Kierkegaard: “There is an ignorance about one’s own life that is equally tragic for the learned and for the simple, for both are bound by the same responsibility. This ignorance is called self-deceit.”
Each of us, regardless of our ethnicity, class, sex or education level, is living a lie. Well, maybe not an intentional lie, but at least a good game of “pretend.” We were great at it as kids, dressing up and role-playing adult situations. Then we passed through a phase called adolescence, when adults suddenly became boring, stuffy and oppressive. When the time came and we stepped into our own social responsibilities and long-term relationships, pretending was in again – but now, oddly enough, it’s “the way things really are.”
If we’re not careful, this adult pretense can occupy us for at least a lifetime – some Hindu religions believe it takes several turns of the life-wheel before we even stand a chance of waking up from the trance. In the Christian West, you have one crack at it. If you don’t come to enlightenment before the lights go out, too bad for you. There are no remedial classes.
We’re talking about ego, of course – your personal identity as shaped by experience and social conditioning. You may actually believe that you are a 21st-century, white, middle-class male (oh right, that’s me) who carries a membership card for this club, this party, this denomination. To the degree that you are totally sold-out to these tribal affiliations, you are deceived. And who is deceiving you? Ah, there’s the rub: it’s you. You are being deceived by one part of yourself to believe that you are all that.
Ego links us into a social niche which provides us a role to play and a mask to wear. This is who you are in this circle, we are told, and things will go better for you if you play by the rules. And why wouldn’t we? Acceptance, approval, recognition and respect – all the forces that go into constructing a “good boy/girl,” a “good husband/wife,” a “good Christian/whatever” – seem like worthy pursuits and high standards.
Life in society for the ego is a long line of such identity contracts, each one requiring its own mask and role to play. The longer we’re in the game, the added layers and facets of who we are effectively bury and pull attention away from what we are. Eventually you are the suit you’re wearing. In his interview with Bill Moyers (The Power of Myth), Joseph Campbell cited the Star Wars character Darth Vader as the archetype of a human being who has gotten so wrapped up in his social role, as to lose the capacity for life apart from it.
This is what Kierkegaard means by self-deceit. While the probability increases with the length of time spent in the masquerade of culture and tribal life, this loss of soul through the captivation of ego happens to young and old alike. In fact, much of conventional psychotherapy involves some type of regression work where the client is guided back into childhood when a primary role of victim (abuse), orphan (neglect) or slave (control) was forced on them by their family.
Now as adults they continue to suffer with anxiety and depression in that part of their personality called the “inner child” where issues of trust, intimacy and power are hooked. Their present relationships aren’t working and they can’t seem to break out of the looping scripts and scenarios that so defined their early life – and who they are today.
While conventional psychotherapy works on the horizontal time-line of the client’s life story, there is another axis that intersects this one: the vertical present. At any moment, the realization can dawn that “I am not the roles I have been given or that have been forced on me; right now I am free to be my authentic self.”
Variously called enlightenment, revelation, or disillusionment – depending on the degree of pain involved in dis-identifying with the suit/mask/role – such experiences are truly transforming. They are not about working with or around the developmental hang-ups of ego, but rather opening up to the deeper resource of the client’s spiritual life (soul).
In the meantime, barring any disturbances, your ego can carry on, fully entranced and sufficiently self-deceived. Kierkegaard was fairly notorious for his attempts to shock his fellow citizens out of their zombie state, as when he cut his pants at mid-calf and walked the town. Egads! Sometimes just a small change-up can be enough to make people look twice and start to wonder. He wasn’t trying to throw social fashion into an upheaval, but to creatively remind us that our social identities are chosen and put on every day.
Here’s a way of looking at it. Reality is a swirling, dynamic and ineffable mystery that supports your existence in each passing moment. Your world is a construction of meaning, spun and stretched across the abyss like a spider’s web. A good part of it – think of the radial strands that anchor this web-world and give it stability – is the work of your tribe, culture and race. These are the “big ideas” and “ultimate concerns” for which generations of your ancestors have lived and died. Now it’s your turn.
But occupying the web of meaning requires that you step in at specific “locations,” and these are your principal roles. Your roles link you to other players in the web, and communication between roles generates and sustains the shared world of society. In a particular role you have several energy-masks you are allowed to wear, each one serving as a filter for self-expression and social attachment. The number of masks (think of these as moods or modes of interaction) defines the range of identity you are permitted in a given relationship or scenario. Playing by the rules is very important at this level, and your tribe enforces a moral code intended to keep everyone in line. So far, so good.
Now just play this whole thing in reverse – from relational masks to social roles to tribal rules and finally to the general picture we have of “the way things really are” (our shared world) – and you can get a sense for how entrancing it all is. You may believe that you have absolute freedom to be who you are (and this is part of the illusion), but each mask is ultimately tied into a cultural worldview which is generations or centuries deep.
Yes, the mythological god has a critical role to play in all of this as well. But notice, culture has given the grand architect and moral supervisor of the universe only a limited number of masks to wear. It’s all very well managed.
… until someone wakes up from the trance.