A very good example of a group interested in preserving a collective surrogate immortality is the members of a traditional society, that want to preserve their culture and cultural artifacts. In order to be able to do this, a specific kind of mentality has to be bred in these group members. A traditional society is a group that is usually built on the continual stimuli from the grounding in a more organic environment. The group is grounded in the environment and the individual members are grounded in the group. The individual members have senses of self that are based on a strong sense of coherence to the group. They are immersed in and surrounded by the continual stimuli of bondedness to the members of their family, their clan and all the other sub groups within their group as well as to the larger group itself. The individual members of the group are allowed to differentiate themselves as individuals, but only up to a point. For example, a crafts person is encouraged to make beautiful pieces of craft, but only within the confines of the categories of the structures and designs permitted within the culture.
Furthermore, an individual in a traditional group goes through life stages in his life cycle that flow into one another. There is a unity to the life cycle. A child sees the adults around him who model the roles he will assume. He starts learning the general modalities of behavior that will lead into adulthood. As an adolescent, he starts more actively learning, sometimes as a kind of apprentice, the adult role. As an adult, he starts creating a place for himself in the community by getting married and forming a family, by working and by direct social participation in the community. This place earns him the respect that allows him to grow into a revered old age, should he live that long.
Everything fits into place in order that the individual can participate in the coherent group imprints used to form the collective surrogate immortality. The strength of a person’s sense of self in a traditional society is based more on self coherence rather than self definition. There is some self definition, but it is a self definition which allows a person to play a particular role in the collective imprint being left by the society on the larger community field of experience. In such a society, the danger for a person is that there is so much submersion in the group that there is not enough self definition. The person doesn’t feel alive enough, because he doesn’t feel defined enough. He feels too blurred in all ways to really be able to focus and think clearly and crisply.
One way a person in a traditional society can deal with such a danger is through the discrete stimulation of violence either directed towards others or towards himself. Among the Plains Indians in the U.S., a young man sticks a bone or a wooden skewer through his chest in order to have a vision that will give him his unique male adult identity. In some traditional societies, a man has proved his valor through different feats of war or perhaps through his skill in the hunt. All these acts or tasks allow a man to give himself some self definition in a society and an environment that could potentially threaten to swallow him up. There is an ongoing tension between the individual and the group.
In modern society, the focus has been on the individual, who is a free-floating figure along with all the other free-floating figures of people, animals, things and places, floating in the laminated vacuum and the tension pockets of modern technological environments. The individual is in an environment of primarily discrete stimuli from the floating figures and continuous stimuli from the emptiness of the vacuum. In today‘s world, a person with access to economic resources and opportunities is focused on creating and preserving a personal surrogate immortality. This occurs as a result of the person unfolding his potential in different directions as much as possible. As he grows up, he develops different capacities through school and additional lessons that give him a unique set of competencies. For example, the person becomes a good trumpet player and makes the varsity baseball team at school. He majors in mathematics as an undergraduate and then decides to go to law school, where he becomes a lawyer. In addition, he goes to live in Italy for his junior year abroad, and visit’s a distant relative in South Africa for a summer after he graduates college. During college, he has summer jobs at a sushi restaurant and as a carpenter working on new homes. I have perhaps exaggerated the quantity and diversity of life experiences of this hypothetical person to make a point. A great diversity of life skills and life experiences leads to a unique self definition, but sometimes this very diversity leads to a kind of mental disjunction which I shal discuss shortly.
This is a very different set of developmental life experiences from a person in a traditional society. The latter tends to stay in his community on the community land. There are not a lot of highly individualized life experiences to have. For the person in modern technological society, his whole life tends to be individual life experiences and a variety of life skills that mold the mind and body to leave unique imprints and a unique set of imprints in preparation for death. And wheras the traditional society person worries about losing his sense of self to the large group, to other humans, the modern society person worries about holding together the different fragments of events, experiences and skills he has accumulated, and preventing his sense of self from breaking apart. In other words, excessive self definition leads to self fragmentation. It becomes harder and harder to integrate all the fragments of different life events, different life experiences and different life skills. Unlike the traditional society person, the modern Western society person does not have to worry about loss of self from submersion in a group (unless he voluntarily joins a cult, in order to escape the vacuum.) Instead the modern society person has to worry about loss of self to many self-fragments.
In effect, I am saying that an additional explanation for mental illness today - along with such other theories as dysfunctional families and chemical imbalances - is the sensory distortion of modern technological environments. This latter influence leads people to experience themselves as isolated figures and eventually isolated fragments of figures. The focus on the individual that started in the Renaissance in Europe evolves until eventually, the grounded community connection for a person withers away into relative insignificance, as the individual loses the the experiential glue that holds him together. So it is not only the lack of organic experiential surfaces that makes it difficult for modern industrial people to leave the individual imprints that were so cherished in breaking away from traditional communities and collective surrogate immortalities. It is the lack of a coherent impress or stamp from the self in making and preserving the individual imprints necessary for a personal surrogate immortality.
A healthy sense of self is based on a balance between internal coherence and external definition. Perhaps, as one looks across the flow of human history, one can identify certain transitional periods in societies when there was an approximate balance between these two aspects of a sense of self. Periods when technology was somewhat developed, but it had not yet taken over the whole landscape. In the Western world, such periods would probably be located some time between the Renaissance and the nineteenth century. As one looks across the flow of history, one can see that as the push for technological dominance over the environment has moved forward, such a period of balance has not had favorable conditions for lasting very long. In today’s world, the imbalance towards self definition is quite strong. And in such a hypothetical transitional period, there would have been an opportunity to participate relatively equally in a collective surrogate immortality and in a personal surrogate immortality. Preserving the imprints of the group that gives an individual his grounding as well as preserving his own imprints. Such an opportunity definitely does not exist today.
c 2011 Laurence Mesirow
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