I agree: It’s hard being you.
Your whole life you’ve been trying to figure this thing out, but still you’re left with unanswered questions and pressing concerns. It’s not clear that you’ll be able to “crack the code” before your time is up.
It sure seems that humans would have reached a deeper understanding by now, after thousands of years of suffering and searching for the answer.
Well, we have.
After taking a few minutes to review what’s been discovered and preserved in the perennial wisdom traditions of our species, we’ll need to come back for an explanation as to why, with such clear insight harbored in our collective consciousness for so long, we nevertheless persist in our pretense of ignorance.
Here’s what we know. You – or your “I” (ego) who is searching for truth – are an agent of your tribe, of the society that holds your membership. Your daily life in the world amounts to a carousel of roles that you play, as you step in and out of various role-plays.
Every one of the roles you play is a social construct.
You weren’t born a manager, a nurse, a student, a party member, or religious believer. Even among your casual acquaintances, you step into relationships by first assuming a role, however informal, which identifies you to others in the role-play and conveys your status, credibility, and reputation.
Once again, it’s important to see that you weren’t born with these roles. They are not products of nature, but constructs of culture. They were constructed for the purpose of securing your membership in society and making you an agent of its “system,” by which is meant its network, worldview, ideology, and way of life.
What’s more, you didn’t just “put on” or “step into” these various roles without first getting certain things under control. What things? Let’s summarize them as the drives and desires of your animal nature. The instinctual intelligence of your body has been evolving over generations of prehuman and hominid species, and its primary concern is with your survival, need satisfaction, and successful reproduction.
It should be no surprise that your natural drives and desires care not one bit about all those cultural conventions of identity.
But your society does care, since all those cultural conventions of identity are essential to its efficient operation. The drives and desires of your animal nature couldn’t simply be allowed instant gratification in the polite and civil company of others. Hold it, and quickly find a bathroom. Hang on and take care of it on your own time. And as for that, you better keep it to yourself and off-stage, because that will get you in trouble around here.
All these control measures were put in place in order to domesticate your animal nature, to condition you into a well-behaved member of society. Some of that primal energy was thereby redirected and refined into the roles of social identity mentioned earlier. Even though you are basically a human animal, this process of domestication slowly shaped you into a person with deep emotional investment in the role-plays of your tribe.
We should also note that your society is somewhat unique among all other societies of the world. Belonging to American society is a very different experience from belonging to, say, Bengalese or Samoan society. This is not only explained by the conditions of geography, climate, and race, but also by the fact that each society is organized around and oriented on a rather unique set of ideals.
Devotion literally means to make a vow and dedicate oneself by a sacrifice of time, effort, or some other more tangible value symbol (like a lamb or bull in archaic societies) to something regarded as having superior value and power – what we are calling an “ideal.”
These ideals exemplify and inspire what a society regards as ultimately good, true, beautiful, and eternal. Somewhere in your early education you were introduced to the ideals of your society – in the form of moral injunctions (thou shalt and thou shalt not), nursery fables, and all the stories of heroes, saints, saviors, and celebrities in your cultural mythology.
The preservation of this mythology, as well as the disciplined reflection on its meaning and personal devotion to its transcendent ideals, has been one of the primary functions of religion throughout human cultural history.
It seems inevitable, however, that every society will tend eventually to confuse its depictions of ultimate reality with the ideals that those depictions were originally intended to represent.
This is when an ideal becomes an idol. The corruption of devotion into idolatry occurs when a representation of utimate reality, which had once served as a mediating metaphor or image of what cannot be imagined, comes to obscure and then replace its transcendent referent as an object to be glorified and worshipped.
In the middle of all of this, there remains the question that individuals just like you have been struggling to answer for thousands of years: “Who am I?”
By a quick review: Your society imposed controls on the drives and desires of your animal nature, controls which you eventually internalized and took over in your ego. Besides putting restraints on your instincts, society also trained your devotion on certain idols and ideals that represent ultimate reality.
And then, in the provision of roles for your life in society, you proceeded to take on a variety of personas – performing, playing-at, and pretending to be what others expected of you.
But who are you, really?
In other words, who (or maybe better, what) is so busy playing at being somebody special on this stage or that? If you are nothing more (or other) than the personas you are playing on stage, you are – or predictably will soon become – anxious, frustrated, exhausted, and depressed. According to the perennial wisdom traditions, we all get caught in this sticky web of forgetting our true self.
It is our socially conditioned trance state, the illusion we mistake as reality. Magnified to the extent that we all submit to its spell, this condition is what Wisdom names “the human condition.”
In his important work, Parker Palmer clarifies the dynamic tension between “role” and “soul” – soul referring to your inner life and true self. When you forget and neglect the grounding mystery of your true self, in chasing after the acceptance, approval, and recognition of others, you are forsaking the deeper reality of who and what you are.
Across the many branching streams of the one River of Wisdom, this is the essential message: at once an expression of sincere empathy, a strong word of urgent warning, and some really good news about the liberated life – which is always closer than you think.