The Three Horsemen of the Apocalypse
Identity vs. I-dentity
Until modern times, personal identity derived from place, kith and kin, and life’s journey was understood as a series of identity-refining rites of passage through critical thresholds of transition: birth, puberty/sexuality, adulthood, marriage, elderhood, and death. Cultures which reflected on life in a philosophical manner recognized a “hero’s journey” through realms of darkness, danger and despair, facing fearful enemies and discovering helpful allies, and returning into the light with clearer perceptions, newly-developed strengths and a mature identity.
The aboriginal vision quest was a concentrated hero’s journey during which a young initiate prays for vision and purpose – a personal identity and often a new name – which has no power unless it is employed for the benefit of one’s people, because a person was not separate from the community of his birth.
Through the long path of the human story, personal identity was inextricably intertwined with tribal identity and with the place from which one is birthed – as mother was understood to be both woman and earth, and one’s community was comprised of both the human and more-than-human worlds. All the world was understood as animate, including the rocks, rivers and forests, and hence all was related and one’s sense of self was inseparable from that web of relationship.
The past was known by the earth in which the bones of one’s ancestors and ancestral stories are buried and preserved. The future is the place on the living landscape known as the horizon – the demarcation at which the new day will dawn. The seasons of one’s life followed the annual seasons of the solar year and the repeating phases of the moon. Thus, time was not linear, but cyclical and place-based – its entirety could be known by standing one’s ground and looking around.
During the modern period of the Great Migration, in which families and individuals were free and able to journey to new lands, foreign cultures and expanded opportunities, there was also a Great Rending – moving on meant tearing oneself away from the path and place of one’s ancestors, sometimes leaving the family name behind and adopting a new identity that was unconnected to one’s previous journey.
In my own life’s journey, feeling the socially-conditioned need to “find myself” independently of my family and my history, I well remember the rending involved in leaving home. At age 17, newly graduated from high school, I purchased a car and drove off (westward, of course) to find my destiny. But, when the enormity of the separation from my past struck me, I was nearly blinded by tears as I headed toward the sunset.
Once those tears cleared, I found that my early family mobility (I lived at seven different addresses through high school) extended to a lifetime of shifting locations, with a tally to date of 40 different home locations. My experience, while perhaps an outlier, is representative of the American ideal of following the social and economic “ladder” (too often a tight rope with no safety net) or, more recently, following one’s bliss wherever it may lead.
In today’s ungrounded and highly mobile social world, we no longer find identity in ancestry, place of origin, or even ethnicity and race which are increasingly mixed and blurred, but in political ideology, party affiliation, economic class and profession – and now, in myriad various gender identities and the confusion of competing “identity politics”.
Ideology and its Discontents
In 1929, Sigmund Freud wrote what was perhaps his most influential book, Civilization and Its Discontents, in which he posited that the individual’s instinctive quest for freedom is contrary to civilization’s demand for conformity, and that the social need to repress natural instincts for the common good instills perpetual feelings of discontent in its citizens. This was never more evident than in the 1960s, when young people so fully rejected the very notion of conformity that they created a counterculture of non-conforming conformists, each looking much like all the others.
Freud notes that the primary goal of society is the maintenance of peace and order, which it achieves by making its members subject to a communal authority. But the ostensible social compact goal of “the pursuit of happiness” is so frustrated by social controls and repressions that civilization has the ironic effect of suppressing happiness and causing neuroses.
But even Freud, a creature of his own time and culture, addressed a primordial “oceanic feeling” of wholeness, limitlessness and eternity, which he saw as a regression into an earlier state of consciousness before the ego had differentiated itself from the world of objects.
By substituting artificial identifications for the long-standing natural ones of people and place, civilization tends to create or exacerbate social divisions and conflicts by the very means and methods it uses to create “law and order”.
Perhaps the most divisive of all artificial social constructs is that of ideology, and the most powerful of modern ideologies is the myth of individualism, from which the cult of personal freedom springs.
Freud’s “oceanic feeling” was the norm for 99% of the human evolutionary journey. While individuals and tribes certainly understood the notion of “other” with whom they had to compete to satisfy life’s essential needs, the primary mode of social interaction was cooperative, with the tribe and its environs holding the highest value, whereas the purpose of the individual was to serve the larger group.
The notion of the individual as the hub of the world is a very modern, “enlightenment” idea (called “enlightened”, of course, by those who promulgated it). The social compact, ostensibly a tacit agreement between disparate individuals, provided a common purpose and means to further individual ends, such as “life, liberty and (either the means to property or) the pursuit of happiness (often conflated or confused with possession and control).
In America, which has in many ways become the model for global civilization, the primary ideological division has always been between individualism and collectivism (historically, between local control and federalism) – and that conflict is, as Freud noted, at the root of civilization itself.
What was revolutionary at the founding of the United States of America (at that time understood as a plural proper noun, as in The Unanimous Declaration of the 13 United States of America, what we now call the Declaration of Independence), was the balancing of individual rights and collective duties (that Americans have never agreed on the proper balance is evidenced in the perpetual argument over the meaning of the 2nd Amendment).
At the founding, the often bitter debate was between the Federalists who preferred a strong collective identity, and the anti-Federalists who prioritized individual and local/state rights. The Federalists won the day and a relatively strong Union and central government system was adopted with a subsequent Bill of Rights which mostly reiterated what was already understood as the “inalienable” rights of individuals and the limits of government authority over them.
The Founders, almost without exception, considered themselves to be enlightenment liberals, and the promotion of individual liberty balanced by the collective need for order was the core of the new liberalism. To this day, self-described “conservatives” (who wish to dispense with our founding agreements and hence are anything but conservative) are those who, like their anti-Federalist forbears, prefer a stronger bias toward the individual and far less emphasis on the collective. This can be rationally understood as a retentive adolescence, and older European cultures often perceive America as a childish and brash nation (in fact, neuroscience has shown that conservatives have more active fear-processing amygdalas from the reptile brain, while liberals have larger anterior cingulates which resolve cognitive dissonance).
Science & Sentience
Just as cutting-edge physical science has found itself rediscovering ancient understandings of a fluid, indeterminate (quantum probabilistic) universe in which all things are essentially related and connected (quantum entanglement), and in which mystery predominates (95% of the universe is black matter or black energy – i.e. unexplainable by current cosmology), cutting-edge biological and ecological science has found itself undermining the modern idea of separate individuals.
The now-widely-accepted Gaia Theory stipulates that the Earth acts as a single organism, with each “individual” a part of a larger whole. Epigenetics has found that the expression of our human DNA – how our genetic blueprint manifests our individuality – is determined more by our environment than by anything internal to our bodies. And Human Biome research has found that 90% of the cells of our bodies are non-human (mostly bacteria) and that our gut ecology has a profoundly determinative effect on not only our physical health but also our emotional and psychological states.
Yet in popular understanding – always a generation or two behind scientific knowledge – the fiction of the individual self (Alan Watts’ “ego in a bag of skin”) persists and the most truculent ideological arguments are based on that social invention. Many libertarians consider themselves the only “real” Americans, basing their ideological structure more on the Declaration of Independence than on the Constitution, which is the actual legal foundation of our nation and expressed the consensus of the Founders.
There is a fine line, however, between libertarianism – emphasizing the maximization of autonomy, freedom of choice, voluntary association and the primacy of the individual – and libertinism, or the focus on individual satisfaction unfettered by collective restraints or any obligation to the other.
The genius of the American Founders was in striving for (if not always achieving) a balance between individual liberty and collective responsibility. It is what Jefferson called Civic Republicanism.
Idolatry and the Fall of Humankind
Idolatry in the Western tradition has meant the belief in, and subservience to, false gods. The Greeks, who arguably built the foundations of Western thought and civilization, understood that the greatest human fallibility was hubris, or putting oneself in the position of the gods. Icarus was the classic representation of such hubris, ignoring his father’s advice and flying too close to the sun.
All ancient cultures knew that humans must be subservient to a higher principle, whether the wellbeing of the tribe, the Fates, the gods, or a God. It is said that the Samurai, allegedly the greatest of warriors, always serves a higher master and never one’s own ego.
Yet a significant strain of American ideological thought continues to place the individual over the higher authority of the collective society (let alone the yet higher ecology of the greater Web-of-Life). This faction fails to appreciate that government intervention tends to occur in the failure of personal responsibility. If no one, acting on unrestrained ego, coveted or took that which belongs rightly to another, there would be little need for criminal law or a police force.
Americans have never understood the motivations of the martyr, whether for a constructive or destructive cause, who freely gives up life for a higher value. The closest that Americans come to such sacrifice is the soldier protecting his buddies – but that is because we see them as mirrors of ourselves – and the highest cause we claim to fight for is the (propagandistic) abstraction of “freedom and democracy”.
We can, perhaps, blame the Framers for stressing “the pursuit of happiness” in the declaration of our revolutionary principles (though that was an improvement over Locke’s “property”). What we are not taught in the 16 or more years of education that artificially delays adulthood, is that true contentment (a deeper concept than mere happiness) comes from service to a higher cause – from a life devoted to leaving the earth a better place for “the next seven generations” (as the indigenous peoples we nearly eradicated taught their children).
Idolatry – Left and Right
While it’s primarily (but hardly exclusively) the Right which promulgates the idol of individual freedom (particularly when it’s juxtaposed to collective responsibility), the Left is the primary proponent of another modern idolatry: that of rationalism, humanism and science as the saviors of the world.
Rationalism posits the abstractions of the human mind as the only font of knowledge about the world. Humanism places the prerogatives of one ostensibly intelligent species above the needs of all others and the planet as a whole (except in so far as it serves human desires as “resources” for exploitation and consumption). And science – originally an attempt to find technical means to control Nature – has devolved into a cult of true believers which is blind to its dangers and accepts it as the One and Only path to individual and collective salvation.
Just as cutting-edge physical and biological science has undermined popular false certainties about self and other, cutting-edge neuroscience has undermined simplistic understandings of the brain as the seat of consciousness, thought and interaction with the world.
We now know that the human heart is composed more of neurons than of muscle cells, that it is not primarily a biological pump, that it is a secondary brain which controls our endocrine system (which maintains biological homeostasis, or health), and that it is the primary resonator (communicator) of the human body (which is why all indigenous peoples understood it as the seat of consciousness and the means of communication with our more-than-human cousins).
Identity, Ideology & Idolatry
These are the three I’s (or egotisms) of modern “enlightened” culture, each founded on the false notion of a separate “ego in a bag of skin” and the even more false and dangerous notions of the supremacy of the individual over the collective and of the mind over the heart.
Symbolic language and mental ideas are but abstractions of reality, and we’ve long forgotten that the map is not the territory. The historical accident of languages based on a subject, verb and object, coupled with a scientism which has the goal of conquering and controlling nature, have fed an egotistical hubris and alienated modern humanity from its environs – that which surrounds, gives birth to and nurtures life – and hence enabled humanity to destroy its earthly environment (and anything deemed “other”) for the sake of immediate gratification of artificial wants and the ego needs of power, privilege and prosperity.
As a genus which has a nearly 3 million year history on Earth and a species with a quarter million year trail on the planet, it is past time for humanity to grow beyond its rebellious adolescence (or regressive patterns of behavior) and assume its proper place within the Great Web of Life.
That would require shedding our self-serving and dysfunctional illusions and re-membering our dismembered wholeness so that we might think and see outside of the box of mind and ego. It’s not at all evident that humanity has the proclivity or the willingness to do that, and we seem to be committed to a headlong rush to the abyss.
It is unlikely that human culture is capable of abandoning its dead end myth of “progress” because that can happen only through surrender, which is a concept both unfamiliar to and dreaded by moderns. To the mind, which functions through domination and control, and to the ego, which is essentially self-aggrandizing and self-protective, surrender sounds like giving up. To all wholesome indigenous peoples, however, surrender means giving in – giving in to the natural flow of Life.
“To my fellow swimmers there is a river flowing now very fast. It is so great and swift, that there are those who will be afraid. They will try to hold on to the shore, they are being torn apart and will suffer greatly. Know that the river has its destination. The elders say we must let go of the shore, push off into the middle of the river, keep our heads above water . And I say see who is there with you and celebrate. At this time in history, we are to take nothing personally, least of all ourselves, for the moment that we do, our spiritual growth and journey come to a halt. The time of the lone wolf is over. Gather yourselves. Banish the word struggle from your attitude and vocabulary. All that we do now must be done in a sacred manner and in celebration. We are the ones we have been waiting for.”
by Robert Riversong: may be reproduced only with attribution for non-commercial purposes and a link to this page.