As human beings, we commence our life careers as relatively fuzzy and inchoate creatures—taking on greater definition and more fixed features as we grow older. Certain tendencies, ‘seeds,’ and talents become germinated, nourished, exercised and developed into conspicuous identity-establishing features of our personalities, while other, less prominent, ‘iffier’ seeds and possibilities receive little or no encouraging attention. Normally, when we are growing up, we are strongly nudged by our parents, teachers, and companions to ‘play to our strengths’—to focus upon the development and perfection of those talents and capacities wherein we shine. It only makes good sense to heed such advice and encouragements if we happen to be growing up in a culture or society that lavishly rewards (and has far greater use for) persons who become really good at doing one or maybe two things. And then, in addition to the ‘external’ inducements of monetary compensation and praise for the competent performance of our one or two developed functions or skills, there is the internal, private satisfaction many of us enjoy when we ‘do our thing’ well—whether it’s indoor plumbing or outdoor sports.
But perhaps in addition to these two types of human lives—the one type being conspicuously proficient at one or two functions, and the ‘undistinguished’ other who lacks the requisite talent, discipline, and drive—there is a third type which is neither undisciplined and untalented, on the one hand, nor content merely with the development of one or two skills or talents at the expense of roundedness, on the other. In the past, such a person might be called a ‘Renaissance man’ or even a ‘philosopher’ because of the comprehensiveness of his vision (e.g., Plato, Aristotle, Shakespeare) or the scope of his skills (as with Leonardo da Vinci, Michelangelo, Goethe). Words often used to describe such ‘whole’ lives and visions include ‘versatile,’ ‘multifaceted,’ and ‘protean.’ Each of these widely recognized ‘geniuses’ made enormous or even incalculable contributions to this (western) culture they helped to shape and inform.
But must all persons who innately and consistently strive for wholeness be geniuses or cultural-historical ‘stars’? In other words, is the very quest for wholeness, roundedness, and a comprehensive life the prerogative of the extraordinary few, the exceptionally gifted and ‘blessed?’ Or could it be that this yearning quite naturally appears in many of us whose native gifts are not quite so stupendous in their reach and fertility (as Plato’s, Shakespeare’s, or Jung’s)? At any event, this yearning for wholeness appears to receive little serious encouragement or support from our present culture, our educators, and—shamefully—even from our parents and our closest friends, who perhaps share a very different notion of success, fulfillment, and of ‘mature adult responsibility.’ Are the currently prevailing notions of human fulfillment and success rather lopsidedly utilitarian or narrowly ‘practical’ in their character?
Or, mightn’t it be even more extreme than this—so that, instead of simply being carelessly and unwittingly negligent of the ‘call’ of wholeness, today’s cultural norms are actually hostile to it? Is it possible that we now live in a culture that forcibly inhibits the full development of its members with the same degree of alacrity it devotes to our partial or lopsided development? Why on earth might a culture deliberately aim at such a goal—the rearing of comparatively fragmented or woefully incomplete creatures, many of whom are nevertheless highly effective in the regular performance of a well rewarded, single function? Is such a system as I am describing here even deserving of the name ‘culture?’ And if we suppose that somewhere within the administrative and governing bodies of this hypothetical system there are highly placed men and women who knowingly and deliberately shape, steer, and implement this elaborate political-economic-educational scheme, then we must ask: what are their ultimate aims, and how did they ever acquire so much power over the minds and destinies of the general population? Why aren’t there more critics, dissenters, artists, and angry prophets out there blowing the whistle on these social engineers who assist in a strange, systematic crusade to turn us and our children into human fragments and blinkered functionaries instead of helping us to become whole human beings?
Well, to begin with, there most certainly are such critics, dissenters, artists and angry prophets living and expressing themselves around and among us. Unfortunately, what such persons are saying tends either to be drowned out by the much louder sound of ‘business as usual’ humming along or what they are saying is simply not being taken to heart (or to the streets.) This is not the same as saying that they are not being taken seriously by readers and audiences, because many Americans will readily admit that they are very mistrustful of the ‘system’ I’ve described, along with its rulers and its official architects. So, if this nation is in fact equipped with a sizable population of mistrustful, dissenters who are outraged by the current system why are they not attacking the system head-on, withdrawing themselves and their children from its institutions of fragmentation, and rejecting its menu of generally pernicious and psychologically-unfulfilling life career paths? Could they be reluctant to stand up and make a lot of noise for the simple reason that withdrawal from the system and the forfeiture of one’s precious but limited social/economic opportunities within the system are generally believed to be greater hardships than those entailed in unresisting compliance and obedient participation? There is the sense that ‘we can’t buck the system,’ a system which depends for its continuing success upon the widespread enlistment and participation of the populace. And, of course, so long as that participation continues, the warnings and the predictions of the critics and the prophets will be heard but almost never heeded by the inwardly divided and confused participants in the spiritually deforming and unwholesome system. And unless and until a critical mass of the ‘enlightened’ members of the general population actually dismantles the current system and replaces it with something intrinsically superior, the system, its rulers, and its architects will almost certainly remain in place.
We can turn this model around and look at this phenomenon from the ‘inside-out.’ A psychologically imbalanced or barbarous condition exists where one aspect of the whole is exaggerated to such a degree that the other parts of the psyche are eclipsed. If we add too much salt to a recipe, we ruin it—unless we are somehow able to find a way to counteract the excessive saltiness. Too much emotionality hampers rational action and free choice, but an excess of rational deliberation often leads to sterility and a weak connection with the animating/vitalizing passions. A society informed by our collective system, such as we’ve been discussing, is made up of the sum of the individuals participating in or contained by that system. What this means, in simple terms, is that the present system—if indeed it is in a perilously imbalanced condition—will not be restored to a state of balance or equilibrium unless and until a decisive number of individuals have succeeded in balancing themselves. Today’s fragmenting and wholeness-inhibiting system reflects the aggregate of fragmented and lopsided psyches of its members—from the top down. Viewed in this way, the source of the fragmentation and imbalance is seen to reside in the collective psyche of America, while the formal, systemic symptoms constitute the visible exoskeleton—those institutional directives, normative values, educational practices, and so forth which, from a more extraverted perspective, appear to be the source.
While the truth of this observation should be immediately apparent to anyone who recognizes the reality and the primacy of the psyche in all human experience, for those who do not, my observation will appear simply to have inverted the problem—and that I have gotten it all backwards. But such persons, I would argue, are operating from a standpoint that is still excessively mimetic in its orientation and response to culture and its institutions. They are like actors who—at best—have thoroughly memorized and internalized their lines. The culture is the play, and the play is a script, and ‘if it’s not in the script’ these actors cannot make intelligible sense of a ‘foreign’ thing or idea—let alone a completely different kind of play.
Here I am alluding to the authentically creative (as opposed to merely mimetic or imitative) play whereby the psyche itself spontaneously generates living forms and symbols. One commonly-occurring instance of such spontaneously generated images is the nightly dream which—when recalled the next morning—leaves us in a powerfully changed mood or in an imaginatively excited state that lasts through the day, perhaps. Another instance is the reverie we become absorbed in at the office when our attention drifts from the tedious paperwork we’re plodding through. Or it’s the irrational and deeply disturbing anxiety attacks that keep recurring and leaving us with the mounting suspicion that something big needs to be changed about our lives—and soon—or something’s gonna blow.
Where are these other parts of the totality from which we have become estranged in our chronic state of collective disequilibrium (or ‘mass derangement’)? They are not far away in some remote antipodes! They are right here in and around us, surrounding and suffusing us, just like Cuba is ninety miles away from Florida—and great literary and philosophical geniuses live private lives in small towns in Iowa and upstate New York—only ‘we’ don’t recognize them. We don’t enjoy diplomatic and cordial relations with our nearby neighbors and our potential enlargers and enhancers because we don’t yet know how to see them for who they really are.