If society is supremely efficient at creating the generic self and if the generic self is not a ‘true basis for living life’ then this means that society is also supremely efficient at creating this thing that is sometimes called ‘unlived life’. Society manufactures unlived life by the gallon, by the cubic kilometre in fact. On the face of it society has one purpose or function, which is an apparently benign one, whilst on another level it has quite another, quite different function – the function of manufacturing ‘unlived life’!
‘What sort of commodity is this?’ we might ask, ‘what does unlived life even look like?’ This is a difficult question to answer because it doesn’t look actually like anything. It’s like dark matter – we can detect its influence but we can’t detect it. The effect of ‘unlived life ‘is to cause us to go around being less than happy, less than joyful. It’s a type of invisible misery. This isn’t to say that we are sad however – sadness is a different matter, sadness is actually a sign that we are living our life. Unlived life would be sadness that we deny, sadness that we can’t see to be there. We can’t relate to denied sadness, we can’t detect it, but its influence can be detected. Unlived sadness ‘loads onto us’ in a way that we can’t be directly aware of; it is like a weight or burden that we are carrying without knowing it. We don’t feel it, but from time to time it will dramatically show itself nevertheless. It will show itself on the individual level and also – as Jung says – very dramatically on the collective level. The pain of unlived life drives the collective.
A more general explanation of what ‘unlived life’ might be is to say that it has to do with possibilities that we turn away from, possibilities that we never explore. When we talk about ‘having regrets’ with regard to the things in life that we have never done and never will do, but which we would have liked to have done, this is getting close to the mark. When we don’t realise our potential then this is ‘unlived life’. And as Jesus says in Verse 70 of the Gospel of Thomas –
If you bring forth what is within you, what you bring forth will save you. If you do not bring forth what is within you, what you do not bring forth will destroy you.
We started off this discussion by implicating society – society functions (we might say) by apparently offering us many opportunities, many possibilities whilst actually offering us ‘just the one possibility’ (which is to be a socially adapted human being). No matter which road we go down in society, if we let the requirements of this road define us then we are ‘a socially adapted human being’. We are being defined by a collectively applied template of ‘how we should be’ and what this means is that the only choice we are being offered is ‘the choice to do what we’re told’. Everything is ‘coming from the outside of us’ therefore and whatever comes from the outside always comes down to the same thing – loss of freedom, loss of autonomy. Fitting into a structure or system is always a loss of freedom, albeit a loss of freedom that comes ‘with benefits’. We have to be who we are told to be in order to enjoy these benefits, and that places a rather sinister complexion on things, if we were to take the time to reflect on it.
The more we adapt to the system, and take our role in life from it, the more benefits we are eligible to receive (assuming of course that we have the required capabilities to go with it). It is also true that the more we adapt, the more we are afflicted with ‘the curse of unlived life’. This is because we have had to make a sacrifice of our true inclinations and interests in order to progress within society’s terms – we are living a life, we might say, but is not our life. I our own life is unlived; no one has claimed it, no one wants it… It could be objected that we also have to make sacrifices in order to cultivate a gift that we might have, and forego the leisurely pursuits that our fellow human beings might be able to engage in, but this of course isn’t the same thing – it isn’t the same thing because we are not sacrificing our creativity and individuality. Adapting maximally to society, on the other hand, always involves sacrificing our creativity and individuality – society is a game (which is to say, it is all about following rules and regulations) and so creativity is the one thing does not go down well here. Creativity is the fly in the ointment as far as society goes. The process of social adaptation – as we have already indicated – is precisely that process whereby we sacrifice our creativity/individuality for the sake of fitting into the hive.
This isn’t to say that we can’t live within a community without forfeiting our souls but the ‘global megaculture,’ as E.F Schumacher calls it – which is the culture that has arisen in the technologically advanced nations – has now become so specialised (in terms of the employment niches that we can occupy) that a huge investment of time and energy is needed for us to make the grade to fit into it. A choice has to be made – do I can try to obtain the best possible job (i.e. the highest wage) that I can, which requires massive adaptation, or do I ‘go my own way’ despite the poor employment prospects that this would seem to entail? In addition, gaining entrance into the professional classes not only means that I be more or less guaranteed a good wage, it’s also a guarantee of high social status, so if that is important to me – as it probably will be – then that is something else for me to take into consideration. The cultivation of individuality doesn’t come into this, as we have said, there is an awful lot of training going on and training always comes from the outside and so – when it comes down to it – this is further enslaving and conditioning us rather than allowing us to actually grow.
There is an anomaly here that we just don’t spot and this anomaly is that whilst we are placing greater and greater reliance on technical expertise, we are placing no value whatsoever on wisdom. Wise human beings aren’t really of any use to the system; why human beings are actually a nuisance or an irritation to the system because they tend to disagree and criticise it! As Noam Chomsky says,
The whole educational and professional training system is a very elaborate filter, which just weeds out people who are too independent, and who think for themselves, and who don’t know how to be submissive, and so on — because they’re dysfunctional to the institutions.
This overvaluing of technical expertise over wisdom is nowhere as poignant as in the mental health services – we get to be fully packed fully paid-up professionals in mental health by adapting ourselves assiduously to the given system, not by striking out alone. Wisdom – we might say – comes from ‘living our own lives’, not living someone else’s (or society’s) idea of ‘what our life should be’. Wisdom comes from ‘lived life’, in other words, not from the ‘unlived life’ that adapting to the social system creates. This is the only place it can come from, obviously enough! It is only through walking our own path that we can become wise, not through trading the well-worn collective path, motivated as we are by thoughts of profit, thoughts of personal advantage. ‘Unlived life’, as we have been saying, creates a form of suffering that we are disconnected from; unlived life IS a form of suffering that we are disconnected from. Given the fact that modern living is so invasive of our space, so undermining of our personal freedom (and who would be naïve enough to deny this?) it is perfectly reasonable to hypothesize that the state of absolute heteronomy that it engenders is what lies behind our neurotic suffering. It is perfectly reasonable to suggest that it is the mass of unlived life that our society produces (as a sort of ‘waste product’, as it were) that results in the ever-increasing burden of mental ill health in the technologically advanced nations that we are currently witnessing. The problem is – therefore – how do we imagine that we are going to remedy the situation by ‘throwing professionals at the problem’, when these professionals aren’t wise enough to understand that the bulk of our mental ill health is societally produced?
Mental health – above any other area, we might argue – requires actual human wisdom, rather than spurious ‘technical expertise’. How are we to produce wise human beings however, given that ‘education’ (or ‘training’) has the reverse effect actually producing wisdom? (Given that education is ‘imposed ignorance’, as Chomsky says). Anything generic that comes from the outside always undermines our true individuality and our true individuality, as we have been saying, is the only place wisdom can come from. This presents us with something of a dilemma therefore since, as a culture, we do not value ‘people going their own way’ (or people ‘thinking for themselves’) and yet this is the only way that we can be saved from our self-created neurotic misery. This is an old dilemma as it happens – all of humanity’s great artist and thinkers have come from the ‘undervalued fringes of society’. Very often they have been persecuted and reviled for daring to think outside the box (or daring to ‘live outside the box’); low social status has always been their lot. No respect is accorded them – more to the point. And yet it is from these social rejects (these ‘disrespected ones’) that almost all of our major creative or cultural leaps have come from. True creative thinking can’t come from those of us who are highly adapted for the simple reason that we have already given. ‘Adaptation to the given system’ and ‘creativity’ are two opposite things – the former excludes the matter. And yet without creativity and originality (i.e. ‘that which isn’t imposed from the outside’) how can we hope to survive? Our huge emphasis on conformity above all else isn’t just ‘shooting ourselves in the foot’ – it’s ‘shooting ourselves in the head’!