers calls “boundary situations” (primarily decay and death), leading to a fantasy world where many of us are taunted by delusions of omnipotence and immortality.

These messages are coupled with the rags to riches stories our culture celebrates. If Bill Gates, Steve Jobs, and Mark Zuckerberg can drop out of school and build multi-billion dollar businesses with nothing more than chutzpah and a bit of cash, why are most of us poor? If Justin Bieber or Susan Boyle can skyrocket to the top ranks of celebrity with just a YouTube video and little formal training, why are there so many starving musicians? If an unknown named J.K. Rowling could pen a global best-seller while on welfare, why do 99% of manuscripts remain unread and forgotten? According to Nike and the rest of our culture at large, we have only our indolence to blame.

Of course, we know deep down that “for the overwhelming majority of us the best we can be is nowhere near the stars” (44). And yet, we can’t help but feel we’re falling short of the ideals bombarding us, forgetting the role that luck, class, genes and parentage play in success. The result, Strenger argues, is that the modern world has left “the overwhelming majority of the globally oriented with the feeling that their lives are missing the crucial ingredient of glory that helps humans to overcome the dread of mortality” (45). We flounder to fill this hole, since family, religion, and vocation, which had provided meaning for many centuries, have lost much of their power as immortality projects. Instead, we turn to products and procedures promising beauty and youth, libraries of self-help books touting pseudo-psychology and faux ancient wisdom, and drugs to simulate youth (Botox and Viagra) or pharmaceuticals to improve self-esteem, or at least numb us to its absence.

But none of these solutions ultimately deliver, and many are dangerous. So what does Strenger offer in their place? First, to accept that while we may have transcendent dreams, we are ultimately limited creatures and food for worms. As Becker so memorably put it, “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.”

Strenger reminds us that to live authentically and with at least a modicum of meaning, we must address this dilemma at the start and find a way to meld these two opposing aspects of our being. We must live with a knowledge of our limits, or what Strenger terms a life of “active self-acceptance.” To see how that might work, he reviews the contributions of Kierkegaard, Heidegger and Sartre (among others), and recounts existentialism’s tough and tentative solution. He agrees with these thinkers that our primary challenge is to craft an integrated personality out of broken parts and limited time, with an awareness of death, and crucially, the knowledge that the result will necessarily be imperfect and incomplete.

This approach have been explored by Otto Rank, Ernest Becker, and Irvin Yalom, and Strenger provides a fairly thorough description of the current field of existential psychotherapy, again through both lively case studies and contemporary literature and film. These sections are brisk and dense at the same time; offering hope, but one tinged, as in Becker’s works, with a sober knowledge of the very real limits of any solution to the human paradox.

In the final portion of this slim book (its 200 pages belie the depth and scope of material inside), Strenger picks up some of the ideas explored in Becker’s Escape From Evil, and asks how we might find ways to live together more peaceably. This task is particularly urgent, as the same forces that created Homo globalis also throw divergent worldviews into more contact then ever, leading to the predictable friction, violence, and horrors.

Strenger starts by conceding that worldviews are vital and necessary. He also admits that while he may have a distaste for religious extremists, his own secularism is also a human construct. He wants to avoid the twin traps of moral relativism (having witnessed the inability of this philosophy to articulate any sensible response to 9/11 or other monstrosities) and simply demonizing the “other,” two approaches that have both failed to make the world a more livable place.

His solution is threefold. First, he advocates for “open” (as opposed to “closed”) worldviews, which admit they are humanly constructed and do not have a lock on truth. He argues that such worldviews allow just enough humility to provide for dialogue with one’s enemies, yet lack the righteousness necessary to commit genocides and other atrocities. Second, he proposes not denigration of those with closed worldviews, but what he calls “civilized disdain.” Cultivating such an attitude in the face of zealots of all stripes is clearly a Herculean task, but Strenger proffers it as the only alternative to cultural relativism or simply dismissing those we believe are evil. Characterizing Hitler or Bin Laden as unnatural aberrations is both empirically incorrect and historically unhelpful.

Finally, while Strenger admits that it is much more likely that we will annihilate each other (and the earth to boot), he does hold out some hope that the call will be answered: “Members of Homo globalis of all nations, unite!” (191). If the number of those holding open-minded worldviews increases, if humanity can stumble toward a species-wide solidarity, and if we build a shared immortality project based on the grand task of eliminating poverty and repairing the earth, then perhaps the true goals of the Enlightenment will have been achieved. These ideas echo Becker’s own skeptical musings at the end of his life.

Whether you agree that this idealistic vision is appropriate or even possible, wherever you fall on the ideological spectrum, or however you happen to derive your sense of self-esteem, Strenger’s book is well worth reading. In some ways, The Fear of Insignificance can be seen as an update to Ernest Becker’s The Denial of Death and Escape from Evil, showing how the already insurmountable challenges to living an authentic and meaningful life have multiplied in the 21st century. While I don’t think this state of affairs would surprise Becker, I believe that Strenger’s book would. I think he would have been impressed with the progress existential psychotherapists have made in effectively bringing his ideas into the clinical setting, and pleased that thinkers such as Carlo Strenger continue the heroic task of trying to descry and describe for the rest of us a better path through the dark and deadly jungle of a human life.

Chad Gracia works in theater and finance, and has been involved in the EBF for more than 15 years.

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