Read the updated version of this post here: Active Hope and Expanding the Sense of Self
“It is a remarkable fact that a life lived entirely from the ego is dull not only for the person himself but for all concerned.” – Carl Jung
When the scale of the environmental crisis we’re facing seems overwhelming, it can be helpful to remember we don’t always see things the way they actually are.
We see things as we are.
This has a profound effect on what we believe we can accomplish. If you believe you’re a tiny little person, isolated and alone, battling insurmountable odds, it’s enough to make you want to give up in despair. But this view of the self isn’t based in reality.
Selfish Flesh Machines
The view of humans as basically selfish has come to dominate Western culture. Our genes are selfish and so are we.
“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.” – Richard Dawkins, The Selfish Gene
Selfishness is often attributed to individualism which is blamed for destroying family values and breaking up communities. The cult of the individual sets us against each other, forcing us to compete and prove our worth. This idea has been used as an excuse to drive consumption and the whole sorry mess of civilisation for decades, but it isn’t true.
Studies have found that selfish traits are not favoured by evolution, and that we are in fact born with an innate sense of fairness. Indigenous peoples have developed methods for rooting out selfishness to ensure everyone pulls together, and it’s clear we wouldn’t have survived for long without the ability to cooperate and consider the needs of the tribe. Altruism and compassion are innate human qualities, and are displayed by other animals too. Life cooperates as much as it competes.
Individuality is not the enemy
As a side note, it isn’t individualism that causes selfishness. True individuality isn’t about being selfish and blindly following your own needs regardless of the impact on others. A true individual would never do that.
What drives people to selfishness is egotism, not individualism. The ego is the part of us that worries about things like status and how we fit in. It does this because it’s insecure. The ego desperately wants to belong to something larger because it has cut itself off from the whole. It can’t risk being an individual. This means that the ego is about conformity, not individuality.
We don’t have an individualistic society – we have an egotistical society.
A society of true individuals would look very different. To be an individual you must transcend the ego, stop conforming and stop seeking validation from outside yourself. An individual is someone who is guided from within to follow the dictates of the Soul or the deeper Self – a process called Individuation by Jung. A true individual is not selfish (egotistical) because they know the self is joined with others in an interconnected web of relationships.
(This point bears closer scrutiny – I’ll cover it in more detail later, but in the meantime, here’s my definition of the Self.)
Who Are You?
We appear to have many different selves. We change from day to day, hour to hour, depending on who we’re with. How you behave when you’re with your mum will be very different to your behaviour with friends, or at work, and so on.
We live within a network of roles and relationships. Who you become, as an individual, is conditioned by the relationships you had growing up – nobody can describe themselves as wholly self-made.
Our individual self relates to the world through ever expanding circles: family, friends (both real and online), work colleagues, and community groups. Beyond that the relationships become more impersonal and abstract: we have identities that are regional, national, and global. Finally, our individual self is embedded within the web of life.
This diagram is adapted from the one in Active Hope and demonstrates how we are part of widening circles. It also shows that the distinction between selfishness and altruism is misleading. To say we must choose between ourselves and others is a false choice. It presupposes that we are separate from others and life, and that in helping others we might somehow be depriving ourselves. But how can this be the case if we are dependent upon each other for our survival?
We don’t exist in isolation. The things we value the most come from our connections with others – love, friendship, trust, relationship, belonging, loyalty, purpose, meaning, spirituality and gratitude.
Widening the view of the self
We cannot exist without the earth to support us. Widening our sense of self to include the natural world puts our own lives into a larger context and opens up a great source of strength. We can recognise that life lives through us and depends upon us to take care of it – whether that means taking care of ourselves, or others, or the planet.
“Life has a powerful creative energy and manifests a powerful desire to continue. When we align ourselves with the well-being of our world, we allow that desire and creative energy to act through us.” – Active Hope
In this time of crisis it can be hard to know what to do. How do we balance our own needs with those of others or the earth itself? Doing the right thing can be inconvenient or even illegal. How can we become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?
Here’s an exercise from Active Hope to try, in two parts. You can do this alone or with a partner:
Tell Me, Who Are You?
Imagine encountering a stranger who’s keen to get to know you. Either write your reply in a notebook or take turns with your partner. Respond to the question: “Tell me, who are you?” in as many different ways as you can. Aim for at least ten different responses, but if you’re feeling curious, see if you can fill a whole page.
Now, take your responses and expand on them – place them into a larger context by thinking about what happens as a result of who you are. What impact do you have on others and the world?
Tell Me, What Happens Through You?
Repeat the process above, but with the question: “What happens through you?” Either write the responses in a notebook or share them with a partner.
Thinking about our lives in these terms helps us identify actions we can take to move humanity towards a more interconnected and sustainable future. When we make a deeper connection with nature and remember the true source of our lives, our identities shift and expand to include more and more of life. Our wellbeing is intimately bound to the wellbeing of the earth.
She needs us to wake up.
Next we explore the nature of power in Transcending Conflict: A New Kind of Power