There are, we could say, two paradigms, two ways of seeing or doing things, one of which is very familiar to us and the other much less so. The ‘unfamiliar paradigm’ is counterintuitive in nature and this explains why it is so rarely heard of; we can relate it to the ‘spiritual principle’ which says – ‘What you hold onto you lose, and what you give away comes back to you’. This is contrary to our common sense and as a result no one is going to take it seriously – if we hear this idea articulated we will scoff at it. This is why our whole way of life, our whole modus operandi, is based on the other paradigm, which is the obvious one – the one that does appeal to our common sense.
The other (obvious) paradigm is predicated upon the premise that ‘if we hang onto something tightly enough then we will get to keep it, whilst if we give it away, then someone else will have it and not us.’ This paradigm is super-obvious and everyone understands it, but at the same time it puts us completely wrong. It totally ‘wrong foots’ us. The whole of our civilization is based upon this premise, and it has been for a very long time, but this way of doing things has never resulted in anything apart from interminable violence, confusion and misery. From a psychological point of view, it couldn’t be clearer that living life in this narrow, self-orientated way is an utter unmitigated disaster, both for the individual concerned and for the community as a whole. This is the recipe for a thwarted and unfulfilling life, and yet we all still worship and admire billionaires, as if they have somehow uncovered the very secret of life! We hang adoringly upon their every word… Living life on the basis of ‘the unexamined idea that we have of ourselves’ is absolutely the least wise, and most suffering-producing thing we could ever do, and yet – on the positive side – it does drive the economy.
Were we to be a culture that is based on psychological insight (and if we were therefore possessed of a certain degree of wisdom), then we would be organised along very different lines – an infinitely greater value would be placed upon our mental well-being in this case! As things stand however we organise ourselves along the lines of ‘how we might best perpetuate the dysfunctional modality of existence that we have evolved for ourselves’. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness, but this couldn’t be further from the truth – we value the system that we’ve been indoctrinated into and we will sacrifice whatever we have to in order to keep it going. It is – we might say – the ‘dark idol’ that we worship and sacrifice our children to. We pay lip service to the idea that we value human freedom and happiness but that’s just an empty formula. We claim to have psychological understanding but what our so-called ‘psychology’ comes down to is how to keep us functional whilst at the same time working strictly within the restrictive system. Working strictly within the system makes us unwell however and so our interest in psychology is all about keeping us on our feet by ‘managing’ this unwellness one way or another, in whatever way we can.
This is why we are as fond of the word ‘management’ as we are; in the world of mental healthcare we are continually talking about ‘managing this’ and ‘managing that’, and what this comes down to is keeping the distress within tolerable limits. We even have a type of psychological strategy that we call ‘distress tolerance’. In one way it could be said that our problem is that ‘we want to have our cake and eat it’ inasmuch as we want to maintain and perpetuate the system that we are part of at the same time as having the sense that we are leading meaningful lives, and feeling that we’re living autonomously (which is of course the only way to live!), but in another way we could say that this isn’t really a dilemma for us at all since our allegiance has already been decided – our allegiance is very much towards ‘perpetuating the established setup no matter what the cost might be’. It might be said that it is something of a marvel that no one ever seems to see this but – on the other hand – maybe it isn’t so much of a marvel once we consider that we are completely dependent upon the set-up that we have unwittingly created. We’ve lost our natural resilience and so we have to rely on the ‘artificial life-support system’ that is society instead. We are ‘dependent upon the Matrix’, even though the Matrix is a prison-system that is ruthlessly exploiting us and making us unwell.
We come across this idea in many places – we could go so far as to say that anyone who has ever looked into it has come to the same conclusion. Johann Hari for example, quotes Professor Tim Kasser as saying – ‘…we live in a machine that is designed to get us to neglect what is important about life’. According to Gabor Mate, to give another example, ‘Illness in this society, physical or mental, they are not abnormalities. They are normal responses to an abnormal culture. This culture is abnormal when it comes to real human needs.’ In the following passage taken from her book Psychology with a Soul (1987. P 185-6), Jean Hardy, surveys the history of this discussion –
The idea had long been current in the nineteenth century that the ‘benefits of civilization and morals… had been acquired at the cost of man’s natural happiness… that civilized man remains forever an unhappy creature.’ (Henri F. Ellenberger) It is possible to see the growth of therapy as a response to the effects of industrialization and materialism on the inner life of individuals – the personal and collective load that every child in touch with feeling and not fragmented has to bear in a society with such meaningless injustices and horrors, known to all though more and more efficient communications, is considerable; this is the impact of Foucault’s writing, tracing the relationship between civilization and madness. ‘Look hard enough at reason,’ Foucault seems to be saying, ‘and you will find madness.’ And again, ‘madness came to be seen as the reverse side of progress: as civilized man became further removed from nature, the more he exposed himself to madness.’
The point is that society places no value on genuine human potential – it’s only interested in running the machine (which it conflates with ‘our own best interest’). Society makes us into the way it wants us to be, and then it takes care of us – after it has moulded us in its own image. It’s not really ‘taking care of us’ therefore, any more than social adjustment therapy (as Alan Watts calls it) is taking care of us. ‘Social adjustment therapy’ is all about looking after society’s needs, not ours (and the same can of course be said regarding our education system). Odd as it might sound to say, nothing in our collectively agreed-upon way of life is for the benefit of who we really are who or what it is for the benefit of is our collectively agreed upon idea of who we are, which is – to be perfectly blunt about it – a ‘phantom entity’. It’s not a real thing. The whole setup is there for the sake of this phantom entity, every little bit of it, and so our efforts might be compared to ‘throwing money down the drain’, or ‘pouring precious drinking water onto parched desert sands’. It’s a ludicrous, pointless exercise, and yet it is one we take very, very seriously. We’re putting all the resources at our disposal into the task of ‘making life as good as possible for the phantom entity which is the ‘Generic Self’ whilst totally and shamefully ignoring and neglecting who we actually are. Who we actually are has been entirely forgotten about…
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