For centuries your hurricane raged,
So much damage wrought,
I’ve watched your lightning split them asunder,
Your winds bent us to the ground,
Some just snapped,
Or were torn up by the roots,
And your waters swept them out to sea,
Their suffering erased from history,
A monster disguised as nature,
Fooling even the most benevolent,
Who were wise enough to be part of the storm,
Instead of under it.
We who did not break,
We who had a moment to breathe,
We gathered up our energy,
And we began to turn,
A counter-swirl to their spin,
Our storm grew,
We needed to show them,
That we could be as mean and nasty,
Since they refused to subside,
So we matched their maelstrom,
Roaring in a different hemisphere,
They called our storm the enemy,
A crime against nature,
But the more their vortex spat at us,
The more weary they became
And still our hurricane answers the call,
The only way we know how,
Chasing each other around the globe,
But vigilante justice still looks like devastation,
Too angry to be beautiful,
Too easy to draw in survivors,
Fueling the anger,
How can we be peaceful?
But before judgment is passed,
Remember who they destroyed,
For we only scoured the earth,
From the rubble and the ruin,
Of foundations callously laid,
Now you can rebuild civilization,
And humanity can be strong and beautiful
Not that I am any great writer or am treating any of my subject matter with a great deal of academic rigor I would nevertheless like to add the final chapter to my blog posts on self and individualism, and collectivism. There is another facet of the human mind and human behavior that fascinates me and that is our ability to be dual-minded. I’m not positive if my definition meets any particular psychological definition, but let me describe what I mean.
I often have trouble reconciling how many Republicans can be anti-abortion but pro
war or pro capital punishment. Growing up with an alcoholic father I found myself always wondering who my father was. Was he the neglectful alcoholic who passed out and missed spending time with me, or was he the jovial affectionate sober dad? Is he the bold man whose not afraid to go up to anybody and strike up a conversation or ask a question, or is he the coward unable to handle even is own inner demons and needing the escape that drugs can give just to get through the day? The somewhat recent passing of Philip Seymour Hoffman reminded me of this paradox as I saw people debate. As one side would simply praise his genius while the other side condemned him as selfish and stupid for abandoning his wife and children for heroin. What about those who believe that God wanted us to have free will, but who also believe that everything is part of God’s plan for us? How do we reconcile those who are scientists whose work depends on forming conclusions based on evidence, but at the same time are people of faith subscribing to a set of beliefs which have no such evidence? We hate those people who might bud into our private business, but then have no trouble doing it to other people. Is it a contradiction to want to be part of group, but within that group you try hard to stand out as individual?
It is clear that we are all walking contradictions to a certain extent. What makes it all so remarkable is that we simply don’t see it. It seems we are unable to recognize these contradictions within ourselves and our behavior seems perfectly natural and sensible. Of course we are not dealing with simple opposites like hot and cold, black and white, left or right, but complex behaviors. So while they may seem contradictory, perhaps if we analyzed them at a deeper psychological level they would not seem so contradictory. Since we rationalize our beliefs and behaviors rather than base our beliefs and behaviors on reason, if we try hard enough we can bend any two contradictions complex enough to our will.
Of course our brains are complex and contain different systems that have different functions. Perhaps these contradictions are simply feeding off a different set of neural pathways and there is no communication between the two such that there is no cross-check for incompatibility. Richard Dawkins in his book The God Delusion postulates that we may have conceived of the notion of God simply because when we are young we don’t understand that the voice in our head is us. We are dual-minded from the beginning because we aren’t really aware that the voice in our head is our own. I, as I am sure all of you have as well, have had many a debate in my mind. It is clear that our mind can simultaneous take different sides of an argument with sincerity in order to weigh our options in order to make the best decision. So it seems at least possible that we might have these different sides of our self that remain separate, for which there is no debate or where we can’t resolve the debate. It could be that a dual sided nature appeals to our sense of self as adding complexity and uniqueness to who we are.
It seems likely to me that this duality, like our sense of self, is quite possibly an illusion. Perhaps it is part of our need to categorize and separate things; labeling people and actions. But Freud seemed to think that our minds are always in conflict. For instance I came up with this scenario in which parents tell their child not to cheat, that it’s wrong. At the same time they get very happy when their child gets good grades. So let’s say they aren’t prepared for an exam and they are now caught between perhaps cheating off the person next to them so they can please their parents (because what child doesn’t want to make them happy) or listening to their parents advice about not cheating and do poorly thus disappointing them. Such conflicts are perhaps simply a series of battles we fight. Sometimes winning sometimes losing. Perhaps my father is simply fighting his addiction everyday. Some days he wins and is able to the be the man I love, and other days he loses and becomes the man that I feel distanced from. Perhaps for some people the struggle ends in compromise, unable to resolve what is truly right and wrong they allow one answer to pervade one type of behavior and another answer to govern the other.
In the end I think it’s all you. Our brain can quickly consider many possible solutions to any problem, and not all of them are right, but what does right have to do with it? Perhaps any solution that helps you survive as well as possible is all that matters.
Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same. We try to set ourselves apart. Even with respect to those we are closest with. It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear. But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc. To do this often we must make judgments. Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not. Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.
This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective. Here we find a
strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us. It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism. Some people need community more than others. Some people value their individualism more than others. Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs. The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church. I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.
What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work. Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group. A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual. Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park. Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.
What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism. A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball. Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose. Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas. Diversity generally benefits the entire group. All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.
I am a big fan of the rock band Queen. I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May. I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me. It was something along the lines of “We are
all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track. But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”. Dealing with diversity is exhausting. It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise. When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart. This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.
Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity. People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”. I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though. If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals. As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community. Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education. The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.