Tuesday, November 23, 2010

Preaching to Myself: Gods and Tyrants


I doubt if the meaning of these words will be foreign to any who may happen to read them.

How many humans on earth-2010 (including many who feel they are free) live under a self-created tyranny? It is well that most (all?) have a companion voice in their brains that they converse with – Such a voice provides a companion even in solitude: We talk to ourselves.

But this voice may have worked its way out of control of an earlier voice that gave us rules to follow. Someone implants a helpful warning in a child’s brain: “Don’t put your hand on heated metal, or you will receive a terrible burn.” “Don’t try to outrun a red light or you and others may be killed.”

I guess most would call this the superego – a sort of parent authority instilled to watch over and direct the fledgling ego. When that voice can be integrated into our final, companion voice, the moral terms “wrong” and “right,” used to imprint danger signs, can be moderated for the adult and become the less medieval terms, “toxic” and “tonic,” where one will generally want to avoid the toxic and gravitate toward the tonic.

Our companion voice is formed partly by learning, partly by personal experience. But finally we can live well only with our personally earned voice, not with an inherited voice that we may allow to possess us. We have to make or find our own voice – As we civilize and socialize that voice, it civilizes and socializes us.

How many have not achieved this self-governance? How many even realize it is a process they must undertake? The simple rules of the superego will not be sufficient as we grow and learn and are faced with ethical choices in ambiguous circumstances. That childish superego cannot be trusted even if it presents itself as infallible, in possession of final "truths." And there is the dangerous circumstance where that superego lives on longer than it should, and thrives, by dressing itself in other static rules learned along the way, taught in a family or a culture: The parents and other elders pass along warnings they have picked up from outside forces – political and religious, passed down from their own parents, or part of the general notions of the group into which they are born. A child may be taught and live by notions never tested by their own parents who have impressed those notions as law. The teachings may be imparted in a way that is not really teaching as it trains a person to avoid questioning: “This has always been so, and so you must accept it too.” Or, “we have always known that those are bad people. They have always been our enemies, and so now they are your enemies too. We don’t remember why, but it is by taking customary attitudes like this on faith that we survive. Fail to follow this and you will not survive, or you will even become an enemy yourself.”

So those thoughtless opinions, posing as thought, have a place where they can gather and adhere – a certain mountain, a collective projection of a prolonged infantile superego called God, a being of ambiguous nature and mind-crippling contradictions so that it can slip into and be confused with passing shadow superegos, temporal deities of a poisonous sort – a Hitler or a Stalin or a Jim Jones; or, more fortuitous, of a spiritual nature – a Mahatma Gandhi or Martin Luther King; or of a political nature, like Marx or Malcolm X.

The draw of the superego authority may be very dangerous, a state of infatuation that must be reasoned with, questioned, and changed, or discarded, in your self-made psychic universe.

The mentally disturbed often complain of a voice or voices in their heads, voices that are controlling them – perhaps a too-acute awareness of the unwanted, unearned, implanted voices brought over from priests, preachers, politicians, teachers, and demagogues.

Ultimately, if we awaken to its presence, we all need that companion voice that reminds us what we have learned from past experience or drawn from sources we trust, that must not be passive knowledge, but processed and made our own by throwing out what strikes our innate bullshit detectors as poisonous or dead. This companion voice may be tutored and made our own, converted from the ever-hovering parent of superego into our peer, our ideal guest and companion (the mirror of self-reflection) that makes it easy to be at home with ourselves.

How to safely replace the tyrant with a permanent guest, the true self. How to recognize the tyrants. How long does it take to convert an externally determined superego into an internally established guardian and companion? For this, I might wish -- and this is the whole notion behind this little essay -- that it would be common social convention that in late adolescence, all humans would be advised: Now question everything you have ever been taught, even by those you love and respect. If something really feels right or true, it will survive, you will keep it. With the establishment of this habit of questioning, later reappraisal may change your assessment of what you have set aside.

Going along with such a convention would have to be exposure to the world outside the world where you have been taught, exposure to other learning, and there is also that custom practiced in some countries where a youth is expected to do as much as a year of wandering, thereby assuring that experience is not insular. Urged to keep an open mind, whatever does not survive true, personal examination may be tossed, or set aside as suspicious. In this way, real thinking – that is questioning – will have been established – the only inoculation against a tyranny against thought.

A related matter: Whether you understand this metaphorically, or literally, the God you worship creates you. Best to recognize a person's God from their character and behavior, that may reveal that they worship a murderous, vicious God, rather than by what they mouth in words from of a particular religion that may, at times, preach kindness.

Drop the heavies: One may free oneself from the worship of those ancient volcanic and (as they readily admit, vindictive and "jealous") presences and be like a friend of mine who recognizes that his “gods” are Art and Gourmet Food.

All pause here to identify your particular gods – and whether they are tonic or toxic – whether they have a benevolent influence, or seek to enslave you.

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