Man's Search For Himself
People often don’t know what they truly feel or want. They sense something missing inside themselves, an existential emptiness, an anxiety that gnaws deeply at their insides.
They do what everyone expects from them to do—from their teachers, employers, parents, religions, and communities — or at least, what they imagine these groups expect. As one ordinary person said, “I’m just a collection of mirrors, reflecting what everyone else expects of me.”
People want to be liked. They crave after attention and respect, believing rather compulsively that these things will be sufficient for happiness and meaning.
“Every human being gets much of his sense of his own reality out of what others say to him and think about him. But many modern people have gone so far in their dependence on others for their feeling of reality that they are afraid that without it they would lose the sense of their own existence.”
Social acceptance seems like a cure to existential angst, but it only temporarily relieves loneliness, fear, and anxiety. People seek approval from others while symbolically returning to the warmth of the womb, and in turn, sacrificing freedom for dependency.
What arises from such emptiness is the need for authority, for someone or something to take control of, and then make better, what is neglected within.
“When a nation, rather, is prey to insupportable economic want and is psychologically and spiritually empty, totalitarianism comes in to fill the vacuum; and the people sell their freedom as a necessity for getting rid of the anxiety which is too great for them to bear any longer.”
Those who live with existential anxiety lose themselves. Overwhelmed, confused by what is out there. They cannot clearly identify what they want out of life. They succumb to what is external instead of tending to what is sacredly internal.
They feel the threat of being cast off.
They seek social approval while avoiding isolation, alienation from the group.
Those who hide from their anxieties during the crucial stages of their development will only stagnate or get worse. Anxiety, for everyone, is a normal aspect of growth. People should be honest and confront their own anxieties, exposing themselves gradually to what they need that helps them mature.
While anxiety confuses reality, people can still choose to constructively engage with these negative feelings. “Just as anxiety destroys our self-awareness, so awareness of ourselves can destroy anxiety.”
People often, however, compartmentalize much of their lives. They use their reason to study, save themselves for fun on the weekends, distract themselves from feeling pain and fear by watching television and posting on social media. They put on shows for other people, for an invisible audience in their minds. They become performers rather than humans, caring about their actions, based on the reactions of others to their actions.
“But the artists, and the rest of us too, remain spiritually isolated and at sea, and so we cover up our loneliness by chattering with other people about the things we do have language for — the world series, business affairs, the latest news reports. Our deeper emotional experiences are pushed further away, and we tend, thus, to become emptier and lonelier.”
To find those deeper experiences, people need to live fully, vulnerably, alive in each moment. Human beings are capable not only of being nature, and being in nature, but in thinking of nature and their place within it.
People are able to be self-aware, keep time, to learn from the past, plan for the future, use symbolic systems to make distinctions and communicate. They can empathize with people from hundreds of years ago, on different continents, with other types of animals and plants, and imagine themselves as them.
These gifts of humanity come with anxieties and fears, with inner-crises. People still struggle with not only their current states of development, but with all those influences which had come from before.
People have the ability to be created by their engagement with others and what had conditioned them in their past. At the same time, they can create themselves.
“The self is always born and grows in interpersonal relationships. But no ‘ego’ moves on into responsible selfhood if it remains chiefly the reflection of the social context around it. In our particular world in which conformity is the great destroyer of selfhood — in our society in which fitting the ‘pattern’ tends to be accepted as the norm, and being ‘well liked’ is the alleged ticket to salvation — what needs to be emphasized is not only the admitted fact that we are to some extent created by each other but also our capacity to experience, and create, ourselves.”
People can create themselves by being aware of themselves as thinking-feeling-intuiting creatures deeply connected to nature. Their “selves” are not merely a sum of “roles” that they should perform to be accepted by the group. Each human can rather be fully integrated within themselves, fulfilling their potentialities.
“But the human being’s task in fulfilling his nature is much more difficult, for he must do it in self-consciousness. That is, his development is never automatic but must be to some extent chosen and affirmed by himself.”
People are unique in their consciousness of themselves. No one entirely knows the full extent of what another person feels and thinks. Each person is alone in their minds and must find their inner-strength ultimately without anyone else to do it for them.
People must affirm their own dignity and self-worth. It is far easier to blame others or oneself than it is to take responsibility for life.
To blame or praise is often to mask an arrogance of being overly concerned with one’s own importance, despite whether one feels superior or inferior. To engage in such thinking is a deception that people use to avoid a constructive attitude toward life, in seeing things as they are.
One should love oneself.
To love oneself is to love others and to love others is to love oneself. There is no selfishness in genuine caring, compassion, empathy, and kindness. When one is aware, one can let go. By letting go, spontaneous joy comes into living for each moment. One feels an expansion rather than a constriction, actively alive rather than passively existing.
To love, one must be sensitive to feelings and thoughts, to the connection of body and mind, to nature and community, to all sense and intuition, passing from dawn to dusk, over and again.
“The originality and uniqueness which is always part of a spontaneous feeling can be understood in this light. For just as there never was exactly that situation before and never will be again, so the feeling one has at that time is new and never to be exactly repeated. It is only neurotic behavior which is rigidly repetitive.”
It is easy to block awareness with routines and repetitions and busying oneself every day. Rather than idleness, contemplation and meditation, people often do without any thought as to why.
Individuals will constantly struggle to discover what they want, how they feel, and what they can do to live fully, because there are many external pressures that will prevent them from being aware.
“Strictly speaking, the process of being born from the womb, cutting free from the mass, replacing dependency with choice, is involved in every decision of one’s life, and even is the issue facing one on his deathbed. For what is the capacity to die courageously except the ultimate step in the continuum of learning to be on one’s own, to leave the whole? Thus every person’s life could be portrayed by a graph of differentiation — how far has he freed himself from automatic dependencies, become an individual, able then to relate to his fellows on the new level of self-chosen love, responsibility and creative work?”
It is normal for those who desire to grow to experience great moments of anxiety, fear, and terror.
“Moving out from a protected, familiar place into new independence, from support to temporary isolation, while at the same time one feels one’s own anxiety and powerlessness.”
People must work with feelings of anxiety, alongside an environment that pressures them to conform or rebel, while moving toward inner freedom.
To create oneself is to transcend the fit of old masks, to move beyond those dependencies of childhood, to seek unfamiliar places that haven’t yet been explored.
Unhealthy environmental influences will never support a person’s quest for inner freedom. They will rather, in the form of family, religion, government, and so on, redirect a person’s fear toward others, eventually turning that fear into hatred.
“Hatred and resentment are destructive emotions, and the mark of maturity is to transform them into constructive emotions. But the fact that the human being will destroy something — generally in the long run himself — rather than surrender his freedom proves how important freedom is to him.”
Those who suppress their hatred often feel a deep resentment. They don’t resent others or themselves nearly as much as they reject having their freedom taken away, feeling powerless to do anything about it.
Those who don’t conform usually rebel. Their rebellion is a mistaken attempt at individuality, a failure of responsibility in reaction to what is external.
“But rebellion is often confused with freedom itself. It becomes a false port in the storm because it gives the rebel a delusive sense of being really independent. The rebel forgets that rebellion always presupposes an outside structure — of rules, laws, expectations — against which one is rebelling; and one’s security, sense of freedom and strength are dependent actually on this external structure. They are ‘borrowed,’ and can be taken away like a bank loan which can be called in at any moment. Psychologically many persons stop at this stage of rebellion. Their sense of inner moral strength comes only from knowing what moral conventions they do not live up to; they get an oblique sense of conviction by proclaiming their atheism and disbelief.”
To live in reaction is not to be free. To be dependent is also not to be free. People claim freedom to do whatever they want as well. But they neglect responsibility by chaining themselves to addiction, security, comfort, and gratification, avoiding what is uncertain and mysterious, fearful and painful.
“Freedom means openness, a readiness to grow; it means being flexible, ready to change for the sake of greater human values. To identify freedom with a given system is to deny freedom — it crystallizes freedom and turns it into dogma. To cling to a tradition, with the defensive plea that if we lose something that worked well in the past we will have lost all, neither shows the spirit of freedom nor makes for the future growth of freedom.”
Freedom comes when people mold themselves and take care of others. Freedom comes first through self-awareness, expanding forever out.
“Through his power to survey his life, man can transcend the immediate events which determine him. Whether he has tuberculosis or is a slave like the Roman philosopher Epictetus or a prisoner condemned to death, he can still in his freedom choose how he will relate to these facts.”
Freedom is not given. It is developed every day. People can choose to kill themselves psychologically, unaware and ignorant, in restless craving. They can conform to the conditioning of their youth and follow a linear path made up for them to adhere to until eventually dying. Or they can gain a false sense of power through rebellion, in reacting, resisting, combating an enemy, until they wither away in hatred and fear.
To be free, however, is to have discipline. With self-discipline, one seeks to learn about life and consistently follows one’s values, discovering freedom through inner work.
“Man’s anxiety, bewilderment and emptiness — the chronic psychic diseases of modern man — occur mainly because his values are confused and contradictory, and he has no psychic core. We can now add that the degree of an individual’s inner strength and integrity will depend on how much he himself believes in the values he lives.”
To live with integrity is terrifying and uncertain at times. People often retreat from what’s not known, becoming rigid and dogmatic, protecting themselves with certainty.
“Within the creative person himself there is fear of moving ahead. In these myths there speaks not only the courageous side of man, but the servile side which would prefer comfort to freedom, security to one’s own growth.”
There is a battle within each person: for comfort and security, and for creativity and freedom. To fully conform to security is to undermine one’s inner strength. To be conditioned to the whims of others is to give up choice and awareness.
People who are ethically sensitive will struggle daily, but they will be creators of themselves. They will live consistently, aware of who they are and what they want.
When one is courageous, one can accept being alone. One is not living merely for the acceptance of others, but rather, is living fully. There then is no authority greater than oneself.
The mature person has “the capacity to love something for its own sake, not for the sake of being taken care of or gaining a bootlegged feeling of prestige and power. Certainly loneliness and anxiety can be constructively met. Though this cannot be done through the deus ex machina of a ‘cosmic papa,’ it can be achieved through the individual’s confronting directly the various crises of his development, moving from dependence to greater freedom and higher integration by developing and utilizing his capacities, and relating to his fellows through creative work and love.”
One doesn’t have to leave society to be mature or free. To be in the crowd but still maintain the “sweetness of solitude,” as Emerson said, to have integrity while still learning from tradition and culture, is to possess inner strength.
One is not bored, but interested in everything, in everyone, alive in the moment.
“Wonder is the opposite to cynicism and boredom; it indicates that a person has a heightened aliveness, is interested, expectant, responsive. It is essentially an ‘opening’ attitude — an awareness that there is more to life than one has as yet fathomed, an experience of new vistas in life to be explored as well as new profundities to be plumbed.”
With curiosity, people can explore all of life. They begin from themselves, and not from others, as a foundation for love, open to what is possible, affirming who they are through their choices, not only in action but in attitude. A person will find what is valuable for him or herself. These values will be intimately known rather than passively given.
In every choice, there is always a risk. To choose from self-awareness, however, is to take responsibility and affirm oneself though a creative decision.
Whether each choice springs from conscious or unconscious motives, whether the person will make a mistake or not, doesn’t take away from the integrity of choosing what feels right in the moment, based on current knowledge.
What matters is to be honest with oneself. Knowledge of one’s unique perceptions, impressions, and experiences, leads to clarity and a higher purpose. In order to have this self-knowledge, however, one must have tremendous courage.
“Courage is the capacity to meet the anxiety which arises as one achieves freedom. It is the willingness to differentiate, to move from the protecting realms of parental dependence to new levels of freedom and integration. The need for courage arises not only at those stages when breaks with parental protection are most obvious — such as at the birth of self-awareness, at going off to school, at adolescence, in crises of love, marriage and the facing of ultimate death — but at every step in between as one moves from the familiar surroundings over frontiers into the unfamiliar.”
People are often afraid to be themselves because they don’t want to be laughed at, ridiculed, mocked, and shunned. They hide in the crowds, avoiding taking a risk, complacent with the shaky comfort of fitting in.
One can be courageous in living and still be connected to a community. One can discover an inner power without being socially isolated. “It takes courage not only to assert oneself but to give of oneself.”
To be courageous is to let go of what is familiar. Steadily, patiently growing from awareness of one’s inner world, seeking out what is mysterious and exploring, highly creative and mature.
One is blocked from being courageous when one doesn’t stand up for his or her values, when one automatically falls into roles that others have desired, rather than living from a genuine purpose.
People need to be accepted as who they are, not for as others wish them to be. But all too often, people want to be liked, not for who they are, but for who they appear to be.
To strive to be normal and seek acceptance from outside is to give up on courage. By living after others, one feels worthless whenever the group doesn’t approve, but feels valuable whenever they do.
“Courage arises from one’s sense of dignity and self-esteem; and one is uncourageous because he thinks too poorly of himself… Vanity and narcissism — the compulsive needs to be admired and praised — undermine one’s courage, for one then fights on someone else’s conviction rather than one’s own.”