During the month of May I will be sending you a 4-part excerpt from Chapter 1 of Sacred Selfishness, Captives of Normalcy.
Captives of Normalcy
Erich Fromm believed that character determined behavior. In his studies of how society affects our development, he concluded that every society shares a common character structure, meaning a common set of traits that motivate us to behave in ways that fulfill the goals and ideals of our culture. For example we are taught and conditioned to believe our self-worth depends upon our achievements, our financial value, the things we own, how productive we are, and how other people evaluate us. Fromm called this collection of traits our social character. Society from its largest institutional units down to its smallest, the family, endeavors to teach us these traits.
In many ways the social character of our culture operates like a tribal mind-set, a collection of basic beliefs to which every member subscribes. This “social character” continues its efforts to contain us as adults just as it attempted to mold our earlier growth, just as it has always. Even primitive people identified with their tribe’s model for living and its values, beliefs, and customs. To be a member of the tribe meant to have security, acceptance, and to be considered a human being. To violate a tribal value resulted in expulsion from the community, which in turn cost that person his (or her) identity in a real as well as a psychological sense; it turned him into a nonperson with little hope and little chance of surviving in a harsh world. Even today events that threaten our identities and self-images may touch this place of primal fear in our heritage, and cause us to dread feeling alienated and alone.
The feeling of belonging in our families, peer groups, and communities is a powerful sensation. To be with people or family with whom we feel spiritually, emotionally, and physically comfortable makes us feel secure and that life is manageable even if our circumstances could be a lot better. People stay in bad marriages and poor jobs to hold onto this security and because they are afraid of the loneliness and disapproval that change could bring. The power of
fear, the implicit threat of denouncement or disappointment, makes many of us afraid of crossing the boundaries set by the conventional values and beliefs we have internalized and on which our self-images rest.
This fear blocks our development and makes it difficult to break free of beliefs that no longer serve our growth. It’s difficult to shed the old skins made of familiar or hardened beliefs and attitudes. We can even get stuck in this process. In other words fear can block our growing past the stage of complex consciousness into that of individual consciousness. We fear the prospect of divorce, the embarrassment that may come with the loss of income, the criticism by our partners, families, or close friends. We even fear going to therapists and analysts because we want to feel we are OK and don’t want other people to see us as needy, flawed, or crazy. That is when we feel stuck. Overwhelmed by the fear of what we might lose rather than inspired by what we might gain. The core of this book will revolve around the problems of this crucial transition point in our lives and the promise it offers.
When we approach the third stage, individual consciousness, it’s as if a door were opening, inviting us into the experience of personal authenticity and of feeling truly at home within ourselves. Individual consciousness moves us beyond the mind-set of social norms. During this stage we begin to become aware of our unique natures as something separate from the forces and values that have molded the roles we are living. In fact this may be the first point at
which we realize we are actually living roles. This awareness, unless it is quickly repressed, will lead us into a swirl of conflicting emotions as we begin to question ourselves about who we are, and to ask ourselves if this is all there is.
If we are unable to confront our earlier choices at this point, we may be devoured by our disappointment and resentment. Sometimes these feelings bring some people into therapy while the fear and denial they stir up keep others away.
The “midlife crisis” that bruises or ensnares so many of us is a collision of just this: a point where we come into conflict with social norms and expectations. The values we have been living by begin to seem repressive, and being “responsible” feels dull and unsatisfying. We long to step off the never-ending treadmill of obligations.
At this time I want to pause and ask a question. What happens if we have reached age thirty-five or forty and haven’t been able to fully form workable adult identities? The answer is that sooner or later we will also find our lives breaking down and coming to a stop. But this crisis won’t be a midlife crisis, although they have many similarities. Rather it will be an identity crisis that too needs to be resolved in order for us to become actual adults, no matter how
old we happen to be. This situation isn’t unusual because starting in the 1960s our society has become complex and the guidelines for figuring out when we have become adults have broken down. At the same time society is doing less to foster self-responsibility. The following example portrays a grown-up who hasn’t fully grown into adult consciousness.
I first met Sam at one of my workshops on dreams and creativity. He was quiet, but also jovial and warm, and gave the impression of being very sensitive. People were surprised to find out this quiet fellow with a ponytail was a lawyer. But they smiled knowingly when he disclosed he worked for the legal aid society. As he shared bits and pieces of himself, he mesmerized the other participants with his enthusiasm for Tai Chi and other Eastern spiritual practices. Everyone pictured Sam as perceptive and caring.
One morning Sam phoned me for a private appointment. When we sat down together a few days later he said, “I’ve got to find a life.” As Sam’s story unfolded I found out he was forty-three. He had gone through adolescence in the 1960s and ’70s. Sam had been married twice, had two daughters, and his current wife was threatening to leave him if he didn’t quit smoking pot.
Sam said his wife felt like there was “just nobody at home” inside of him. His teenage daughters were embarrassed that their dad smoked pot and by their comparatively shabby standard of living. Sam’s life was in crisis, but his was really a deferred crisis from his adolescence. At that time he took the path of going to law school to satisfy his parents. But inwardly he identified with many of the rebellious values of his adolescence. He has remained stuck in that
quandary for almost twenty years, working for legal aid in order to defy his ambitious parents’ values and using pot to medicate his feelings of self-alienation. Sam’s self-analysis was correct. He needed to find a life, one based on an adult identity and a self-responsible place in the world of work and relationships.
After two months of analysis Sam recognized his addiction and began an outpatient drug treatment program in addition to analysis. His wife decided to stay with him as he began the quest to rediscover himself. In Sam’s case, taking up the struggle for a stronger adult identity had to take place before he had a real foundation for seeking individual consciousness, and for seeking further self-knowledge.
Once we have achieved adult identities we must face another turning point that is just as significant as moving from childhood into adulthood. It is one of the most important periods in our lives, and when it is simply known as “midlife crisis,” it may become one of the most misunderstood. It is misunderstood because we are so oriented toward practicality and toward our outer lives, that it is difficult for us to hear our inner spiritual events and understand them. The discontent with life that causes our midlife crises is a call to develop higher consciousness that we no longer know how to recognize as an epiphany, an awakening. Families, friends, coworkers, and even our children often want us to get back to normal and keep soldiering down life’s highway. Instead, we should welcome this call as a time to deepen our lives, as a spiritual turning point, and an opportunity to redirect our energies inward, to reclaim parts of ourselves that we lost or never found as we were growing up. This call, if we have the courage to answer it, demands that we look back and ask, At what point did I betray my own existence and begin turning my energy against myself?
Because of its paradoxical nature this is a perplexing time for us. It frequently comes at a time when we may think our lives are working the best they ever have. We are no longer young. Our identities seem secure. We have earned our way in life, have given up some illusions and fantasies, and feel grounded in reality. Little do we realize that instead of preparing a sure highway into the future, we have prepared the ground for our next transformation. Sometimes,
our inability to recognize the spiritual turning points in our lives frequently forces them to appear covertly as illness, emotional problems, and other crises. Sometimes the restlessness and vague feelings of fear and unease we feel may reappear in external forms such as affairs, divorce, the loss of a job, the illness or death of a loved one—symptoms, and not the cause, of an emotional hemorrhage we are not ready to face. And sometimes there are small ailments like headaches, anxiety attacks, fatigue at work, and increased moodiness that, if left unattended to, may escalate into alcoholism, obesity, use of tranquilizers, sexual difficulties, heart attacks, and repeated changes in jobs and spouses.
Whatever the symptoms, something has happened to shake our values in the old systems. We may seem to have everything a person in the conventional world would want, but we are miserable. Our lives seem to lack meaning; we can’t figure out what our partners want from us, or we can’t control our teenagers, and everything we try to do seems to make matters worse.
When these events come along we have a choice. We can listen to them or shut them out. We can choose to ignore them and go right on driving ourselves down the well-travelled interstate of social convention, being good lawyers, doctors, business people, ministers, homemakers, college professors—
typical normal people. But the Self I discussed earlier (the whole personality including the inborn urge to grow) may not stand for this kind of stagnation.
This Self is determined to create psychological growth and will continue to repeat certain calls and escalate predicaments and ailments until they get renewed attention. Of course, we have additional options: We can stiffen and rigidify our attitudes, cling to the highway, and perhaps even become pillars in
the community––in effect pillars of the past. Or we can try to placate our restlessness by following the latest trends in self-help and health while others choose to become more rigid in their religious and political attitudes. These health-promoting activities may seem appealing, but we have to be careful we are not using them in the wrong way, to avoid facing our deeper selves. If we are going to confront our lives and grow into them, we must accept our emotions and begin to ask ourselves who we are and how we are living.
These kinds of questions open us to new ways of looking at life and the conflicts we experience when we try to live as individuals within a social group. They also compel us to examine the principles steering our lives and to look at the ways we have interpreted our religious teachings and to assess the degree to which our modern experiences of religion can restore our souls and guide our existence. Thinkers like Sir Laurens Van der Post, Carl Jung, Joseph Campbell, James Hillman, and Paul Tillich have agreed that we have misunderstood our religious figures like Buddha, Moses, and Christ.
They suggest that these figures exemplify the pattern of individuation––the journey to the true Self and how to live in an authentic manner that expresses our wholeness and fulfills our best potentials. They would emphasize, for example, that the great fallacy in theology is to take the life of a spiritual figure like Christ literally rather than in its full symbolic meaning. The results of this mistake lead us to advocate a blind imitation of his life and teachings and miss the real message, which is that we should live our lives to the fulfillment of our natures, gifts, potentials, and destinies, as truly as Christ lived to the end to which he had been born. The same points can be made about the lives of other spiritual leaders such as Buddha and Moses.
The Jungian analyst Edward Edinger in his moving book Ego and Archetype uses the story of Christ as seen from a psychological perspective to amplify this point and to outline how we may grow in self-awareness. When we look at Christ’s teachings in this manner, many of his seemingly paradoxical statements take on new meanings. One of his admonitions symbolizes part of the pattern our growth must follow: “Do not suppose that I have come to bring peace on earth: it is not peace I bring but a sword. For I have come to set a man against his father, a daughter against her mother, a daughter-in-law against her mother-in-law.” (Matthew 10:35, 36). That is, if we are going to have our own lives, we must become self-responsible and independent from our parents and their influence. The paradox in this teaching is that psychological and spiritual development call for us to accept the contradictions and sufferings that occur when we break with conformity in a manner that ultimately leads to a higher level of fulfillment.
Our foes, in terms of our struggle to become individuals, are the members of our own households. It makes sense. They are the ones closest to us. The ones it was natural for us to have identified either with or against, whose approval and acceptance we sought and whose criticism we feared. Establishing our own individual lives is the very foundation for psychological development. Abraham had to leave the country of his father. Buddha had to leave his father’s palace. The disciples of Christ had to leave home and vocations. The symbolic pattern is clear. Our growth depends upon our ability to muster the courage and awareness to separate ourselves from the group mind-set of our families and the conventional wisdom they embody. Which is not to say their values are wrong. We must disentangle ourselves from them and then decide how we want to relate to them from our own standpoints.
The symbolic image of the sword represents the power, the self-awareness we must develop to make these difficult discriminations. It also suggests the amount of strength we need and the pain that may result as we cut away our deepest ties in the service of beginning a new journey in life. Many of us have fooled ourselves into believing we have made this step when we actually have not.
In my own case, for instance, I thought I’d outgrown my father’s aggressive sports mentality and felt superior to him, only to discover in my own inner search that I had a very strong, but hidden, competitive drive that everyone was aware of but me. In many ways this passage into individual consciousness is the hardest of the four stages. This is because, in general, we have the social and emotional support of our families, friends, and communities as we struggle through the first two stages. The passage into the third stage is lonelier. Often we must work by ourselves on ourselves and seemingly against the values and popular attitudes promoted by our society. But the next stage, illuminated consciousness, makes the journey worthwhile. It is that place we reach when we have realized our individual personalities and recognized the existence of a greater Self, or the image of God or the divine, that is within us.
Book Excerpts and Resources
, authenticity, Carl Jung, creative life, healthy personality, Individuation, living authentically, Sacred Selfishness