Uncommon Sense

March 22, 2008

The Symbols, the Sum and the Substance

That humans are self-important needs no supporting argument. Uncle Frank always used to say that egocentrism was unavoidable and at the time I hated that idea; it invalidated the foundations of my ontological reality at the time and placed me squarely in the middle of the existential vacuum: a universe where my perspective was always prejudiced by this thing called Me.

I began to think about the nature of Me and over many years of reading and personal contemplation I understood that there were really many ‘Me’s’: There was Personal Me, the identity that was determined by my Self, which included the dynamics of my personality (the things I did), my inner space (feelings and thoughts, beliefs and values) , and the physical reality of the body I lived within.

Then there was National Me, the aspect of me that had a sense of belonging to a Nation. Of course, I had had no choice in the matter. But I was subject to it’s laws, exposed to and took part in it’s customs, spoke it’s language, and used it’s infrastructure, and so in a sense, I belonged. Whether or not this stretched beyond the pragmatic reality was not something I was convinced about.

In addition there was Religious Me, the part of me that had a sense of purpose beyond the ordinary day-to-day reality, that made existence meaningful and gave me My Place In This World. It was questionable, I determined when I first began to think about my Religious Identity, whether I had made an actual choice, since I knew nothing of any other religion besides the one I had grown up with, and if I had not made a choice then the issue of whether I had exercised free will was also moot.

I began to understand, as I delved further into the aspects of my identity, that there were other compartments I could call identities. There was Emotional Me, who reacted to things spontaneously with scarcely a nod in the direction of logic and forethought; Logical Me, who focused very well on issues when Emotional Me was not around; Compassionate Me, who cared about things as long as my self-interest was not threatened; and Manipulative Me, who was willing to be anyone as long as it got me what I wanted. These were all situational, though, and for the most part were driven and supported by the three Core Identities.

Thinking about Personal Me, my Self, was a little difficult at first. Introspection is a little like trying to watch what you’re doing from someone else’s point of view. No matter how hard you try, you cannot see yourself except through your own eyes. And your own eyes are tainted by prejudice. At some stage I learned about detachment, and the process of being ruthless with regard to self-analysis. I also understood how conflicted one can become, for one stands between the Scylla of self-justification on the one side and the Charybdis of self-immolation on the other. The balance bar is composed of expectations – expectations of oneself, those others have of one, those demanded by belief and value systems. To have too little regard for one’s own expectations is to lack self-esteem; to have too much is to be arrogant. To respect the views of others is on the one hand humble and on the other stupid, for they too have their prejudices. To give beliefs and values too much credence is to be gullible; to disregard them foolish.

We say “I am…” and then add a characteristic, as if this is the way it is, immutable truth, beyond question or change. “Leopards do not change their spots”, goes the saying, and we behave as if who we are, settled supposedly at some stage during puberty, is so settled as to be cast in stone. But the more I looked at my Self, I realized that there was very little here that I was willing to call Me, since most of it had arrived before I had even the faintest notion of consent, and was in any case determined by an interaction with an external environment which I could not control. The nature of my own reaction was largely a result of my ignorance and vulnerability, being too young and naïve to be able to step back and examine it, as I now do as a matter of course, in the ‘cold light of day’. These emotional reactions, these perceptions, attitudes, behaviours, all seemed to have latched on like parasites, and they seemed determined to stay.

The word ‘personality’ is derived from the word ‘persona’, which in ancient Rome meant the mask worn by a character in a play. My personality, the set of behaviours elicited as a response to the stimulus of the external world, was not me, it was a mask I wore. All the other stuff going on, the thoughts I could not verbalise, the perceptions I could not qualify, the wonder for which I could not formulate questions, were the real thing. All the ‘definitives’ were a veneer placed over the real thing so that it became more acceptable, more in conformance to social expectations. It did not take me long to recognise that in the first place, the likelihood that anyone could know me was so improbable as to be impossible. My Self was always going to be in the shadows, hidden from full view by my persona. The real Me was Invisible.

This realisation enabled me to discard the idea of the ‘definitive’ me, a specific mode of attitude or behaviour to ‘plug into’ a given situation. And with that realisation came the ability to discard behaviours that were no longer useful or appropriate. At last, I was becoming Me – not Conditioned Me, a product of one’s personal history, but Development Me, a product of my own volition, no longer an immutable leopard, but a Work-in-Progress. I was no longer tethered to my past, but free to be whom I wished to be.

While all this was happening, there was another battle raging in parallel which made the entire situation much more complex than I can describe here. I had confronted both my National Identity and my Religious Identity and asked them to justify their existence.

In the case of National Me, I had never really been that committed to the idea that the Patriotic Imperative was an obligation. This may have had something to do with the degree to which I was ostracised by my peers, my teachers and my parents to the extent that the notion of a group identity became something that was anathema to me. There was no group for the rejects and in any case I probably would not join them – after all, it’s a group one could hardly boast about being part of!

I can hear some of you say, “Aha! That’s why he’s such a rebel!”, and you would be correct to some extent.

It was when I thought about the dynamics of Nationalism and Patriotism, the commitment and allegiance to one’s land of birth, purely on the basis of a single event, that I was quite content to remain outside the walls where the anthems ring out in hysteria for the ‘Pride of the Nation’.

The single event I speak of is one’s birth. Is this sufficient, to regard a Nation worth defending, merely by virtue of having been born there? Is this event not merely a coincidence of Biology and Geography? What if I was born in another country but brought up here, to which country would I ‘owe’ my allegiance? Where did we get this idea that we have a ‘debt’ to a Nation? In America they have the Pledge of Allegiance, which I find very strange. The notion that one should pledge to defend a Country, right or wrong, is not an idea I can see myself supporting. Of course, I did national service back in the seventies, but personal Me back then had never thought about anything more complex than how I was going to get my next date. National service was merely a necessary evil; it had never occurred to that there were ethical dilemmas implied.

When I began to unravel this issue in my head, I discovered that what I was willing to defend had nothing to do with Nations, and in fact made Nations irrelevant. It was not about defending a patch of land whose ownership was debatable anyway, since ownership is one of mankind’s pettiest illusions, and since borders and names of countries alter with every revolution and secession, the nature of what is being defended becomes blurred. What is consistent is that where conflict exists, there is something else the conflict is about that brings countries to confrontation, and that is principle. And confrontation has only resulted because humans are so bad at dealing with conflict, which is really disagreement. I have no problem with conflict; in fact I believe it necessary for development to take place, and the only way that diversity can express itself. But we get to war because we defend nations instead principles, boundaries instead of ideas, flags instead of fundamentals. It’s like the Symbols are more important than the Substance.

This idea of Symbols as opposed to Substance touches everything. A friend commented once that a colleague of mine had ‘all the yuppy symbols” – the fast car, the mobile phone, the apartment in a stylish neighbourhood, and designer clothes. She meant that these were all pretensions, a role being played, and that none of it was real. There was Style, but no Substance. When we say someone has a stylish dress sense, we are saying much more than “they wear clothes that are identified with by a group of people whose membership is defined by their similar preferences for clothing combinations”. That would be the clinical, scientific view. We should also make the observation that their preference for the idea of clothing ‘style’ being important is in itself a characteristic of the group, for there are people who make the assertion that they specifically do not favour style as an important characteristic and then dress in a specific way, using a certain ‘look’ that defines them and we’re back to the same thing. Grunge may be a style that opposes the convention – it’s still a style.

And the Style is a Symbol.

It’s a Symbol of something going on in the mind of the wearer, this idea applying just as well to the personality as it does to the clothes. The clothes are a metaphor, they’re not the actual event, they are a manifestation of an event. The event is Invisible, because it takes place in Personal Me, who cannot be seen. And so a need for belonging is expressed in wearing fashionable clothing, being seen at the right places, driving the right car, wearing the right watch, etc ad nauseum, and before you know it you’re a social clone. The need is never seen; it remains invisible, but the evidence that it exists is obvious to anyone who bothers to observe carefully. And some people remain mired in the superficial world of the Symbols their entire lives, unless they are extremely fortunate and are shocked out of their addiction by some or other trauma.

I remember a woman, whom I called Muse even though that was not her name but that is how I remember her, saying to me. “You give life to that which is within you”, and I didn’t quite ‘get’ it immediately, because I was astonished that Muse could come up with such a profound idea. It was only years later that I understood that it’s true – we express what is inside and in many cases it comes out ‘wrong’. Pain comes out as hate; insecurity as distrust; disinterest as rejection.

We give life to what is within us. And many of the ‘things’ that we perceive to be part of ourselves, that we call ‘self’, are not things we invited. They seem to have been there so early that we believe them to be parts of Self when in fact they have become so through a process that we were not aware of because we were too young, too ignorant, too submissive to decide whether or not to let them in.

Religious Me had precisely the same problem, because, while I had been through the process of indoctrination the Anglican Church calls confirmation, at no stage was I conscious of having made a decision to become a Christian. I had been ushered into Christianity without ever being told that there were in fact alternatives. Only in later life, when I began to read and think for myself, did I see that I had never given consent because I had never considered the possibility that my religion was just one of a thousand ways of seeing the world, and to decide before giving due consideration to other reality models was abdication of intelligence, not humility of spirit.

The issue of faith was for me a particularly strange aspect of the scenario. It is said that faith is not belief without proof, it is trust without reservation. But only an idiot or a child trusts unreservedly, in the case of a child, opening themselves to predatory practices of paedophiles, in the case of an idiot, making themselves potential victims of any clever manipulator. In addition, if the admonition is to ‘just believe’, then how could it possibly matter which faith you decide to believe in? The argument given is that you could be sincerely wrong; it is difficult to see why you should be punished for being so, or that such punishment could be just. Then of course there is the conversion contradiction, the notion that one should speak to others, to convert them to your belief system. I say contradiction because if someone’s conversion depends on an imperfect information distribution system – and each person is decidedly imperfect – then the system is imperfect, and by so being, immoral, if it gives rewards or punishments based upon ignorance.

When I think of religions, philosophies and secular belief systems in which I include ideas like democracy and capitalism, I came to the realisation that there were flaws in all of them, and of course good parts, for one must not throw the baby out with the bathwater. It was not a big step for me to decide that I could no longer ‘join’ an established group, because my own model of reality was a collage of everything I had incorporated from everything I had read about and experienced. I was no longer subject to anything – I was free to choose.

The majority of people never get to this point. They are inculcated from birth in a set of Symbols: the signs, practices, dress and words of a system of beliefs, and never escape the Symbols, remaining subject to its tenets throughout their lives. These people are merely servants of a system, having never made a choice, tethered to a set of assumptions by an authoritarian milieu from which they are unlikely to escape. In so doing, if they are lucky, they may have a taste of Substance, which is something so entirely different as to be a world apart.

Religion becomes yet another prison, much like the Personal and the National Identities.

These three aspects of our identity, I believe, are uninvited guests who stay well beyond their welcome because we find them comfortable, particularly if there are others who share the same identity profile. They make us feel secure because there are others around who reinforce and support these identities and merely by belonging we are at home, and there is no need to change, particularly if we live in a relative comfort zone.

So we find that the Three Stooges – The Personal Identity, the National Identity, and the Religious Identity, were somehow already there when we began to think about things. I call them the Three Stooges because I believe that it is remaining tethered to these identities that we remain stupid, much like the slapstick characters, and that when we escape the addiction to these identities, we become free to seek our own place in this world. It is when we discard the Symbols that the Substance becomes evident.

Rene Guenon said that the task of evil was to confine us within an individuality, and if we are to unravel the nature of the Conditioned Self, we must start with the Personal Identity.

The primary idea defining individuality is that our dynamics are who we are. By ‘dynamics’ I mean our behaviours as seen by others. But is that really true? I have spoken before of the Invisible, the dynamic that takes place where no-one can see, and in many cases this is in conflict with the personality evident to others. But we have learnt that non-conformance is dangerous since it could lead to rejection or ostracisation, and so we behave in ways that enable us to appear to fit in. And so we deny our real natures, and put the mask on. But as time goes by, and we feel more and more comfortable in the mask, we subjugate the real Self to the persona, and become a clone of society. Look around you, and you will see mostly clones. Occasionally you may come across a real person – they will be someone who does not fit the mould, who refuses to conform, their own person, not another copy. They are few and far between, not common-or-garden.

Einstein said that common sense was the set of prejudices acquired by age eighteen, and yet we speak of common sense as if it is desirable. If it’s common, it probably isn’t sensible. What we need is uncommon sense, the kind of sense practiced by the intelligent minority who think for themselves, who cannot do otherwise, for whom becoming a social clone is anathema, death.

Once the Personal Self has been disentangled from it’s heritage, there is the realisation that National Identity, merely an association with the place of one’s birth and the culture of one’s upbringing, is more than anything else, a prejudice. Literally, the word prejudice means to have ‘judged before’, to have prejudged, to have a preconceived notion about the value of an event, person, thing, or idea. And a Nationality is an idea. It may have an existence in the sense of having physical boundaries, but the Nation is so much more than it’s boundaries. It’s the values and beliefs and their forms of expression, be they symbols, activities, dress, or music, that define a Nation. And these are all very well until they become a laager which we must defend at all costs, even at the cost of wisdom. None of these are cast in stone; they all change as the world becomes more cosmopolitan and foreign ideas are incorporated. None of the world’s cultures are as definitively recognisable as they once were; there is a blurring of the original identities as they weave into one another until their traditional identities are seen only in festivals. This cross-fertilisation is inevitable; to defend a particular cultural or national identity is to be addicted to tradition for tradition’s sake.

It is the same for our Religious Identity, often woven into the fabric of a Nation’s culture. Belief Systems are a strange lot, for the fundamental principle underlying them all is the justification of behaviour on the basis of something we DO NOT KNOW. Belief is unnecessary where there is knowledge; it only becomes possible to ‘believe’ when we specifically don’t know, and the article of faith is the bridge. And since ‘not knowing’ is ignorance, then to subscribe to a religious belief system is to act on ignorance.

All of these ideas are addictions that we are subjected to and inculcated in when too young and powerless to resist, and far more dangerous that any other addictions because it is these ideas that take peace from the world, that place barriers between us. It is these ideas that bring much pain to the world, for our thoughts drive our emotions and actions. The assumption that these aspects of identity are so important form the basis for the notion of Separateness, and make the Sum of our efforts so inevitably Zero. Our efforts cannot possibly be optimal for the whole since they are intended to benefit a part, and parts act in their own interests, their opportunity cost always being the loss of someone else’s interest.

Our very mindset, the very foundations of our thought, are flawed, the flimsy supports underpinned by primitive drives and quests. We still think like children. Perhaps it is time we grew up. Adulthood means getting to a point where one ‘puts aside childish thoughts’, and yet mankind as a collective behaves much like children in a sandpit, wanting the best place to put our castle, even if it means other kids don’t get a place. We need to move away from this mindset, for it will drag the rest of the living system we call earth into the abyss.

It is when we step away from the Self arrived at by the influences of our personal history that we become Ourselves; when we discard National Identity that we become Citizens of the World; when we leave our Religion that we take on the potential for Spirituality.

Perhaps then may we become a species of Substance.



1 Comment »

  1. So resoundingly true Derek. So few and far between do people throw the shackles of conformity off to become authentic selves. Amid fear of being ostracised, and yet the reward is so powerful. How easily could we have been born in a different country, with different culture and religion and fought equally hard against all we now worship as god’s truth.

    Comment by Luan — March 15, 2010 @ 4:06 pm

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