Adam Blatner

Posted March 17, 2011
We’ve been living in a culture that has become overly individualistic, one in which the concept of self or what it means to be human tends to be a view as people having their skins as a relatively fixed boundary—and often the cranium /brain as the true whole of the self.

I want to suggest that it is equally true to imagine that who a person is includes also his or her relationships at different concentrations. Depending on culture and family make-up, this proportion of experienced “self” that involves the minds and activities of others may be more than 50%—perhaps more than 70%. This is not merely a figure of speech. People really feel good or bad depending on their status, their being useful and recognized, included and liked, or the opposite situations. Much of their somatic as well as psychological dynamics and behavior reflect the complex richness of the perceptions of subtle non-verbal messages that signal these various dimensions.

Are you seen as “one of us?” By how many different groups? How important are these groups to you?  Does anyone say, “When we didn’t see you last Monday night, we missed you!” or “It just wasn’t the same without you!”? (In the realm of psychosocial reality, not hearing this can be as psychologically meaningful as hearing it!) How many people know you exist and care? Do they let you know? (It is this realm that fuels Twitter and Text-messaging and Social Media in general! Do not underestimate its power!)

Some folks become habituated to being isolated, alienated, a loner. Some act in a counter-phobic way and become a “ramblin’ kind of guy,” and others valorize this, imagining these people as heroic, strong, independent. The stranger that rides into town is imagined not as a bedraggled loser, but powerful, maybe a heroic gunman come to set things right and put the bad guys in their place. It’s become a cultural fantasy. Alas, the price to pay is the loss of family values. (Many people who emphasize the importance of family values also enjoy the kinds of country music lyrics that undermine those values.)  What’s going on here is a mixture of counter-phobic defensive behavior—e.g., “I’m not afraid of being alone: I enjoy being alone! I’ll prove it!” and identifying with the aggressor (or more powerful figure)—e.g., “I’m tough. No one’s needs touch me. I’m not vulnerable to love.” All these can also be called the “hyper-independent” stance.

But it’s not true: People are deeply social animals. We are tribal. We’re closer to bees and cows than we are to those few species that live primarily as loners. And our essence, our true being, is also partly collective. For many in Western cultures in the last few centuries, though, being more alienated, not deeply embedded in community, has become increasingly common and at times somewhat of an ideal.

I want to suggest that the challenge is to find a balance. Too much conformity can involve the sacrifice of too much independent thinking, too much of a slave-like mentality. The world needs creativity and individuality—but on the other hand, too much of an assertion of individual needs against the needs of the whole can also be problematic. How to find a balance?

One way is to modify the needs of community so there is an optimal degree of room for individual preference, an optimal degree of personal freedom. It turns out that most communities—at least nowadays—don’t have a great need to have everyone behave in the same way. It’s fine to have ten or a hundred different kinds of restaurants, types of music, styles of clothes, and so forth. On the other hand, there are laws that insist that there are boundaries to individuality—regarding stealing and violence and other things. And then there are laws about activities in the fuzzy middle, and people who suggest that some of these laws are neither necessary nor useful.

But in the search for personal liberty in contrast to enforced socio-economic stratification and subtle totalitarianism—which was pervasive for much of history and reinforced as much by the dominant religion in a country as by the fascists or communists—there is the possibility of overshooting the mark—not just hyper-independence, but the mainstream worldview that supported this stance, the idea that people are what they are as separate—entirely separate—individuals.

Freudian psychology tended towards this view, and gradually group therapy, family therapy, relational analysis, attenuated it. I’m just pushing this corrective trend a little more by inviting us to recognize—re-thinking is re-cognition—that the idea that I am just what’s inside my head is profoundly illusory.

If I pause to dare to imagine, it’s almost frightening how much my existence is indeed part of others’ lives. I can overdo this, of course, in delusions of grandeur, or even narcissism; but I can also under-do it, denying that my behavior has any impact on others: “Aw, shucks, lil’ ol me? Aww, I ain’t nothin’ in particular.” This may seem like humility, but it is secretly selfish. If I pay the price of dampened self-esteem, pseudo-humility, I can pretend that no one cares, is hurt, by my failure to reciprocate in the realms of holiday greeting cards, emails, outreach efforts. They’re so big and important and I’m so little and nothing, they won’t even notice if I don’t thank them, if I don’t acknowledge them, say hi back. This attitude is not just common, but pervasive. And it’s wrong. It’s a denial of the degrees to which you exist in the minds of others.

Assessing the Breadth of Your Existence

Admittedly, your circles of caring are not that acute, absolute, life-threatening. If you die, chances are the number of people who will be deeply shaken with grief are limited. What you may not realize, though, is the number of people who will be mildly shaken, and a larger number who will grieve a bit, and a much larger number in many parts of the world who will feel a pang of loss. They’ll go on, but what needs to be recognized—and often is not—is that in the aggregate of psychic energy—if we could assign, say, one gram of being-ness to one unit of caring-about— your existence ends up being 8404 total grams of being—or maybe 84,040 grams?

Let’s see, then, play with me here:    You matter to yourself: 800 - 3000 caring units. I’m just making up a baseline. You may find other units or proportions to be better—I’m not attached to these numbers, but am just flying by the intuitive seat of my pants:

Those close to you need and care about you between 200 - 4000 caring units. Not many care that much, but some folks maybe care about you more than you care about yourself. Call them dependent if you will, or enmeshed, whatever—it happens.

Then there are those who care about you a lot, dear friends—and if you died or left, there’d be a bit of a hole in their lives. 100 - 900 units—each!

Another larger group are those who enjoy you, will miss you (a goodly number)... 40  - 300 units each.

And larger still, those who appreciated you joining with them to make their club, party, congregation, business, profession, whatever work in the world—many more of these—they may not have known you by name, but they vaguely knew you were there----25 - 100 units each.

At a large-organizational, sub-cultural level, there will be those who never knew your face—you were just one of a substantial number. Maybe your name will show up in their newsletter on a listing of those people who have died in the last year. Still, your showing up, giving some charity or paying dues, supporting the cause, supported thereby their cause, what may have been mildly to essentially important in their lives. 2 - 25 units.

Those who felt that it was nice that you were part of their greater identity and community, rather than your being a drain or a problem. 1 - 12 units. They were fairly indifferent to you, didn’t share any interests, but you were civilized.

Here’s an interesting dimension: There may have been those who felt that you were a personal obstacle to their interests—here you’re on the negative side, but, interestingly, you still exist: You were a problem—a mild itch, a true thorn in their side, maybe even their nemesis... and in this source of problem to them, you may garner anywhere from 2 - 20,000 units. (Some folks really dwell on the injuries they suffer and blame you.)

Ripples in the Cosmos

Going into your past, consider also these: Those who had a crush on you, secretly romantically loved or sexually lusted after you: 40 - 4000 units each, even if only for weeks or months—but sometimes for years

Those who competed for you for a race, a job—they may not have known your name, but you raised the bar, made it tougher for them. Or maybe you did so badly that your replacement was a relief to your boss and co-workers. 2 -200 units.

Those whom you mentored, encouraged, supported, and for whom your outreach may have happened at an interesting time in their lives. It was no big deal for you, but a bid deal to them. You’ve had this happen in your life—that guy who pulled you back from falling off the platform, that lady who opened the door when you were in a hurry and carrying packages, that note of appreciation from an unknown person. Little drops of grace we give each other unknowingly. 2-20 or more units. The unknown other had an impact that made a difference.

There were those who found you to be comic relief, the joker, a breath of fresh air, even if you’re remembered as ol’ whatsisname...

Those who vaguely remembered that you specifically, or a bunch of people, in the olden days, got some project started, were pioneers, built this whatever—building, organization—

Those who enjoy the shade of the tree you planted, or other fruits of what you began or helped along

Those who imagine you to have been the epitome of evil, an obstacle, a representative of all that’s gone wrong in the organization you were part of or the world..
    ... or perhaps an apostate, one who left or significantly betrayed the illusion of unity that was so important (they thought) to the advancement of their cause...

And so forth. You—really you, no matter how much they elaborated on the fantasies of who they imagined you to be—you existed there in that cultural, organizational, community, social, group, family system level of the truth of our being-ness in the world.

Okay, take all these and weigh them—multiply the number of people by the number of “points” or “grams” of caring—and you’ll see quickly that if you’re like most people, the degree to which you exist may be 10 - 100 times greater out there in the world than what is true even for you with yourself and your immediate family.

And take all these often small bits of ways of having an impact in the world—not even counting the strain on the plumbing and sewage treatment services of your poop, the drain of water and electricity involved in keeping your lawn watered (arguably wastefully) and your home warm (or cool, arguably inefficiently).— In all these senses, it may be fair to say that you exist far, far beyond what you’ve tended to think you do.

That doesn’t make you better. Nor, if you’re big and powerful and famous, does it mean you’ll be remembered more, or that more people cared about you. Fame can be startlingly fleeting, and power can be lost or replaced so quickly by the other guy who’s competing with you. But it doesn’t matter how much. Think of the poem, Ozymandias. (Look it up on Google).

The point is to shatter the illusion that you exist within your body or, more narrowly, your brain.

Oh, let’s not forget another whole domain: What are you in the series of past and future lives other than a fulcrum that can potentially change the story, perhaps gain soul-liberation? What are you in the eyes of God or your guardian angels? If they care, will they miss you when you’re gone?  What are you in the minds of the great grandchildren you may or may not live to meet? What stories will be told about you? And so forth.

Point, restated. You’re much, much more than you thought you were.

Good news : Oh, how wonderful, how immortal, how good this is for your narcissism. The ripples in the cosmos from your being here!

Bad news : Uh-oh, that means you’re carrying a far, far greater degree of responsibility. Your becoming grumpy rather than cheerful, criticizing sharply instead of tactfully—or maybe even keeping quiet; your outreach even though you don’t feel like it—ripples in the cosmos.

Cleansing news : It doesn’t matter that much if you won this race or got that degree. Most of the weight here has more to do with your kindness—or lack thereof.

In summary, this essay is meant to underline a shift in our thinking about psychology from somatic psychology to individual (intra-psychic) psychology towards and fusing with the social psychological field, and sociology and cultural history beyond that. You exist at all these levels.

Rabbi Hillel:
   If I am not for myself, who will be for me?
   And if I am only for myself, what am I?
   And if not now, when? .