I had thought that the last brief essay I posted under this title would be the last of the series, but in reviewing what has already been written, I decided that it would be worthwhile to further clarify the connection between the dangerous state of the world, and the structure, content, and operation of the human psyche. Following this post, there will be a fifth (and this time last) piece dealing with the intellectual and emotional reactions that this view of things is bound to elicit in anyone who cares for the fate of humanity enough to take a hard look at what is going on mentally, socially, and ecologically.
If thoroughly and impartially observed, there is no distinction that can be made between the self and the journey of humanity through prehistorical and historical time. Each one of us is, fundamentally, a manifestation or expression of all the biological, cultural, and mental factors that have given shape to the species and brought about its current traits and circumstances. In other words, to see humanity (and the world humanity has created) is to see oneself, and vice-versa. At the deepest level of every brain/mind lies the relatively obscure instinctual imprint of the long and unimaginably difficult process of prehistoric human development. At a level more readily accessible to personal consciousness lies the particular record of cultural conditioning, and on top of that, but deeply intertwined with it lies the even more vivid memory imprint of biographical pain/pleasure experience, including the potential projection of this experience through positive and negative desire.
We are the world, indeed, and our harrowing current circumstances are the sum total of who are, because it is our peculiar sense of tribal/personal being that determines the dysfunctional ways in which we relate with others, the planetary environment we share in common, and to the totality of life that is the source, sustenance, and very being of everything and nothing.
Humanity is, presumably, the most intelligent of all known species, also the most capable of affection, and yet after our millenary and presumably “civilizing” journey through eons, we are still not intelligent and loving enough —and what is intelligence if not love— to overcome the chronic division, conflict, and general destructiveness that has already generated so much anxiety and sorrow.
Following the clues issued by their respective groups and ideologies, most human being still hold —and not just in their discourse, but in their daily thoughts, emotions, and actions— that this persistent and persistently irrational state simply reflects “human nature.” If we are honest with ourselves and even relatively awake to the chaotic state of the world, we must admit that we still assume that it is only normal to reserve love to those who are, think, and behave most like us, while remaining indifferent to everyone else’s life and fate. in this prevalent view of human nature, even this presumably benign indifference has its limits, because if these others happen to be blocking the fulfillment of our tribal or personal designs, then they are routinely deserving of our full wrath. Worse yet if they happen to have something that could contribute to the realization of our desires, for it would only be natural then to use any means necessary to subjugate them economically, culturally, or psychologically.
This sketchy portrayal of what so many still take human nature to be and to justify may sound far too harsh and, god forgive, “depressing,” but it is all the same an accurate description of the general mindset that has for far too long determined the character of the different cultural and personal components of an atomized humanity, and governed their relationship.
The way we think of ourselves and act is anything but natural, and it is a further aberration to blame nature, life really, for the stupidity and cruelty that different secular and religious ideologies (and the personal conceit of their adherents) display under the cover of falase claims to exceptionalism, manifest destiny, charitable intentions, or any other form of self-righteous excuse serving their unscrupulous will to wealth, power, or “spiritual” fulfillment.
Life does not make the odious distinctions or establish the cruelly discriminatory social structures that human thought has created, in great part, to make some people appear to themselves as wiser and important and deserving enough to justify their exclusion and victimization of others. The truth is that we are still going to dangerous mental and relational extremes to ignore the fact that we are all fundamentally equal, and equally ephemeral organismic expressions of life and that while this blindness remains in place, progress or development are only barren fantasies. Cultural fragmentation and the conceit of separate personal existence do not mature and get better results no matter how much time, resources, and effort are invested on particular instances of them.
There is something else that needs to be mentioned in this context. The aspects and realms of human culture and intelligence that seem truly coherent with nature at large are those that allowed humanity to survive, first, and that from then on have helped develop our potential to care and enhance the human (and other) expressions of the same life. The humanities, science, and technology come immediately to mind in this respect. However, and most unfortunately, they too have all too often been placed at the service of antagonistic ideological and psychological entities corrupt to the point of insanity. Are the technologies that benefit our reckless exploitation of natural resources, and the “conventional” and nuclear weapons that threaten our lives, superlative examples of human progress, or the malignant fabrications of a natural intelligence gone completely awry?
Life —our indivisible and therefore ultimately indecipherable common source and sustaining grace— has no identity. It is the process of thought that encapsulated in the fiction of a separate tribal and personal existence choses to identify, intensely and exclusively, with anything other than the boundless, unthinkable being that holds us, and everything else, in common, without distinction.
Constant insecurity, conflict, and suffering are the fruit of this collective alienation that expresses itself in slightly differentiated cultural and personal forms of thought and action. And it is in the vain attempt to assuage or overcome these conditions that the “thinking” individual wastes her life struggling with herself and others to improve her material circumstances and, especially, to protect and gradually develop the particular configuration of a madly idealized future identity.
The compulsion to fulfill ourselves has its source in the intrinsic insecurity of a fake separate existence, and whether this compulsion is successful or not (and it is rarely the first), its essential product is inevitably further insecurity, and further conflict, and sorrow. The extravagant privilege and delicious security gained at the price of the oppression, exploitation, and murder of others by any form of power, is never lasting.
The bottom line is: we are not as different from one another as we think. As already mentioned, each one of us is only a slightly different instance of a collective phenomenon of gradually changing psychological identification with inherent physical traits and acquired (learned) cultural characteristics and tendencies. In other words, an idiosyncratic combination of common characteristics, think gender, race, ethnicity, clan, language, religion, nationality, social and economic class, local community, profession, consumer and entertainment preference etc., yields in everyone the same erroneous conviction of separate and original existence operating with the guidance, and under the constraints of primary and secondary groups of reference.
The odd mixture of love, indifference, fear, hate, pleasure and pain —of security and insecurity— this conviction of separate being grants, compels every person to spend most of her vital energy on the never ending, and seldom successful struggle to become somehow better and happier in contrast and competition with others of the same or of different ideological affiliation and tribal provenance.
If for some unknown grace the limited and otherwise aberrant optics of your cultural and personal conditioning become inoperant, and an impersonal mind manages to look at humanity as a whole, what comes into sharp focus is its fragmentation along the boundary lines set by different secular and religious ideologies and their attendant social and psychological structures.
To better illustrate this extraordinary atomization of humanity, let us start with two fascinating Wikipedia entries that portray the immense variety of religious belief that help shape the character of different cultures and the separate identity of most human beings. Allow me first a small but telling quote from the introduction to their “List of Religions and Spiritual Traditions”:
“Many religions have narratives, symbols, traditions and sacred histories that are intended to give meaning to life or to explain the origin of life or the universe. They tend to derive morality, ethics, religious laws, or a preferred lifestyle from their ideas about the cosmos and human nature. According to some estimates, there are roughly 4,200 religions in the world.”
These other Wikipedia entries will give you some sense of the physical and cultural variety of humanity and the impact this variety has on the thought and behavior of different groups and individuals when they are too intensely identified with them:
The central point to sharing this information about some of the factors that make human beings feel routinely different and distant from one another, often to the point of divorce, revolution, and war, is to make three intimately related suggestions.
First, that our stubborn psychological identification with exclusive differences determining who we each think we are, makes us all equally insecure, equally predisposed to use unfair or openly violent means to try to assuage this insecurity and, most important of all, equally alienated from our common source in life.
Second, that unless a critical number of us becomes aware of the nature of this alienation and the danger it poses, and are changed drastically by it, humanity will continue on its habitual course of infighting, disintegration, and degradation, perhaps to the point of no return and before long.
And third, that the nature of the change necessary is radical and unprecedented. Radical, in that it implies an irreversible collapse of the conceit of separate personal existence, and not merely another instance of the relatively familiar transit from a defective set of cultural allegiances and personal characteristics and behaviors to a presumably better one. And unprecedented in the sense that this collapse implies living free of the images and ideas that have forever determined our common sense of a particular cultural and personal past, present, and future from which life as a whole is largely excluded.
The timeless quality of end of the separate self lies also in that it is not a gradual, laborious or agonizing transition to something else, worldly or otherworldly, but rather a sudden illumination that makes evident that while our experience of reality is very real, it has never been the truth. Only the unknowable wholeness of life is the truth, the truth that the very fictional presence of the separate self denies.