Monday, July 6, 2009

Creating a Living Myth

“Society everywhere is a living myth of the significance of human life, a defiant creation of meaning.”- Ernest Becker

We find many examples of society’s wish to create significance in what it does. One easily observable example is in the way we use language.

We like to give honorific names to people to set them apart. There is a whole elaborate etiquette behind who you call “Your Excellency” or “Your Honor.” We dole out a lot of “Honorables” in front of the names of politicians, for instance, who are most undeserving of the label.

This desire to give people a special title is older than the country of America itself and stretches across many different cultures. But we found this comment funny, from an English traveler, Edward Kimber, writing in 1746:

“Wherever you travel in Maryland (as also in Virginia and Carolina) your ears are constantly astonished at the number of colonels, majors and captains that you hear mentioned: in short, the whole country seems at first to you a retreat of heroes.”

Indeed it does. We know many people who go to great lengths to affix some honorific before or after their names. This strikes us a way to create meaning in an otherwise meaningless existence.

We also find the creation of euphemisms another way to shield us from the idea that we really don’t amount to much.

As H.L. Mencken once observed:

“The American, probably more than any other man, is prone to be apologetic about the trade he follows. He seldom believes that it is quite worthy of his virtues and talents; almost always he thinks that he would have adorned something far gaudier.”

A garbage man is a sanitation engineer, don’t you know?

The absurd man, we think, does not trouble himself with these things. He may indulge in titles and give fancy names for what he does, but he does so with the full knowledge that it means nothing at the end of the day. He does so only because it pleases him. To put more stock in such things than this is, in Becker’s phrase “a defiant creation of meaning.”

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