A common man marvels at uncommon things. A wise man marvels at the commonplace. CONFUCIUS

Monday, 1 November 2010

Knowing Society, Knowing Oneself

In short, as Goethe put it, only if we can 'imagine ourselves as the author of any conceivable crime,' and mean it, can we be reasonably sure of having dropped the mask and of being on the way to becoming aware of who we are. ERICH FROMM

In an era of counselling on demand, Cognitive Behavioural Therapy, e-coaching and a host of other quick-fix solutions to our mental and spiritual crises, how invigorating it is to reread Erich Fromm's The Art Of Being, as I've been doing recently. Fromm stresses the value of mindfulness and meditation as paths to self-awareness. He's not averse to psychoanalysis, but believes first and foremost in searching and honest self-analysis. And, in an age when Freudian analysis has been unfairly (in my opinion) sidelined in favour of trendier Jungian analysis, and when the theories of people like Janov and RD Laing have been neglected in favour of eminently sensible, no-nonsense regimens like CBT, it's refreshing to see Fromm taking ideas from Freud and Marx and running with them - indeed, developing and broadening them. This paragraph comes from the chapter Methods Of Self-Analysis:

What can I know of myself as long as I do not know that the self I do know is largely a synthetic product; that most people - including myself - lie without knowing it; that 'defense' means 'war' and 'duty' submission; that 'virtue' means 'obedience' and 'sin' disobedience; that the idea that parents instinctively love their children is a myth; that fame is only rarely based on admirable human qualities, and even not too often on real achievements; that history is a distorted record because it is written by the victors; that over-modesty is not necessarily the proof of a lack of vanity; that loving is the opposite of craving and greed; that everyone tries to rationalize evil intentions and actions and to make them appear noble and beneficial ones; that the pursuit of power means the persecution of truth, justice and love; that present-day industrial society is centered around the principle of selfishness, having and consuming, and not on principles on love and respect for life, as it preaches. Unless I am able to analyze the unconscious aspects of the society in which I live, I cannot know who I am, because I don't know which part of me is not me.


Ruth said...

Everything tightly packed in here is great food for thought. I am particularly paused by the initial Goethe allusion, imagine ourselves as the author of any conceivable crime.

I will never forget a life-changing day when I heard a story on National Public Radio a few years ago, told by a man from China. I think it was in the "This I believe" series, which is just regular people, as well as celebrities, finishing the statement that begins This I believe . . . . This Chinese-American man said that when he and his brother were young, they would line up with others in public crowds while prisoners were paraded down the street on their way to be executed. He said he felt something like glee watching as a child. Because of this, now as an adult, he said I believe I am capable of any crime known to man, for I rejoiced at their demise.

Since hearing that, his words have haunted me and yet I believe they are true, that any person is capable of any crime, given the "right" (or wrong) circumstances. If you believe this, it is a humbling thought indeed.

Rachel Fox said...

My Mum always referred to herself as a Freudian and watched, a little dismayed, as his influence faded, I think. Interesting post. Many people can't take too much truth... they prefer the mask. Or at least they think they do... if they think about it at all.

The Solitary Walker said...

Yes. Of course many novels have explored this theme - Dostoyevsky's 'Crime and Punishment' was the first that came to mind.

If we were truly and painfully rigorous with ourselves, and honestly admitted our darkest nature, and if we could imagine being born perhaps in different, more difficult circumstances and undergoing different, more difficult experiences, then we would be in for a shock. Of course, this doesn't mean we're all predestined, or that we can't do anything about it, or that there's no redemption. Our days are a constant challenge as we confront complex moral choices, and our minds and hearts are a continual battleground between angels and devils.

Bonnie said...

So true that we discover much about who we really are, once we understand who we are not - and the influence of society and culture on the formation of a synthetic, defensive and provisional false self.

Many of the greatest psychological thinkers have written books that have the word 'being' in their title. This is the ideal - the ultimate goal: concious, mindful being. Some people who have done as much reading and reflecting as you can walk into therapy and address existential, spiritual aspects of their existence. But most come in pain, struggling with depression, grief, relationship problems. The good therapist has all the modalities (and more) of therapy you mention in their arsenal, and must meet the client where they are (psychologically), with what they present.

When a client comes to me, I am assessing 'where' they are psychologically and developmentally. The first thing is to help the person function in their life and that usually requires a cog./beh. approach. Once that is in place, and if the person has enough ego-strength, one can begin to dig a little deeper into unresolved family of origin issues which would call for a Freudian (psychodynamic) posture - perhaps Jungian, as well, if they bring in dreams.

Once a person becomes more conscious and grounded, less wounded and defensive, less ego-driven, the therapist can begin to introduce existential issues of mortality, meaning, freedom and ultimate aloneness - and one's place in society - and how to relax mindfully into being.

It is always a progression, and the good therapist meets the client right where they are instead of insisting they practice physics before they have conquered basic math. All that to say, there is a place for all the approaches you mention. Going to a therapist capable of only one approach is like going to a dentist who only knows how to clean teeth.

Once a therapist has mastered all the different approaches - he will discover they are just what is employed while it is ultimately the accepting, truthful, open relationship between client and therapist that accomplishes the healing.

The Solitary Walker said...

I agree with you, Bonnie. I have taken good stuff away from all the people I mention. I think your approach sounds very sound. I was just trying to re-establish Freud's reputation a little - as there has been a general feeling around for quite a while that Jungian is cooler than Freudian (simplifying enormously!). As you say, synthesis, no one fixed modality, flexibility and sensitivity to the individual 'client' is the thing.

George said...

What a great post! I am going to join you in rereading "The Art of Being." I'm quite sure it would mean more to me now than it did when I first read it many years ago.

The two quotes need to be written on a suitable wall in every household and read every day. Being human is to be capable of committing any crime conceived by man. How many of us have uttered the words, "There, but for the grace of God, go I."

The second quote is a list of the illusions which underpin modern culture. For the most part, we are a synthetic world made up of synthetic selves. Fromm calls upon us to strip aways the lies, illusions, and fictions that define our perception of who we are. Then, and only then, will we know what it is to be a "human being."

Jim said...

A wholesome mouthful!

The Solitary Walker said...

George, thanks for your comment. Would be interested in hearing more about your reassessment of Fromm. I think he's very sound, though sometimes I feel he's holding back and doesn't go far enough.

Just returning to our recent political conversation, have been following with great interest the build-up to the US mid-term elections - which are happening today as I write. Although things look chlalenging for Obama - it's hopeful to note that mid-term blows did not mean the end for Clinton (or Reagan!) On the contrary, in fact, as both bounced back. It's so unfair that Obama seems to be paying the price for Republican neglect, deregulation etc. - just because he's been brave enough to try and tackle massive social/economic issues which have been building up for ages. And all in the face of the recent recession. Voters have got to hang on in there and realise such deep-rooted problems, some of which are global not just American in origin, can't be sorted overnight.

fireweed meadow said...

This book, along with his "To Have or To Be" are among my all time favourites. I re-read it just over a year ago so it is still fresh in my mind. I agree, as you mentioned in one of the comments, that he sometime seems to be holding back, but I think he puts forward about as much honesty as most readers could stand. Living in a child-centered, youth-obssessed, family-worshipping culture like I do, when I read his words, "the idea that parents instinctively love their children is a myth," I think he'd be in for a good stoning if he spoke those words aloud (or if I would be, if I dared repeat them) in my otherwise pleasantly unpredjudiced small town in the present day.

ksam said...

I can not say I've read Fromm, but I've enjoyed this post very much. Looking at Ruth's comment, brought to mind a major moment of Ah Ha for me. It was the moment my first son was born. I suddenly looked over at this round headed little brat, squalling in the nurses hands and had a flash of knowledge that still scares me to this day, nearly 32 years later. I looked at Peter and knew to the core of my being I would kill and or die for him. Just that simple. I'd always professed to be non violent. I'd actively protested the Vietnam War. Stood in silence while a teacher screamed in my face for refusal to say the Pledge. (Hell I grew up in a Quaker town, what were you expecting!! ) But one look at Peter and I knew, to protect him, I was capable of killing another human. And what scares me is that's still true.

Now excuse me while I go and protest for some more nonviolence!!! :-)

The Solitary Walker said...

Thanks so much for your comments, Fireweed and Karin. Interesting, both.

Karin - that was such wonderful, spontaneous, heartfelt honesty, and I'm sure we all could identify with it.

The Solitary Walker said...

Sorry - Jim, too - thanks for your comment, and welcome!