Friday, September 28, 2012

Relevance in Irrelevance

When I was younger, one of things that nagged constantly at my soul, assuming I have one, was that I just never could seem to fit in with anything or anyone. I tried, but it seemed my destiny to be the perpetual outcast. Even within my immediate family it often seemed like it was three to one (In all fairness, this was more perception than anything. But my sister wasn't an obnoxiously rebellious youth and I was, so there were some very real differences between how I related to the family and how they related to each other). In elementary school I would either be a leader or a loner. In middle school, where social hierarchies were suddenly structured around physical strength and bravado and book smarts were no longer relevant, I was immediately thrown to the bottom of the social ladder. From that point on my life was a constant struggle for acceptance, an acceptance that I would never find.

The human being is designed to live in a group, just like our closest relatives, chimpanzees and bonobos. My yearning for a group that shares my values, desires, even appearance, is not a weakness. It is an instinct. And, like most instincts, human societies have found one way or another to villainize it, turning it into a scapegoat in place of the Devil we just can't seem to find (Hint: you haven't found the Devil because he's inside you).

Since the invention of spoken language, religions have oft been the greatest of evolutionary tools for social cohesion. They kept primitive groups of humans together as they competed for resources with other groups. The groups with the strongest socio-political-religious cohesion were the ones that survived, thus giving us a world today wherein religion is still a driving force behind so much of how we go about things. This is not a bad thing. In fact, it's a very good and inevitable thing. Religions provided a structured morality that helped us get through disasters, diseases, and wars left and right. However, as with all things human, it has been very easy for us to take a good tool and turn it into a horrific weapon. Other groups became not just competitors for resources, but enemies of one's local god. Sexual codes became cartoonishly exaggerated and oppressive by most religious groups across the span of history. All had the same purpose: keep the group together and hold everyone in it to the same standard. These are the things that quite effectively helped us survive and to a fair degree still help us survive today.

Recently, however, there has been a turn in developed societies. We don't need or use religion exactly the same way that we used to. Even the Dalai Lama, the head of a worldwide religious hierarchy, has stated on numerous occasions that his primary goal is not to promote Buddhism, but to promote humanist values. Yet he remains a staunch Buddhist. I think that this speaks volumes. We can all keep our respective beliefs and create value systems and governmental codes that enable us to live according to shared standards of ethics and morality without abandoning our beliefs about the gods, or forcing our gods down each others' throats. Yes, it is possible. (There's this one country that's actually done pretty well in this arena. You may have heard of it, it's called the United States of America).

However, the Western abandonment of religion as one of our main social binders has been both a blessing and a curse. It's been a blessing because of the unprecedented amount of inter-religious and intra-religious peace we see before us on a daily basis (oh sure, some whack jobs in the OC tried to stop a mosque from getting built, but no one bombed the Islamic Center of Orange County over it. Take a look at Egypt and we'll have to tell and very different and much sadder story). We've found a way to potentially live within this tension, a tension that is quite inevitable to the human condition. And never before has it been abided so well.

The Enlightenment brought us a new kind of humanism, a way of viewing the person as precious regardless of which god may or may not have created it. Unfortunately, alongside this philosophy came the radicalization of the individual. It became each man and woman for themselves. To this day post-Enlightenment philosophies are touted by individualists who've felt shackled by the social standards into which they were raised or thrust into as youths. For the modern West, it is inarguable that many universal religious codes become absurd upon second glance because they don't answer the question of just how exactly the gods deal with the complexities of the human experience. Is there no specificity to these supposedly omnipotent and omniscient beings? Questions like these challenge the absolute claims of religious doctrine. So many people abandon the group, encouraged by intellectuals or New Age spiritualists who greatly exaggerate the worth of their intelligence and individuality to think for themselves. (Does anyone really think for themselves? I wonder).

Strangely, even with the abandonment of archaic moral codes, the instincts that come so naturally to us all are still under attack, except now it's from a different front. One example I used earlier to represent some of the problems with religious absolutes is the type of religious code governing our sex lives. Sex is an instinct. Not only that, but apart from the instinct to eat, it's basically the most important one. Within the new paradigm (if it's new, that is) a different kind of instinct is being portrayed as a great evil: the instinct to congregate. Philosophers complain and lament the human sheep, the masses, seemingly oblivious to the fact that human beings have always lived and thrived in groups since before we started walking upright. The group survives, the individual dies. That's Nature.

But there's no such thing as an individual, really. Everyone exists only in relation to everyone else. And the ones who rebel against one group are merely, and probably unwittingly, conforming to another group. You see it all the time. Kids (like myself 15 years ago or so) become disgusted with the "norm" (which is an illusion of course, but we didn't know that at the time), so we start dressing differently and acting differently, fully confident in the fact that we are rebelling. But we're not rebelling, we're just joining a different rank and file of sheep. It didn't take me very long among the goth subculture to notice that it was just like every other subculture - it had standards, it had codes, it had expectations, and you were shunned if you didn't live up them. So much for nonconformity. I'm not saying that this is a bad thing. It is simply reality. And the irony of ironies is that people like me who seemingly fit nowhere are merely just another necessary part of the equation. If the world were a giant statistic I would be the outlier, and that's as necessary a component to the greater whole as any other. This may sound like I'm trying to make myself out to be truly unique, like I actually am the individual the post-Enlightenment nimrods want us all to be. Quite the contrary. I'm just one of many more like me. History is replete with us, and we all say the same damn asinine thing, "Why am I so alone?" A more appropriate question would be the ironical, "Why are we so alone?" People like me are incredibly adept at convincing ourselves that we are alone, however preposterous the notion.

Can anyone ever truly be a nonconformist? Over the years, my closest friends and I formed a very cohesive group. We didn't dress the same, we didn't do the same things, we didn't even share the same passions necessarily. But we had one very important thing in common- we loved each other (and still do). And of course we hold our group to a standard and code. That standard and code is, "Don't try to force your standards or codes on me." If someone else were to come into our group who insisted on a certain way and was not open to the constant rotation of doing things one way and then another depending on whose house we're at, then that person who be shunned or would more likely want nothing to do with us. So in a sense, I did indeed find my group.

So what am I complaining about, you ask? Why then is there still this existential nagging for conformity? Why do I lament that there is a distinct absence of the monochromatic in my life? Well, my standard answer is that I've never been in love nor ever felt loved by a woman, so there is a rather poignant lack of intimacy and experience in my life, and that could definitely have led me to seek strong interpersonal connections elsewhere. (And God only knows how being in love or in a healthy relationship with a woman would or would not change my other social yearnings). I make no secret of the fact that part of why I'm so obsessed with my Russian heritage is that it's one of the only things that makes me feel grounded and linked-in with a group of people, intellectually, emotionally, genetically, physically, even spiritually. The first time I read Dostoyevsky's "Notes From The Underground," I was reading my own thoughts. When I listen to Tchaikovsky's 5th Symphony, I can hear my sorrow, my joy, my moments of calm, my moments of manic passion, and all frantically swinging back and forth from one to the other. In Russian culture I see something that reflects my self that I've never found in a church, or a subculture, or a theatre company, or even in my group of best friends. (And lest I should seem ungrateful - I've never loved anyone like I love those friends, and I truly owe my life to them. Nothing can be compared to what they've been to me and what they've been for me. I only mean to say that they cannot placate every woe in my heart, and nor is it their job to).

"Isn't that sad?" you may be thinking to yourself. "Shouldn't the love he experiences with his friends be enough to give him a true sense of community?" Well, maybe you're right. Perhaps I'm just damaged beyond repair and my studies in religion, philosophy, evolution, and anthropology have simply given me excuses to intellectually justify my brokenness.

From the time I was a child even, I never really felt quite human. My struggle to find some kind of a socio-cultural group to connect to has been a struggle to find my own humanity. Those people who try so hard to be enigmas confound me because I've tried so hard my whole life not to be one. Radical philosophical individualism is just irksome to me. It celebrates the individual in such a way as to inevitably, though perhaps unintentionally, promote isolationism, which is absurd and inhuman. No one is an island, so the saying goes. The fact that we are all individuals is blatantly obvious, no one need elaborate on it. If I cut my finger, no one else is likely going to feel it. If I have a thought that I don't vocalize, no one else is likely going to hear it. I am an individual and no one has ever been or ever will be exactly like me in every way. And yet I'm still just one face of the millions that came before me. Even the seemingly lone voices crying for sanity amongst the charging masses of polarized idiots are not really unique. Every war has its neutral parties. That's just my lot. And sometimes I mistake my place as an outlier for being irrelevant to the greater whole, because most people who can relate to more easily identifiable groups can quickly dismiss me. But that's exactly what makes me part of the cosmic play. By not fitting in, I fit in. By feeling inhuman, I experience humanity. By my very irrelevance, I am relevant.

In the end though, I know that this search for conformity is not going to be fulfilled, and I wouldn't really want it to be. That's the beautiful paradox. By my very nature I despise conformity as a rule. So the real key to my psychological well-being is to simply accept and even appreciate the tension as proof that I am indeed human, and never for a second fail to appreciate the people in my life who are crazy enough to love me. As for the rest of humankind, you work it out.

No comments:

Post a Comment