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Posts Tagged ‘psychology’

26 NOVEMBER, 2014

Kierkegaard on the Individual vs. the Crowd, Why We Conform, and the Power of the Minority

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“Truth always rests with the minority … because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion.”

“When you adopt the standards and the values of someone else,” Eleanor Roosevelt wrote in her spectacular meditation on happiness and conformity, “you surrender your own integrity [and] become, to the extent of your surrender, less of a human being.” And yet conformity is not only a survival strategy for us but also something institutionally indoctrinated in our culture.

A century earlier, the great Danish writer and thinker Søren Kierkegaard, celebrated as the first true existentialist philosopher and an active proponent of the benefits of keeping a diary, contemplated this eternal tension between the individual and the crowd. Writing in The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard (public library | IndieBound) — the same fantastic window into his inner world that gave us Kierkegaard’s prescient insight on the psychology of online trolling and bullying — he considers how our incapacity for quiet contemplation cuts us off from our true self and instead causes us to adopt by passive absorption the ideals of others.

Lamenting the tendency to take our values from the “very loud talk” of the crowd rather than by “each individual going alone into his secret closet to commune quietly with himself” — something he had come to consider the root of our unhappiness — he writes:

One can very well eat lettuce before its heart has been formed; still, the delicate crispness of the heart and its lovely frizz are something altogether different from the leaves. It is the same in the world of the spirit. Being too busy has this result: that an individual very, very rarely is permitted to form a heart; on the other hand, the thinker, the poet, or the religious personality who actually has formed his heart, will never be popular, not because he is difficult, but because it demands quiet and prolonged working with oneself and intimate knowledge of oneself as well as a certain isolation.

A year later, in 1847, Kierkegaard revisits the question of the individual and the crowd:

The evolution of the world tends to show the absolute importance of the category of the individual apart from the crowd… But as yet we have not come very far concretely, though it is recognized in abstracto. That explains why it still impresses people as prideful and overweening arrogance to speak of the separate individual, whereas this precisely is truly human: each and every one is an individual.

And yet, Kierkegaard argues, most of us find it too daunting to live as individuals and instead opt for the consolations of the crowd:

Most people become quite afraid when each is expected to be a separate individual. Thus the matter turns and revolves upon itself. One moment a man is supposed to be arrogant, setting forth this view of the individual, and the next, when the individual is about to carry it out in practice, the idea is found to be much too big, too overwhelming for him.

Illustration from 'How to Be a Nonconformist,' a 1968 satire of conformity-culture written and illustrated by a high school girl. Click image for more.

Conformity becomes our hedge against this overwhelming idea:

Of course it is more secure to have a solid position in life, some official appointment which does not demand nearly as much of one… Most people lead far too sheltered lives, and for that reason they get to know [the divine] so little. They have permanent positions, they never put in their utmost effort…

Another year later, he returns to the subject and argues that the real arrogance is not in living up to our individuality but in denying it, and in effect denying the individuality of others:

Each human being has infinite reality, and it is pride and arrogance in a person not to honor his fellow-man…. It is a paralogism that one thousand human beings are worth more than one… The central point about being human is that the unit “1” is the highest; “1000” counts for less.

Two years later, in 1850, Kierkegaard makes a poignant case for the vital role of the minority as an antidote to the chronic groupthink of the majority:

Truth always rests with the minority, and the minority is always stronger than the majority, because the minority is generally formed by those who really have an opinion, while the strength of a majority is illusory, formed by the gangs who have no opinion — and who, therefore, in the next instant (when it is evident that the minority is the stronger) assume its opinion, which then becomes that of the majority, i.e., becomes nonsense by having the whole [mass] on its side, while Truth again reverts to a new minority.

In regard to Truth, this troublesome monster, the majority, the public, etc., fares in the same way as we say of someone who is traveling to regain his health: he is always one station behind.

Two centuries before Zadie Smith wrote about the privilege of self-actualization, Kierkegaard is keenly aware of the class element in this interplay between minority and majority, between the individual and the crowd:

I want people to sit up and take notice, to prevent them from idling away and wasting their lives. Aristocrats take it for granted that a lot of people will always go to waste. But they keep silent about it; they live sheltered lives pretending that all these many, many people simply do not exist. That is what is ungodly about the superior status of the aristocrats; in order to be comfortable themselves they do not even call attention to anything.

Vowing not to be like the aristocrats himself, he — a self-described “complete composite of dialectics” — offers his own solution:

I will call the attention of the crowd to their own ruination. And if they don’t want to see it willingly, I shall make them see it by fair means or foul. Please understand me — or, at least, do not misunderstand me. I do not intend to beat them… I will force them to beat me. Thus I actually compel them. For if they begin to beat me, they will probably pay attention; and if they kill me, they most definitely will pay attention, and I shall have won an absolute victory.

Kierkegaard’s rationale behind this strategy is rather humanistic in considering what it takes to awaken the individual human spirit from the trance of the crowd:

[Individuals] are not so corrupt that they actually wish to do evil, but they are blinded, and don’t really know what they are doing. It is all a matter of baiting them for decisive action… A crowd triumphs if one cedes the way, steps aside, so that it never comes to realize what it is doing. A crowd has no essential viewpoint; therefore if it happens to kill a man it is eo ipso halted; it pays heed and comes to its senses.

He later adds:

Nobody wants to be this strenuous thing: an individual; it demands an effort. But everywhere services are readily offered through the phony substitute: a few! Let us get together and be a gathering, then we can probably manage. Therein lies mankind’s deepest demoralization.

Photographs from 'Exactitudes,' a global project highlighting the implicit conformity of subcultures. Click image for more.

But Kierkegaard’s most poignant point arrives shortly before his death, in 1854, when he addresses with prescient precision our modern anxiety about being alone, stressing its absolute vitality in living up to our individual potential:

The yardstick for a human being is: how long and to what degree he can bear to be alone, devoid of understanding with others.

A man who can bear being alone during a whole life-time, and alone in decisions of eternal significance, is farthest removed from the infant and the society-person who represent the animal-definition of being human.

In a remark to which Anne Lamott might have the perfect response, he adds:

Testifying to the fact that man is spirit … with the passing centuries, as polished brutishness mounts, becomes increasingly necessary, but also requires increasingly greater effort.

The Diary of Søren Kierkegaard is a short yet infinitely rewarding read. For a counterpoint to this particular excerpt, see Norman Mailer on the instinct for nonconformity, then revisit Kierkegaard on our greatest source of unhappiness and why anxiety enhances creativity rather than hinders it.

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26 NOVEMBER, 2014

C.S. Lewis on Why We Read

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How great books both change us and make us more ourselves.

“A book is a heart that only beats in the chest of another,” Rebecca Solnit wrote in her gorgeous contemplation on reading. A century earlier, Kafka asserted in a memorable letter to his childhood friend that “a book must be the axe for the frozen sea inside us.” Indeed, the question of what books do for the human soul and spirit stretches from ancient meditations to contemporary theories about the four psychological functions of reading. But hardly anyone has articulated the enchantment of literature more succinctly yet beautifully than C.S. Lewis, a man deeply invested in the authenticity of the written word.

In his 1961 book An Experiment in Criticism (public library | IndieBound), he considers literatures’s immense power to expand our inner worlds:

Those of us who have been true readers all our life seldom fully realize the enormous extension of our being which we owe to authors. We realize it best when we talk with an unliterary friend. He may be full of goodness and good sense but he inhabits a tiny world. In it, we should be suffocated. The man who is contented to be only himself, and therefore less a self, is in prison. My own eyes are not enough for me, I will see through those of others. Reality, even seen through the eyes of many, is not enough. I will see what others have invented. Even the eyes of all humanity are not enough. I regret that the brutes cannot write books. Very gladly would I learn what face things present to a mouse or a bee; more gladly still would I perceive the olfactory world charged with all the information and emotion it carries for a dog.

In broadening our individual reality, Lewis argues, great books also manage to contain and console our most overwhelming emotions:

Literary experience heals the wound, without undermining the privilege, of individuality. There are mass emotions which heal the wound; but they destroy the privilege. In them our separate selves are pooled and we sink back into sub-individuality. But in reading great literature I become a thousand men and yet remain myself. Like a night sky in the Greek poem, I see with a myriad eyes, but it is still I who see. Here, as in worship, in love, in moral action, and in knowing, I transcend myself; and am never more myself than when I do.

Complement with Lewis on true friendship, what it really means to have free will, his ideal daily routine, and the secret of happiness.

Thanks, Terry

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24 NOVEMBER, 2014

Anne Lamott on Grief, Gratitude, and Grace Amid Havoc

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On the grace of redefining ourselves and redefining okayness when life throws us its merciless curveballs.

“Grief, when it comes, is nothing like we expect it to be,” Joan Didion wrote in her magnificent meditation on the subject. But oftentimes, grief doesn’t exactly come — not with the single-mindedness and unity of action the word implies. Rather, it creeps up — through the backdoor of the psyche, slowly, in quiet baby steps, until it blindsides the heart with a giant’s stomp. And yet it is possible to find between the floorboards a soft light that awakens those parts of us that go half-asleep through the autopilot of life.

That’s precisely what Anne Lamott — one of the most intensely original writers of our time — explores in Small Victories: Spotting Improbable Moments of Grace (public library | IndieBound), the same magnificent volume of reflections on grief, gratitude, and forgiveness that gave us Lamott on the uncomfortable art of letting yourself be seen.

From the very preface, titled “Victory Lap,” Lamott stops the stride:

The worst possible thing you can do when you’re down in the dumps, tweaking, vaporous with victimized self-righteousness, or bored, is to take a walk with dying friends. They will ruin everything for you.

First of all, friends like this may not even think of themselves as dying, although they clearly are, according to recent scans and gentle doctors’ reports. But no, they see themselves as fully alive. They are living and doing as much as they can, as well as they can, for as long as they can.

They ruin your multitasking high, the bath of agitation, rumination, and judgment you wallow in, without the decency to come out and just say anything. They bust you by being grateful for the day, while you are obsessed with how thin your lashes have become and how wide your bottom.

She recounts one spring-morning hike in the Muir Woods with her friend Barbara, who was being slowly snatched from life by Lou Gehrig’s disease — “you could see the shape of her animal, and bones and branches and humanity” — and Barbara’s girlfriend of thirty years, Susie. Lamott writes:

When you are on the knife’s edge — when nobody knows exactly what is going to happen next, only that it will be worse — you take in today. So here we were, at the trailhead, for a cold day’s walk.

Dead Huon pine, 10,500 years old, from Rachel Sussman's 'The Oldest Living Things in the World.' Click image for more.

In the trees, “so huge that they shut you up” and with a way of silently speaking volumes about time and mortality, Lamott finds strange assurance:

The trees looked congregational. As we walked beneath the looming green world, pushing out its burls and sprouts, I felt a moment’s panic at the thought of Barbara’s impending death, and maybe also my own. We are all going to die! That’s just so awful. I didn’t agree to this. How do we live in the face of this? Left foot, right foot, push the walker forward.

Noting the groups of foreign tourists on the trail, she echoes Lucinda Williams — “you do not know what wars are going on down there, where the spirit meets the bone” — and writes:

Who knows what tragedies these happy tourists left behind at home? Into every life crap will fall. Most of us do as well as possible, and some of it works okay, and we try to release that which doesn’t and which is never going to. … Making so much of it work is the grace of it; and not being able to make it work is double grace. Grace squared. Their somehow grounded buoyancy is infectious, so much better than detached martyrdom, which is disgusting.

In a sentiment reminiscent of Virginia Woolf’s assertion that “a self that goes on changing is a self that goes on living,” Lamott considers how people like her friend Barbara — people on the precipice of death and yet very much alive — find the grace of making-it-work:

They are willing to redefine themselves, and life, and okayness. Redefinition is a nightmare — we think we’ve arrived, in our nice Pottery Barn boxes, and that this or that is true. Then something happens that totally sucks, and we are in a new box, and it is like changing into clothes that don’t fit, that we hate. Yet the essence remains. Essence is malleable, fluid. Everything we lose is Buddhist truth — one more thing that you don’t have to grab with your death grip, and protect from theft or decay. It’s gone. We can mourn it, but we don’t have to get down in the grave with it.

In one of the book’s final essays, titled “Dear Old Friend,” Lamott revisits the subject — of redefinition, of okayness, of grace in the face of death:

We turn toward love like sunflowers, and then the human parts kick in. This seems to me the only real problem, the human parts — the body, for instance, and the mind. Also, the knowledge that every person you’ve ever loved will die, many badly, and too young, doesn’t really help things. My friend Marianne once said that Jesus has everything we have, but He doesn’t have all the other stuff, too. And the other stuff leaves you shaking your sunflower head, your whole life through.

She recalls bearing witness to her friend Sue’s experience — a friend younger than she but “already wise, cheeky, gentle, blonde, jaundiced, emaciated, full of life, and dying of cancer.” Shortly after Sue received her final fatal diagnosis, Lamott recounts the New Year’s Day phone call in which Sue gave her the news:

I just listened for a long time; she went from crushed to defiant.

“I have what everyone wants,” she said. “But no one would be willing to pay.”

“What do you have?”

“The two most important things. I got forced into loving myself. And I’m not afraid of dying anymore.”

With her signature blend of piercing wisdom administered via piercing wit, Lamott writes:

This business of having been issued a body is deeply confusing… Bodies are so messy and disappointing. Every time I see the bumper sticker that says “We think we’re humans having spiritual experiences, but we’re really spirits having human experiences,” I (a) think it’s true and (b) want to ram the car.

Small Victories is monumental in its entirety, a trove of gently whispered truths that jolt you into awakeness. Couple it with Lamott on why perfectionism kills creativity and how to stop keeping ourselves small by people-pleasing.

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