Take all the cultural trappings away and we are all just generic creatures barraged by a continuous stream of sensations, emotions, and events, buffeted by occasional waves of existential dread, until those experiences abruptly end. But in a world infused with meaning, we are so much more than that.
The seemingly trite words “self-esteem” are at the very core of human adaptation. They do not represent an extra self-indulgence, or a mere vanity, but a matter of life and death. The qualitative feeling of self-value is the basic predicate for human action. … Unlike the baboon who gluts himself only on food, man nourishes himself mostly on self-esteem. —ERNEST BECKER, The Birth and Death of Meaning
Self-esteem is the feeling that one is a valuable participant in a meaningful universe. This feeling of personal significance is what keeps our deepest fears at bay.
Self-esteem takes the edge off our hostile reactions to people and ideas that conflict with our beliefs and values. With it, we face things that would otherwise upset us with far more equanimity.
We combat mortality by striving for significance.
Even the slightest intimation of our mortality prods us to work harder to leave our mark on the world.