what is life ? i am not able to understand the things around me. i am not able to define myself, my position.

In the old days, prior to Individuality, your Identity was entirely a function of what slot your community plugged you into.  You might be the Village Idiot, the Village Chief, the Village Medicine Man, the Village Wise Woman or the Village Whore, but there was no question of you taking on a role outside of the roles predetermined by your village (or tribe or clan, etc.).  The invention of the Individual Self was the great innovation of the Western World, and it provided centuries worth of vitality and interest to a world bored with group Identity.  The shift towards the Individual Self reached its extreme with the philosophical movement of Existentialism, which held freely willed individual choices to be the ultimate foundation upon which everything else rests.  Yet the Individual Self can no more thrive on its own than a head can survive without a body.  This is because the Individual Self exists in a constant, unresolvable state of Tension between its Existence and its Desires.

Your Existence consists of all the mundane facts that uniquely specify you as a individual distinguishable from all other individuals.  Are you male or female?  How old are you?  Where do you live?  Are you in good health?  How tall are you?  What race are you?  What do you look like?  Do you have brothers and sisters?  What language do you speak?  What kind of personality do you have?  What are your strengths and what are your weaknesses?  Where are you right now, and what are you doing?

Your Existence makes you who you are, but it comes with challenges.  First, it’s in flux; the “details of you” are always changing.  For example, each day you’re a little older.  If you chop vegetables too recklessly, you might lose a finger and suddenly that becomes a permanent part of your Identity.  Take a class, and you gain a skill.  Get a bump on the head and you lose one.  Even your personality may shift throughout the course of the day, with the passage of a month, with the changing of the seasons, or simply in response to how much sleep you got the night before.

Second, the details of your Individual Existence can –and often do– come into conflict with other major component of your Identity, your Desires.  Your dream is to become a professional basketball player, but you’re 4′ 8″ tall.  You want to have your own biological children, but you’re not sexually attracted to people of the opposite gender.  Being able to drive is an important part of your sense of independence, yet you can no longer see well at night.  In this way, it is not just the facts of our Existences, but also the patterns of our Desires as played out in opposition to those facts, that make us who we are at the Individual level.

In the not-so-uncommon event that you have become somehow alienated from your own Individual Self, there are things that you can do in order to regain your personal connection with your own persona.  One time-honored technique is to pay more attention to your dreams and nightmares.  Another is to do what Jungian psychologists call “shadow work,” in order to identify and come to terms with the darker side of your Individual persona, your repressed and rejected Desires.  Yet these techniques, as powerful as they are, can do but so much; and if we just consider the Individual Self, we are forced to stop here, forever trapped between the Scylla of our Existence and the Charybdis of our Desires.

If we widen our field of vision, however, we see that the key determinant of how we actually experience our Identity lies outside the Individual Self.  It is the Relational Self, the Identity formed within the context of every community to which we belong, that determines how our Individual Self will find its means of Expression.  In other words, the life you live will be given shape by the people around you.  It is true, as the Existentialists claim, that no one can take away your freedom to make your own choices.  You alone are in control of the decisions you make at any given moment.  But those choices and decisions will draw their meaning from the shared behavioral vocabulary of your community.

For example, in the highly structured, conformist environment of Japanese primary schools in the nineties, as simple an act as leaving one’s shoelaces untied marked a student as a rebel, a non-conformist and a subversive, gaining her the admiration of peers and the approbation of teachers throughout the school.  Yet during the same era, the same act of leaving one’s shoelaces untied would at most mark a student in the more relaxed environment of a typical American school as careless.  In order for the same Individual, transplanted from Japan to America, to Express the same Desire to rebel, her behavior would need to be augmented to extreme levels.  She would need piercings in her nose, combat boots on her feet and a bomb in her locker in order to garner a comparable level of shock.

We could also consider the imaginary case of a mother who changes neighborhoods and is amazed at the rapid and disturbing changes her child goes through in response. Perhaps he used to be a polite, straight “A” student with an after-school job. Now he is foul-mouthed, rude, and facing charges for drug dealing and murder.   In truth, her son’s underlying personality is still the same. He has always been ambitious and driven. In his old life, he used manners as a way to get people to do what he wanted, pursued money by working an after-school job, and channeled his ambition into his schoolwork. Now, however, he lives in a world where the rules are different, and has adjusted his behavior accordingly. Manners get him nowhere among his new peers, but bad language brings respect. His old job involved long hours for little pay, but drug dealing makes him wealthy. Doing homework used to put him at the head of the class, but becoming head of a gang requires a reputation for deadliness. His transformation from honor student to murderer may seem like a Jekyll and Hyde narrative about two completely different people, but on closer inspection it is the story of one consistent personality manifesting in two contrasting ways in two contrasting social contexts.

Given that your community has such a strong impact on the life you lead, are there ways to improve your Relational Self?  One answer is that which all our mothers did their best to impress upon us –and for good reason –find a better group of friends.  Do your best to integrate yourself into a community that has the values you wish to live into, accomplishes the things you wish to accomplish, and in general, embodies all the traits you most admire.  That said, this may be more difficult than it sounds.  Sometimes the groups that surround us are inescapable.  Sometimes a better group is difficult to find, and sometimes ties of blood, history or loyalty keep us bound to the group we already have.  It may be difficult to judge a group accurately from the outside, and even if you do find your ideal group, it may be impossible to gain entry to it, or to take on your preferred role within that group.  Thus if we go no further than the Relational Self we can be nothing more than the passive product of our environments.
At this point we’ve seen you tormented at an Individual level by the unbridgeable gap between your Existence and Desires, and compelled at a Relational level into the modes of Expression entailed by the community to which you belong.  Is that all there is to life?  It might be, were there not one final self, a self rejected by the Existentialists and debunked by the Empiricists, a self largely forgotten by the modern age –your Universal Self.

It may be easiest to think of this as your Ideal self, the best possible “you” you could be.  This is a you that thinks like you, looks like you, sounds like you and has every facet of your personality, down to its very core, yet without the selfishness, destructiveness, willfulness, greed, envy and other weaknesses of the you that actually manifests within the world.  But is this Universal You just a dream, illusion or fiction (as claimed by both the Existentialists and the Empiricists) or is it somehow latent inside you, waiting to be brought into the world?

Fortunately, there is a simple, effective and reliable method to draw ever closer to your Universal Self, and to do so, moreover, without giving up your Individual Self in the process.  That method is first to identify your unique gifts and talents; second to develop them to their highest extent; and third to put them to work on the behalf of your community.  If you love music, become the best musician you can be, and then play for those around you.  If you are good with your hands, become a builder, and build homes for the homeless.  If you like to be in charge, develop yourself as a leader, and lead people in a positive direction.
If you apply this method consistently and conscientiously; if you are willing to cycle through the process repeatedly; if you keep strictly to positive initiatives, rather than initiatives that primarily act in opposition to someone else; and if you always interpret “your community” as broadly as possible (i.e. as all of humanity rather than narrowly as in just your own friends and family) you cannot help but move progressively closer to your Universal Self.  Furthermore, in doing so, you will find that embodying your Universal Self not only helps you resolve the Tensions inherent in your Individual Self, it will also help you become your best possible Relational Self, by bringing you into your best possible relationship with those around you.

NEXT WEEK:  Back to Art

Art

Fourth in a series on ending war.

Art may seem like a odd substitute for War, but there’s reason to not dismiss the idea out of hand.  We already know that Art can be a powerful economic engine, legions of starving artists and musicians notwithstanding.  For proof just look at the movie and music industries.  What may be more of surprise is that Art has played a role on the battlefield as well.  In the days of the Roman Empire –which lasted for well over a thousand years –conquered cultures were kept in thrall to the Empire as much by the superiority of Roman art and culture as by the threat of force.  As much as having Roman overlords may have rankled, few barbarians truly wished to trade in their refined Roman existence for a return to crude tribal living.  Similarly, on the other side of the world, the Chinese Empire survived being repeatedly invaded and conquered by barbarian hordes because Chinese art and culture were so advanced that the invaders inevitably assimilated into the host culture instead of the other way around, as the physical conquerors became the culturally conquered.

But how does Art do versus our criteria?

  1. It makes jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits:  The answer here is both yes and no.  No, certainly, with regards to nations –no country faces its greatest challenge in maintaining itself at the cutting edge of artistic advance.   Yes, on occasion, with regards to individuals.  True, a hobbyist painter or casual guitar player isn’t experiencing much of a challenge, but dance and acrobatics challenge the physical limits of the human body, special-effects laden movies challenge the limits of technology, conceptual art challenges the intellect, “diva” songs challenge the human vocal range, and so forth and so on.  Any artist at the top of their field is probably at or near the limits of what is humanly possible in one way or another.
  2. It distributes jobs:  Here we find a deficiency.  There’s no real structure to distribute Art jobs in the way we found in other ECS candidates.  Furthermore, as with Sport, we’ve become segregated into producers and consumers with regards to Art.  Legions of musicians and artists starve while a small handful of celebrity entertainers serve as the primary artists in the lives of millions.  This is a trend that would need to be reversed before Art could actually serve as a legitimate Employment-Creation System (ECS).
  3. It makes jobs meaningful by:
    1. serving as a test of ideologies:  Here art does surprisingly well.  Didactic art, which explicitly promotes a given ideology, is rarely a success, but every piece of art, no matter how innocuous it may seem, presupposes some philosophy, some viewpoint about the world.  The way an artist solves artistic problems actually says a great deal about his or her views on how to solve general problems of life.  In addition, art cannot be as easily alienated as technology.  You can imitate a foreign art form, but you cannot create valid original work in the same vein until you internalize the ideology that gave birth to the artwork in the first place
    2. being definitive:  The killer subclause strikes again.  An artistic triumph cannot be definitive in the same way as a physical triumph, because Art is too subjective.  There is no common standard for Art, and no two observers can be relied upon to agree at all times on the merits of any piece of art.  Each region prefers its own art, yet even two siblings who grew up in the same household can have opposite artistic tastes.

Things seem bleak.  With Art, Science and Sport all striking out as potential substitutes, we are left stuck with War and Consumerism as the dysfunctional institutions that are destroying us, but that we cannot do without.

And so this is the end.  Or is it?  If a natural substitute for War and/or Consumerism existed, it would likely already be in use.  But what about a synthetic substitute?  Each of our candidates was strong in some areas, and weak in others.  Could we add together the best of each, and create a new system capable of getting the job done?

We’ll take a moment next week to explore the nature of identity, and then return in two weeks to see whether or not we can go ahead and construct a synthetic Employment-Creation System capable both of rescuing Capitalism and putting an end to War.

NEXT WEEK:  Identity

Science

Third in a series on ending war.

If Sport can neither take the place of War, nor of Consumerism, then how about Science and Technology?  Together they compose a powerful economic engine, with advances in technology shaping and reshaping the global economy both through the development of new consumable products and through technological advances in the production, distribution and marketing of those products.  And unlike the deliberately trivial consequences of achievements in Sport, achievements in Science have a very real, significant and consequential impact on the world.  But how does it perform against our criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge individuals and nations to their limits: Science and Technology do reasonably well on this criteria.  Individuals are certainly challenged by science to their intellectual limits, and scientific achievements such as the construction of supercolliders or the exploration of space can challenge a nation’s resources and capacity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  This criteria is a bit of a cipher.  Science and technology jobs are certainly well-distributed throughout society, but always adjuncts to other organizations.  Scientists and technicians work for governments, for corporations, for universities, and so forth, but we don’t necessarily see the same kind of distributive hierarchy we’ve seen for other Employment-Creation Systems (ECS).  In addition, science and technology jobs tend to be the province of an educated intellectual elite, rather than a general population.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful:
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  Science and technology diverge here.  Science and scientific innovation bears a strong imprint of the ideology that creates it, in terms of such things as decisions over what projects should be funded, and what lines of inquiry are worthwhile.  However, technology is nearly useless as a test of ideology, because it can so easily be alienated from its origins.  A computer is a computer, no matter where it is made and what the ideology is of the people who manufactured it.
    2. by being definitive:  Here the same subclause that ruined Sport claims another victim. The test of a science, not in absolute terms, but in terms of its place in human life, is the technology you can create with it, and the test of a technology is the usages to which you can devote it.  In practice, what this means is that Science and Technology cannot take the place of War, because it is too easy and too common to adapt them to the purposes of War.  The pursuit of Science may be an end to itself, but the test of Science devolves into the same old physical battle, except played out in a high-tech manner.

In fact, as it so happens, there is a wonderful historical example of Scientific competition used between nations as a substitute for open aggression –the Cold War.  The United States and the Union of Soviet Socialist Republics were unwilling to risk the disastrous consequences of an all out War between superpowers, so instead they sublimated their struggle for ideological superiority into a race to achieve clear scientific and technological superiority.  On the plus side, this led to some amazing scientific breakthroughs, most notably the achievement of manned spaceflight and the lunar landing.  In addition, it produced an extended period of relative peace between the two nations.  Finally, it arguably achieved a victory without violence for the United States when the USSR peacefully disbanded.

On the negative side, however, the arms race –the uglier side of scientific progress –led to the invention and stockpiling of “doomsday weapons,” weapons capable of killing vast numbers of people at once, many of which are no longer in secure hands.  In addition, the “peacetime” of the Cold War was in some senses a fiction, since the United States and the USSR were still fighting out their ideological battles in “hot” wars conducted through intermediaries like the Vietnamese and the Koreans.  So we might consider this a partial solution, but one that comes at what is potentially too high a cost.

NEXT WEEK: Art

Sport

Second in a series on ending war.

The most obvious and ancient substitute for War is Sport. The origins of the first athletic game are lost in the mists of history, which means that Sport has been helping individuals and nations release their aggressions for a very long time.  And given the billions of dollars spent on Sport, it stands a proven economic engine. But how does Sport perform against our crucial criteria?

  1. It creates jobs that challenge nations and individuals to their utmost limits:  The answer to this one is both yes and no.  Sport challenges individuals physically to their limits, to the very limits of human possibility.  Arguably Sport can also challenge individuals mentally and emotionally.  But Sport doesn’t challenge nations in the same way that War does, nor does Sport encompass a wide range of arenas-of-challenge, such as technology, in the same way that War does.  True, there are technologies attached to Sport, better running shoes and sports drinks, illegal performance enhancers such as steroids, high performing playing surfaces, split-second cameras, instant-replay television, advanced prosthetics, and so forth.  However, there is a very real sense in which such things must remain peripheral to Sport in order for Sport to maintain its integrity.
  2. It distributes jobs:  In modern life, Sport has divided into increasingly segregated groups of participants and viewers, with there being a relatively small pool of full-time, dedicated athletes versus a relatively large pool of people whose only connection to athletics is through watching it on television.  That, however, is a reflection on the modern condition and not on Sport itself.  Theoretically, everyone can participate in athletics in some capacity.  Like War, corporations and Feudalism, Sport has a pyramidal hierarchy that distributes athletic experiences, but in this case, the nature of the pyramid is quite different.  Instead of a system where orders filter down from the top to the bottom in a chain of command, the Sport hierarchy is based on a League system.  At the top of any major sport is an elite national or international league, whose stars are the best at their sport in the world, who command huge salaries, and whose numbers are quite limited.  At another level down are minor leagues, less prestigious associations of players that often serve as training grounds for the lucky few who make it up to the next level.  Further down are college leagues, amateur leagues, youth leagues and on down to office teams, neighborhood pickup teams, and so forth.  In general, the system guarantees that any given player will have a chance to compete against other players of similar skill level and commitment.  Very few people can play at the top of any league, but very few people can’t play somewhere at the bottom.  In addition to its main hierarchy, Sport also generates a wide host of auxiliary jobs surrounding the athletes –coaches, trainers, athletic gear producers, and so forth.
  3. It makes jobs meaningful
    1. by serving as a test of ideologies:  This is where it really begins to fall apart for Sport.  Athletic contests are games, and their rules are arbitrary.  This causes two significant problems for us.  First, it raises the issue of picking a sport to serve as the locus of meaning.  In other words, if the United States wants to make American Football the game that decides geopolitical destiny, and Canada wants to make it Hockey, how can that decision possibly be arbitrated?  Second, it reduces the expressive power of Sport in relation to ideology.  In other words, one team may play a completely honest game, the other team may cheat when it can, and such things may offer consequential ideology-based differences between the teams, but both teams basically have to agree to abide by all standard rules in order to play the game in the first place.  That limits the impact an ideology can have on a team’s success, which in turn limits the value of sport as a test of ideologies.
    2. by being definitive:  This is the killer blow for War versus Sport.  War is definitive, and Sport is not.  For example, take a look at the most prestigious, well-respected, universally endorsed athletic competition on the planet, the Olympics.  The Olympics represent a wide range of sports, selected by an international panel, which lessons the issues discussed in regards to subclause “a.”  If any athletic event could stand in the place of War, this would be it.  But when Hitler’s Aryan athletes were humiliated by African-American runner Jesse Owens in the Berlin Olympics, Hitler didn’t retire from the world stage in disgrace, his racist ideology definitively debunked.  Instead, he invaded Poland.  Sport can never be the last word when it comes to physical conflict in any world in which War still exists. No nation with the power to reshape the world through War is going to settle for having its reputation be established by Sport instead.

Next Week: Science