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A Culture of Dependency

Consumer_Patient_VictimAs I see it, the ultimate aim of human self-actualization is not some godlike state of disembodied transcendence, but a mode of consciousness and active life that I call creative authority. This mode of existence is, in fact, one of the outstanding powers attributed to, and glorified in, our numerous representations of god through the millenniums. However, more consistent with a constructivist and evolutionary approach to religion, the construct of god (as metaphor and literary figure) has served to project and focus our aspirations on what is waking within us. The creative authority depicted in our gods, then, is really the higher self calling us forward.

In this post I will not criticize the various ways that corrupt religion has actually interfered with our evolutionary progress as a species, but rather how certain developments in our larger culture have managed to push us away from the ideal of creative authority and deeper into a mindset of dependency. As long as we persist in this mindset – and there are seductive incentives for doing so – we will be prevented from becoming fully human.

Creative authority is about choosing our response to life as it comes, and making choices that move us deeper into the life we really want. Choice (as my diagram shows) combines the freedom to choose with responsibility for the choices we make. While freedom without responsibility may be the fantasy of adolescence, creative authority keeps the two always together.

It is a mark of maturity – and, I would add, self-actualization – when the individual begins freely choosing and taking responsibility for the life he or she chooses.

The general trend of Western culture, however, especially in the last hundred years, has been to convert the individual away from creative authority and into a very different mode of consciousness. Instead of cultivating the identity of one whose inner life is filled with creative energy, talent, intelligence and possibility, a product of this conversion regards him- or herself as empty inside, an energy sink that must perpetually be filled as it becomes depleted. What would otherwise mature in the direction of a self-identified creator gets identified by the culture as a consumer.

A consumer, therefore, is the exact opposite of a creator: not inside-out but outside-in defines the flow of energy, life, spirit and value. A creator enjoys the freedom and accepts responsibility for constructing meaning, making connections, and managing a personal world. Under the spell of the Great Machine, a consumer by contrast looks outward (since there’s nothing inside anyway) for what will fill the void within, satisfy the craving, and make him or her whole again.

There is an obvious marketing strategy in all of this: as long as an individual believes that something essential is missing inside, and that his or her only option is to look outside the self for completion, the retail possibilities are limitless.

Once the trance of consumer identity is accomplished, the next (and logical) step is to take on the role of patient. From the Latin pati, a patient is not just someone who suffers, but who passively suffers – someone to whom unfortunate things happen. Again, we should note the divergence of this idea from the self-concept of a creator who takes responsibility for the meaning constructed around pain and loss, as well as for the path back to health. While a patient waits on salvation from outside, a creator is actively engaged as a co-operator in the process.

As long as the individual remains passive in the treatment process, the Great Machine and its retinue of ‘experts’ can diagnose, prescribe, and perform their magic – for that is the mystique it has to the patient’s mind – on their inert subject. The patient is needy, not resourceful; and the goal of treatment is palliative (bringing temporary relief), not really curative (promoting chronic health). Once brought into the system as a patient, an individual can be expected to remain in this compliant state indefinitely – at least until the symptoms are gone.

Oftentimes the underlying problem is rooted in a patient’s mind-body balance, personal lifestyle, stage of life, or philosophy of existence – in other words, things in which the individual really does have options and should take an active role. Making the necessary changes here would truly make a lasting difference. This would suggest that the patient somehow has a choice in the matter, that he or she has some measure of creative authority in the way things are. But let’s not forget: the passive sufferer is empty inside and utterly dependent upon salvation from beyond.

It’s one more fateful step that lands an individual in the self-identity of a victim. I’m not talking about obvious cases where innocent and defenseless persons are abused, exploited, or attacked. Terrorists are partly empowered by our anxiety over not being made victims, and unsuspecting bystanders who happen to be in the wrong place at the wrong time are victims in a straightforward sense.

Just as our self-identity as patients is implicit to our identity as consumers, so too is a belief in our own helplessness as victims implied in our passive mode of waiting on help from outside. When the required assistance or promised solution doesn’t come, in the expected form and on time, we are ready to cry out our protest as victims of malpractice, discrimination, or criminal neglect. Never mind that our demand was exaggerated and unrealistic to begin with, given that it came out of the conviction of our own impotence. We are entitled to what reality owes us, and reality owes us a lot.

By this slow and steady slide, then, we have been converted from creators to consumers, from consumers to patients, and from patients to victims: mired in a culture of dependency. Whereas our creative authority would put us in a very different relationship to life, others, and the world around us, this increasing dependency has only managed to cut us off from our own true nature, from one another, and from the present mystery of reality.

The truth is, we are not empty, needy, and helpless. Our self-actualization intends to move us into greater freedom and responsibility, into a wider empathy and a larger community, into a deeper center and a higher wisdom. In the process we become more fully human.

 

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Creative Choice

The creative life is not simply a life without limits, but is more about freely choosing the limits that define your desire. Without definition, the creative desire that Nietzsche called the human spirit splashes out and seeps away, falling short of realization. The other side of it for Nietzsche was the degree in which our limits can strangle the spirit and pull us down into mediocrity.

When I sit with a client, one of the things I’m interested in is his or her behavior. What are you doing? How are you conducting your life? Quite frequently we will discover that the individual isn’t really “conducting” it at all. Instead, the client feels pinned down under the weight of social duty and moral expectations. “I’ve been doing what I’m told, and now I feel like a fake. I’m not living my own life.”

Sometimes it becomes obvious that the individual’s behavior is on automatic pilot. Perhaps it’s not so much the obligations attaching to his or her social roles as it is the dead inertia of habit, trudging on without passion or engagement. This is really Nietzsche’s point, even though he’s most misunderstood here. The individual, moved for so long out of obedience, never truly awakens to his or her own freedom to choose life. It’s not that “morality” is bad, but that it can put us to sleep inside its neat little boxes.

Impulse

Desire originates as an impulse, rooted in the urgencies of our biological life. The natural aim of desire is to find satisfaction by gratifying this impulse. At this level consciousness is fully contained in our animal nature. A newborn baby exemplifies the impulsive life, in the way its behavior spontaneously seeks out the satisfaction of basic needs.

But a human being is also “hard wired” for relationships, not only by virtue of our early dependency on providers but also because these social bonds are necessary to the formation of identity. In the construction of ego, the tribe shapes an animal nature into an obedient and cooperative member of society – or at least that’s the intended outcome. The tribe accomplishes this through the imposition of various constraints; think of them as the “hold” and “push” that gradually train an animal nature into something more domesticated and well-behaved.

Constraint

Don’t do that. Do this instead. That’s what I mean by a “push” constraint. A “hold” constraint is when the instruction is more simply about not doing something, at least not here, not now. There’s a time and place for that, and this isn’t it. Hold that impulse and keep it to yourself. “Hold” constraints often carry the tribe’s shadow, in the fear, condemnation, and consequent shame that get attached to certain animal impulses.

For a while this force of social constraint needs to prevail over the individual’s impulse for immediate gratification. Tribal order and the common good require that some impulses get trained into compliance, some get sublimated in more refined outlets, and some others are kept in the closet. Nietzsche had some trouble with that, as you might expect, but his real complaint was with what typically happens next.

Over time, the control system of social constraints gets internalized, in what Freud would later name the “superego.” Not to be confused with conscience, which refers to an inner sense of how we can best get along together in community, the superego is the pressure of the group on the individual to conform. The real danger is that this “inner parent” will supervene on the individual’s evolutionary need to take control and live his or her own life.

Habit

Habit is a marvelous adaptation in the way it submerges routine behaviors into “thoughtless” performance, in order to liberate conscious attention for higher pursuits. But habit is also the rut where we can curl up and fall asleep to the challenge and mystery of being alive. As social duty is pressed upon the individual and gradually insinuated as the superego, this rut of moral obligation can become the permanent “depression” of the spirit.

This is what Nietzsche (and many others) saw all around him, but it’s not merely a nineteenth-century problem. In his opinion it is the dilemma that represents a critical break-point in human evolution. We will either wake up and start living the life we really want, or we will die in the rut of our daily grind. For Nietzsche it was fulfillment or obedience. After doing what we’re told for long enough, it comes time to choose.

But you need to be awake to choose.

Restraint

The control system of tribal morality is necessary to the construction of personal identity (ego). Our animal nature with its powerful and insistent impulses needs to be domesticated and trained into a cooperative member of society. The way it should work is that these external constraints (“hold” and “push”) gradually assist the individual in developing internal restraint, where he or she is able to “pull” back on impulse and give opportunity for the consideration of options.

What I’m calling internal restraint is not repression, which is about “push” again, this time back and down into a shadow of shame. Restraint is that critical piece of self-control where the individual is able to do something with the impulse, rather than be done by it. Paradoxically restraint is the birthplace of freedom – the evolutionary threshold that Nietzsche announced and prophesied about.

Consideration

Self-restraint thus opens the field of awareness to at least two options: act now or wait til later. But almost always there is a variety of other options that present themselves as well. Maybe you don’t act on your impulse at all. Maybe instead of swinging back you choose to let go. Maybe you find a more compassionate or courageous way to move your life forward.

The point here is that restraint makes consideration possible. Once you have options, you need to weigh them against each other to figure out which one has the best feel and fit. If you are truly free to live the life you want, then your choice cannot be coerced – not by god, government, church or superego. A forced choice is not a choice.

Vision

Finally, this foreground of consideration begins to clarify some future goals – outcomes and consequences that are likely to follow upon one option or another. At this point the individual is stretched in his or her thinking to imagine a preferred future. As the picture becomes more vivid and compelling, some ideals grow in strength as priorities and illumine the path ahead.

Nietzsche’s ideal was of the fully awakened and self-responsible creator. There’s no room here to expand on it further – I have in fact explored the idea in previous posts; see http://wp.me/p2tkek-5q – but this is what I see in the mythological god. This principal figure of religious myth can be observed evolving over many centuries and across cultures, into a “fully awakened and self-responsible creator.” In other words, the mythological god is the literary representation of our human ideal, the Great Attractor of our higher potential as a species.

Unfortunately – and as Nietzsche saw it, tragically – whereas religion might have been the midwife of this spiritual birth, it too often goes the other way. The tribal control system refuses to let the child grow up and take the lead in his or her own life. The god of dogmatic orthodoxy regresses back into an authoritarian, jealous and vindictive anti-ideal. True believers strive almost neurotically to please, placate, flatter and impress their god. Just don’t piss him off, or it will surely be curtains for you.

Sun

Choice

More than ever – and this has always been true – our future as a species hangs in the balance. And as in all other times, now is the time to choose.

It’s time to step creatively into the life we really want.

 

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Reality Choices

Anderson: “We have to make choices from a range of different stories – stories about what the universe is like, about who the good guys and the bad guys are, about who we are – and also have to make choices about how to make choices. The only thing we lack is the option of not having to make choices – although many of us try hard, and with some success, to conceal that from ourselves.”

Another of my favorite authors from seminary days is the sociologist Peter Berger, whose book The Heretical Imperative explores this postmodern necessity of choosing the worlds we live in. The word heresy – which conjures up images of papal excommunications, the famous Scopes trial over evolutionary science in the school curriculum, and my own experience inside a Calvinist-Reformed denomination – simply means “having to choose.”

A heretic is someone who acknowledges the reality of options, along with the consequent need to choose between or among them. From the vantage point of orthodoxy, the heretic is dangerous not just because s/he makes the wrong choice, but because s/he might encourage others to think that they have options, too.

My own denominational background would never acknowledge post-theism as a theological option for true believers. There’s too much history, too much mystique around sacred sources (e.g., the Bible and the Standards of Faith) to permit even the consideration that our personification of god might be more about us than about the real presence of mystery. The good people in the pews on Sunday mornings must be reinforced in their dogmatism. All other ways of representing the mystery – or the choice of not representing it at all – must be condemned as wrong.

But as Anderson points out, we can’t get by anymore without having to make choices. And it’s not the choice between The Right Way and all possible wrong ways. Many of the optional paths lead into very perceptive, coherent and responsible lifestyles and worldviews.

Our postmodern predicament is having outdated worldviews “behind” us, as it were, in the traditions that have shaped our history and identity as tribal members, while “ahead” of us are all these different (contrasting and incompatible) worldviews competing for the emotional currency of our belief.

Behind us is singleness of vision – the “correct thinking” of orthodoxy – while in front of us is this marketplace of rival “software” vendors peddling their exotic thought-forms. There’s at least the illusion of freedom ahead, but for many the security in a one way/right way mentality is too valuable to give up.

We don’t want to admit that we have a choice, because if we do we might be asked to justify our selection. Frankly, most people don’t want to think that much – especially about spiritual things, which really means metaphysical things like god and the soul. Besides, according to the Tradition we must rely on revelation when it comes to such matters, and who do you think holds the keys to that? Long ago god left us with the Bible, and thankfully we now have the scholars and preachers to tell us what it means.

But what scholars and preachers? You have only to step out of one church and into another – of the same denomination even – to realize that options are inescapable and the “obligation” to choose ever-present. Of course, you can bury your head in the sand of one tradition, but even there you will be confronted with a story of differences, dialogue, compromise or dissension. Very human choices, all along the way.

For a long time – we’re talking many hundreds of years – the custodians of cultural orthodoxy were successful in convincing tribal members that the way they saw things was the way things really were. This was easy to do since the custodians themselves (scholars, priests, lawyers and magistrates) were under the same spell. Looking out on reality, why wouldn’t you assume that how things seem to you is the way things really are?

The trance remains strong and widespread even today.

We are coming to understand, however, that worldviews are stories about reality, and that every story is told from a very particular vantage-point. Each possible vantage-point offers only a limited perspective on reality, and whoever steps into that space brings with him or her a dense filter of personal assumptions, ego ambitions, and intellectual commitments.

Every time you change your position in reality – just stepping out the door and into the street, for instance – you are making a choice whether or not to believe the story you have been telling yourself up to that point. Actually, if you had the vision for it you would see a complex web of stories connecting and crisscrossing in such fine detail as to comprise a veil between your mind and reality.

Perhaps this veil is itself your mind, who can say?

If reality is a mystery, then maybe every vantage-point is at base just a few very simple questions: What is IT? How does IT feel? What does IT mean? Our efforts at answering these questions are the stories we tell, and the worlds we inhabit are made up of countless such stories. Yes, our worlds are made up. This discovery is what inspired the postmodern movement.

For more about IT, see my blog at http://braintracts.wordpress.com/2013/03/23/it/

Once you realize that you have no choice but to make choices, that you make choices by telling stories, and that your view of reality (your world) is nothing but a dense web of stories, what comes next is the doubt whether it’s all worthwhile. If there’s a good chance that IT is not exactly as you think IT is, then what can you count on?

Well, I hate to say it, but it’s up to you. You will have to decide. Choose wisely.

 

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