Jul/Aug 2018 Salon

The Collective Me

by Thomas J. Hubschman

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

Image courtesy of British Library Photostream

There is always a story—and a hero. A Jesus, a Buddha, a Moses or Muhammad. A Joseph Smith, a Persephone. The stories are miraculous, tragic, silly. It's what comes later that is interesting: the cantatas, the NGOs, the Haj.

But first there is a story—the man-god Redeemer, the Chosen People, the last and greatest Prophet, the Lost Tribe, the Big Bang.

Even atheists have Nature, all-powerful, destructive as a hurricane, gentle as a mother robin. Evolution is the plodding agent of Her will. Evolution holds the master plan that used to be the prerogative of Zeus and Jehovah, executing it through Natural Selection in an infinitely complex way over unimaginably long stretches of time. There's a whimsical, perverse aspect to Evolution, a God with the most serious intentions who chooses merely to start the ball rolling and then sits back for billions of years to see how things pan out.

Long ago our rising consciousness convinced us that a Super Mind must be in charge of the world, controlling everything in it just as we ourselves had learned to control animals and even other human beings. But the sense of our own individual consciousness, that we exist as discrete minds and wills, inevitably made the eventual obliteration of our separate identities the central tragedy of humankind. We had become like our gods; unlike them, we died.

We take individuality for granted, write laws to protect it, invent supernatural souls to ensure its immortality. We view cultures where collective identity counts for more than individual identity as primitive and irrational. We allow that eye color, even facial expressions and gestures, may be inherited or copied, but not our thoughts, our feelings, our individual states of mind. We are "persons," even as God in whose image we are made is a person, ourselves writ large. Unity obsesses us, in religion, politics, science. We disdain multiple-god cultures which suggest the variety of human identity. In polytheism we can be many people in one—bad and good, male and female, active and contemplative, sexual and ascetic. We can celebrate our complexity in the images of the gods we worship.

But we see ourselves, as we see our God, as individual and unique, isolated beings whose fate is, to an unbearable degree, in our own hands. Godlings in this temporal world, physically extinguished by death, we live on even after death as glorified but still discrete immortals or as the undead condemned to eternal torment. The individuality we have fashioned and its unavoidable fate create a sense of isolation and despair so profound, we cannot endure it without constructing an antidote to save us from our own bad dream.

Isolation is hell for humans as much as for any honeybee, yet we don't want to believe that "I" is just a part of "we," that we swap who we are the way eggs and sperm swap genes. We read, go to movies, make love, talk to friends, listen to music, all of which require sharing ourselves with other selves. But we pretend we remain entirely individual, not really part of anyone else, not part-Shakespeare, part-Beethoven, or even part of our own spouse or lover.

Experience teaches us that the more we participate in the lives of others, the more we realize our individual selves. Yet we still hang on to the idea that we are discrete entities, islands of consciousness, lords of our little realms of being. We believe so firmly in our individuality, we don't see how much of us is unoriginal, imitative, someone—everyone—else's.

Reason alone—today we call it "intelligence," "education," "science"—drives us deeper into ourselves and ultimately into despair ("It's better never to have been born"). Despair drives us to revelation—almost any revelation. The world can be a hard and wicked place. Better to abandon reason altogether, thus rendering ourselves permanently infantile, just as we render infantile our domestic pets, dependent on us for all their physical as well as emotional needs, all the while believing we actually have acted in their best interests. They love us, don't they? They're happy. They would perish without us.

Real religion—not just a moral agenda tied to a set of superficial rituals—teaches that doing is knowing, whether by following the Sermon on the Mount or by initiation by stages into a transforming truth or mysterium. Our need for this transformation endures, whatever our particular culture or degree of education. We become what we experience, and are thus transformed. This is why childhood can be so traumatic, so much so that we have to unlearn too much identification with the world around us, distance ourselves from it, learn self-realization, and in the process lose our real selves in favor of individual, isolated identities.

We can't philosophize our way to a larger itself. We can only get there by going, by participating. It is all journey, no arrival, no resolution, no "answers." Even our dying is part of the journey as long as we remain connected to something greater than our discrete individuality. Death destroys our unique memories, states of mind and feeling. But death does not obliterate that part of us that is shared. Artists and other public figures are said to live on in their work. But so do we all, in a less obvious way, what we experience and who we are shared not just with our progeny but with everyone we have ever come in contact with. We become part of each other just by showing up.

Nor can we participate in others' lives without participating in their suffering. We cannot pick and choose what we will experience and what we will avoid. If we refuse to embrace all of human experience, refuse to make certain parts of it our own, we fail to realize who we are both as participants in the greater consciousness and as individuals. We remain imprisoned inside our separate, isolated identities.

We fear the extinction of our individuality because we don't realize that it is largely illusion, that it was never really there in the first place. As part of a greater self, we remain who we separately were and are; we simply stop worrying about our private fates and relax in the knowledge that we—all creation, not just humans—are all in this together: the inanimate stuff of stars made conscious, the universe become self-aware.


Editor's note: Longtime readers may recognize this piece as having originally appeared in Eclectica 12 years ago under another title. We think it bears repeating.

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