Life is hitting us with a big challenge every single day of our lives, and every single minute of every day, and yet – collectively speaking – we are completely oblivious to it. As a culture we do not recognise the existence of this challenge at all and – as we might expect – this obliviousness, this lack of recognition – brings about a whole heap of unpleasant consequences. It is simply not possible to ignore life’s essential challenge and get away scot-free!
The ‘essential challenge of life’ – if we may continue to speak of it in these terms – is inevitably reframed by whatever culture or society it is that we happen to be part of. This has always been the way – this is how human collectives work. This is how the ‘group mind’ works – it works by reframing life’s central essential challenge!
So what is this challenge, and how does society reframe it (or ‘bend it to its own purposes’)? Very simply put, the challenge is to work out, by ourselves, ‘who we are’! This was the inscription above the entrance of the temple of Apollo in ancient Greece; this is the famous Delphic maxim – “Know Thyself’.
This is the only challenge that counts since if we fail to ‘know ourselves’ and we just charge ahead and live our lives on the basis of ‘who we are not but who we mistakenly think we are’ then this isn’t going to do anyone any good!’ What’s your problem – mistaken identity‘ says Wei Wu Wei. If we don’t sort this critical issue out then how can we possibly to sort anything else out? If we start from the standpoint of delusion, then how can any of our activities come to any good?
The way that society ‘reframes’ this essential challenge is very simple – it tells us who we are and gives us various games to compete in on the basis of this false identity. That is society in a nutshell. The challenge thus becomes ‘can you win at the game which we insist on you playing?’ In the past this was often put in religious terms – we were told some stuff about God and His plan for us and the world, we were told about our immortal souls and the jeopardy we will place these souls in if we fail the test that we are being presented with by God in this life. The existential challenge is not to ‘know ourselves’ therefore, but to obey the rules that the church has set for us in God’s name. The ‘reframed challenge’ is therefore ‘can I conform to the system correctly or not?’ and this isn’t really the same thing at all!
We may think that we have moved on in the 21st century, but we haven’t at all. The situation is exactly the same – the essential challenge in life has been reformulated to become something entirely trivial – ‘how well can I adapt to the rule-based system that I have been presented with in place of life?’ The social system is a complicated game and it is constantly hitting us with its own distorted version of the ‘existential challenge’, which is ‘can the identity we have told you you are succeed at the game we have recruited you to play without ever telling you that it is only a game?’ Again, this is not the same thing as ‘Know Thyself’ at all. Actually – of course – it’s the very antithesis of it! It’s the very antithesis of life’s challenge because playing society game means forgetting all about ‘who we really are’.
What could be a better way of getting us to forget all about the question of ‘who we really are’ than giving us a ready-made identity and then giving that ready-made identity all sorts of supposedly ‘important’ tasks to succeed at? And what else is ‘society’ if not exactly this? We have been kept busy the whole time achieving these things that only make sense to the identity which society says we are but which we are not. What better way could there be to get us to neglect rising to the challenge that life itself has set us than to set us all sorts of false or spurious challenges that have to be accomplished on behalf of the false self?
In psychotherapy this sort of thing is sometimes called ‘pseudo-solution’ – pseudo-solution means fixing the thing that that doesn’t need fixing, in place of the one that does! This doesn’t necessarily mean that the ‘surrogate tasks’ which we so enthusiastically involve ourselves in doesn’t need to be done (they might well do) but what it does mean is that they are ‘welcome distractions’! The whole point of pseudo-solution is that we are very much on the lookout for ‘semi-legitimate distractions’, and the social game is superbly effective in helping us out in this regard! Up to this point we have been talking about society as if it were some sort of sinister agency that is responsible for aggressively ‘side-tracking’ us so that we end up missing out on the whole point of life (which is Satan’s job, if we were to speak in theological terms). In one way this is perfectly true – the collective, the ‘group mind’, does serve this ‘adversarial’ or ‘antagonistic’ function, but the bottom line is that it only does this because – deep-down – we want it to!
We are after all hungry for distractions, and so the ‘mass-collusion’ which both supplies us with them, and collectively validates them at the same time, is exactly what we want. Blaming society for ‘putting us wrong’ is missing the point therefore – all are doing in this case is pushing the responsibility away from us again, which is exactly what we did when we let society tell us ‘who we are’ in the first place. Society serves the illegitimate function of both ‘defining reality for us’ and ‘defining ourselves for us’, therefore saving us from the trouble of having to work this out for ourselves, and then – after we have let the system take over this unwanted job for us – we can still evade responsibility by saying ‘look what the wrong things that society has done to us’. We get to have our cake and eat it this way, therefore!
Blaming isn’t really isn’t a very useful response to the situation, needless to say – it compounds our problems rather than solving them. What is helpful is for us to start taking responsibility for ourselves and realise the frightening truth, which is that we are – on a very deep level – divided against ourselves. There is some part of us which does not want to take on any responsibility at all (and which certainly doesn’t want to take on responsibility for ‘responding to life’s essential challenge’) and this part of us also doesn’t want to take responsibility for owning up to its own existence, which means that it can – since we don’t even know that it is there – act with complete impunity. This secret and murky part of us – which will do absolutely anything rather than ‘take responsibility for itself’ – corresponds to what Carl Jung calls ‘the shadow‘.
When we all refuse to ‘own our own shadow’ then, as Jung says, this shadow gets to roam freely around the world and do what it will. When we talk about society and its repressive influence on our consciousness (or on our true individuality) then what we are actually talking about is our ‘collective shadow’. Our ‘shadow side’ is what drives and sustains the deterministic/controlling system that we live out the course of our lives within, and so the power and weight of this system (Philip K Dick’s Black Iron Prison) depends upon what proportion of the population are completely unconscious and are – therefore – completely manipulated (or rather possessed) by it. Statistics don’t exist to tell us what exactly this ‘proportion’ might be, but we can make a pretty good guess that it is greater than 99.5%!
Life is hitting us with this big challenge every day of our lives, and every minute of each day, and we are displacing it and keeping ourselves busy solving various ‘surrogate versions’ of that great challenge. Taking part in the game which is society is the ‘collective surrogate task’ and – unlike the core existential challenge of ‘finding out who we are’ – it is compulsory. Meeting life’s challenge isn’t compulsory – we are completely free to either rise to it, or not rise to it – that’s our own business! Participation in the distractions that are provided for us by society are, on the other hand, most definitely compulsory!
There’s no choice here – we are not free ‘not to play’ – how could we be, when we don’t even know that what we doing is ‘playing a game’? We don’t go around thinking that we’re ‘going around constantly distracting ourselves from what life is all about’ – on the contrary, we are – for the most part – entirely convinced that what we doing is ‘living life as it should be lived’ and so we’re not looking any further than this. How could we doubt that ‘this is what life is supposed to be’ when everyone around us is doing the same things that we are doing, believing the same things that we believe in? Unconsciousness is always compulsory, whilst consciousness is always free…