Last time we looked at the transformation of pain into healing and how it reminds us that we need each other. One of the problems with pain is that it can make you withdraw into yourself. But this just makes the pain worse because now you feel isolated too, and that messes with your head and makes you believe all sorts of crazy ideas. It becomes a vicious cycle.
When you feel overwhelmed by the state of the world and your own suffering, it’s helpful to remember that you don’t always see things the way they actually are. You see things as you are.
This has a profound effect on what you believe you 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.
The view of humans as basically “selfish flesh machines” has come to dominate Western culture. We can’t lay all the blame for this on Richard Dawkins, but I’m going to quote his book The Selfish Gene anyway:
“Let us try to teach generosity and altruism, because we are born selfish.”
Richard Dawkins popularised the reductionist materialist assumption of the ‘selfish gene’ and it’s been used as an excuse for bad behaviour since. Our genes are selfish and so are we. Apparently.
Selfishness is usually linked 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 to drive consumption and the whole sorry mess of civilisation for decades, but it isn’t true.
We don’t need to “teach generosity and altruism” because most of us aren’t that selfish to begin with. Studies have found that selfish traits aren’t favoured by evolution, and that we’re 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.
As to individualism – this can get a bit confusing and it looks like a semantic argument, but it’s important to get this straight in your head – individuality is not the enemy.
It’s not individualism that causes selfishness, but egotism. 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.
It’s the ego that drives individuals to become selfish. The ego is the part of you that worries about things like status and how you 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. The ego is too scared to risk being an individual. This means that the ego is about conformity, not individuality.
A society of true individuals would look very different to the society we have today. In fact, we don’t have an individualistic society – we have an egotistical one. It’s actually closer to being a narcissistic society, and getting worse every day.
To be a true individual you have to stop conforming and stop seeking validation from outside yourself. To do this you must transcend the ego. 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.
“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
(Read more on the distinction between the Self and the Ego here.)
Who Are You?
If you’ve spent time looking inwards or observing your mind, you’ll have noticed how much you change – from day to day, hour to hour, depending on moods and who you’re with. You appear to have many different selves. How you behave when you’re with your mum, for example, will be very different to your behaviour with friends, or at work, and so on.
All these varying relationships and the roles you play in other people’s lives form a network within which you live. Who you grew up to become was conditioned by the relationships you had with your parents, siblings, peers, and so on. This means that nobody can describe themselves as wholly self-made. Nobody lives in a vacuum – not even hermits.
Your 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: you have identities that are regional, national, and global. Finally, your individual self is embedded within the web of life.
The above diagram (adapted from Active Hope) shows these widening circles – each embedded within the next. It also reveals how misleading it is to make a distinction between selfishness and altruism.
To say you must choose between yourself and others is a false choice. It presupposes that you’re separate from others and life, and that in helping others you might somehow be depriving yourself. But how can this be the case if we’re dependent upon each other for our survival?
You don’t exist in isolation. The things you value the most come from your connections with others: love, friendship, trust, relationship, belonging, loyalty, purpose, meaning, spirituality and gratitude.
You can’t exist without the earth to support you (no matter what believers in the AI singularity think). When you widen your sense of self to include the natural world it puts your life into a larger context and opens up a powerful inner source of strength. You can then recognise that life lives through you and depends on you to take care of it – whether that means taking care of yourself, or of 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 you balance your own needs with those of others or the earth itself? Doing the right thing can be inconvenient or even illegal. How can you become part of the solution instead of being part of the problem?
Here’s another exercise from Active Hope to try. 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 your life in these terms helps you to identify actions you can take to move humanity towards a more interconnected and sustainable future. When you make a deeper connection with nature and remember the true source of your life, your identity shifts and expands to include more and more of life. Your wellbeing is intimately bound to the wellbeing of the earth.
She needs you to wake up.
Next time we’ll look at how to transcend conflict with a new kind of power