Humans naturally desire a kind of moral compass or guidance system with which to navigate through the often tough choices and situations that life throws at us all. Under ideal circumstances, the ethical values or standards that we defer to would be part of the weave of our own hearts, minds, souls—and not merely in some revered text or tablets of culturally-imposed commandments, served up to us from a pulpit or a Smartphone.
The question, I suppose, that intrigues me here is: “How does one advance from faithful obedience to environmentally derived and enforced moral commandments and prescriptions to a presumably more mature state of affairs wherein the internally rooted (and cultivated) moral resources start to prevail?” If the adoption of culturally inherited moral laws and principles may be likened to the use of training wheels to keep us upright while we’re learning to ride a bicycle during childhood, the eventual aim is to achieve sufficient balance and confidence to remove those supporting wheels and ride independently, is it not?
It has not escaped my notice that certain persons become incensed with muffled indignation whenever they observe someone genuinely dispensing with the training wheels. They have learned to navigate through their moral dilemmas without continually referring to some scriptural passage or citing some hallowed philosophical principle to prop them up and sanction what they’re doing or saying. So, what triggers such indignation and resentment? What lies behind the ‘righteous anger’ that obedient ‘believers’ occasionally direct towards more independent, self-reliant thinkers and actors? Is it petty childishness? Is it something like the obedient, approval-craving, younger brother saying to his more independent, self-directed older sibling, “How dare you act without Mom and Dad’s permission and approval!”? Mightn’t this merely be a confession of his own lack of ‘adult’ independence and self-assurance instead of an indication of his unquestioning filial obedience—so that a disguised weakness is slyly parading itself as a virtue? And, of course, such pesky little prigs generally desire nothing so much as to see their elder, more independent siblings punished for defying established authority and acting on their own. Such tiresome little goody-goodies and tattle-tales are always ready and eager to shout with a sneer, “See, I told you so!” as soon as mavericks become bruised and bloodied from their collisions with the stony wall of conformity, or when ‘free spirits’ and ‘heretics’ receive a humiliating public drubbing from philistines.
Perhaps the most grievous and irretrievable loss that we suffer in our obedient conformity to principles and rules that we have not road-tested and ‘authorized’ ourselves is that we are thereby insidiously deformed into liars, both to ourselves and to everyone around us. Without ever realizing what we’re throwing away, we resign ourselves to the indisputable, damning fact that we—and pretty much everyone we’re affiliated with in our morally and intellectually smug, enthusiastically self-righteous conformity to ‘game rules’ that we have neither genuinely understood nor arrived at through our own efforts and exertions—are no more than loud-mouthed little hypocrites. Could it be true, as some have suggested, that this ‘type’ comprises upwards of 90% of humanity, now as ever?
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this gnawing, needling suspicion of his own pettiness, puniness, and fundamental duplicity actually spurs on the phlegmatic, hypocritical conformist to noisier and ever noisier name-calling and vilification of the truly independent and self-authorizing persons he secretly envies, while his own timidity, mendacity, and passivity are his true enemies. His deep hatred for the independent spirit stems largely from the disquieting fact that such persons—rare though they be—cannot help but direct an unnerving spotlight on all the conformist’s unflattering flaws, failings, and blind spots. What poor wretches most of us prove to be as soon as the searchlight of truth is directed inside that dark, reverberant cave that is our ‘soul’! No wonder so many of us run from that searchlight as passionately as we would from a humorless I.R.S. auditor or a zealously probing proctologist!
The truly independent spirit cannot help but feel flickers and cinders of scorn and contempt for cowardice when he stumbles upon it within himself. It turns his stomach when his ruthless searchlight exposes self-deception or dishonesty lurking and skulking within his soul. To be sure, he has a knowledgeable grasp of these flaws and weaknesses, but self-understanding is not equivalent to ‘indulgent acceptance’ or ‘patient tolerance’—at least not in his own case, where the very fate of his soul is at stake. Certainly he displays ‘patient understanding’ and forbearance where the weaknesses and failings of others are concerned. He humbly acknowledges that these are beyond his jurisdiction, unlike the worms and spiders squirming and spinning webs and stories within his own breast. The independent, self-responsible spirit knows that others’ inner blindnesses and weaknesses are not his business precisely because he understands ultimately only we ourselves can do anything ultimate for or against our Self-liberation. To be sure, others may offer helpful advice and even profound instruction but, in the end, it comes down to a confrontation between the individual soul and its mysteriously impersonal source, does it not?