"True sanity entails in one way or another the dissolution of the normal ego, that False Self competently adjusted to our alienated social reality … and through this death a rebirth, the ego now being the servant of the divine, no longer its betrayer."
— R. D. Laing
The pathology of American culture is as ubiquitous as its strip-mall ugliness. It is abundantly evident, in almost every aspect of contemporary life. From the predatory (to the point of psychopathic) practices of its morally scurvy pirates at the helm of the corporate/governmental ship of state, down to the pandemic enervation and proliferate anomie of its galley slaves languishing in their soulless cubicles — from the genitalia-devoid mascots at Disney World to the genitalia-obsessed torturers of Abu Ghraib and Guantanamo — the soul-sickness spreads before us like George W. Bush’s taunting, executioner’s smirk.
Ronnie Laing’s profound dictum leaves us confronting many poignant questions regarding the true nature of the psychic lives of us so-called ordinary citizens of The United States of America and our ability to function within this corrupt and crumbling empire. In short, is it sane to be able to adapt to an insane culture?
Moreover, it begs the following question. If an individual’s conformity to group, cultural, and national pathology is rewarded — thereby encouraging the formation of the "False Self” — how might one, stranded within the dysfunctional dynamic, resist it all and begin to work towards an awareness of their own essential nature, then perhaps arriving at an individual reckoning involving how to live, flourish, and subvert the life defying demands of the present era.
First off, what engenders the formation of the False Self? Laing grasped: When we were children, authority, in the form of parents, educators, clergy, loomed before us. Alternatively menacing and comforting, these powerful figures could just as easily have crushed us as comforted us.
Tragically, all too often, they perpetrated the primary. Hence, to accommodate the overwhelming demands of authority, we learned how to curry favor from these baffling, seemingly implacable forces by the creation of a cipher persona, a False Self, a tricky and/or obsequious, tap-dancing, little apple polisher, who strives to garner approval and acceptance, thereby avoiding punishment, rejection and scorn, by means of the reflexive subjugation of his true nature.
The victims of False Self adaptation are the quintessence of the corporate/consumer citizen. Although, they’re presence is far from benign: While they are compelled to show an agreeable face towards unyielding authority, this trope merely serves to mask a mind seething with misplaced resentments and shallow subterfuge. Doesn’t this read like a personality profile of Condoleezza Rice or any other member of that present day Executive Office cast of Lord of the Flies known as the Bush administration?
This process of metaphysical identity theft begins in childhood. Then, as now, the presence of individuality-decimating authority can create irreconcilable anxieties within us, because the actions and activities of authority figures seem as overwhelming and unpredictable as nature itself.
Now add this to the already haunted landscape of childhood — our present day government’s campaigns of perpetual fear mongering, plus the dominate corporate culture’s modus operandi of commercial exploitation — and we’re left with one freaked out populace –” one comprised of both children and alleged adults.
Consequently, this fear-ridden existence has rendered us a society of grotesques: In the present day United States, children have grown as fat as steroid-fed, corporate-farmed livestock; this has transpired because we overfeed them a diet consisting of steroid-fed, corporate-farmed livestock — as well as –” myriad other variations of nutrient-devoid, calorie-laden faux food dispensed at a mall’s food court, through a drive-thru window, or out of a cardboard box delivered by a franchised junk food chain.
Our motives for doing this shouldn’t be a mystery to us: We habitually shovel high fat, high carbohydrate, high sugar-content junk into their grousing gobs, in a desperate, futile attempt to stuff down the boredom, the anxiety, the lassitude they suffer due to their confinement inside the commercially branded, repressed, empty, holographic facsimile of childhood we have created for them.
This is the reason why our children overeat like neurotic domestic pets. As is the case with housebound, bored, anxious domestic animals, what do they have to look forward to — but dinner? Accordingly, the corporate food industry provides plenty (at a bloated profit, of course) of junk food — the table scraps fallen from the table of the ruling elite of our fat-ass empire –” in order to keep them (and all the rest of us) obese, obedient, and anxiously waiting by our master’s table for more.
And these proto-fascist, behavioral control tricks are not just for kids. Corporate Capitalism has left us Americans psychologically arrested in a pathetic simulacrum of childhood where our inchoate fears of being preyed upon by our (so called) protectors (who we internally and accurately recognize as monsters) are displaced into compulsive consumerism (including overeating) and a reflexive fear of outsiders.
If we were to awaken to this subterfuge, we would apprehend: Our individual uniqueness is being robbed from us on a daily basis due to our enslavement to a mindless system that lives for no other reason than it lives — a system that eats its fatted young (giving new meaning to the term consumer economy) — and exists only to perpetuate itself — a system that has become a soul-devouring monster — the embodiment of Alan Ginsburg’s Moloch.
Why do we accept this soul defying situation? For most of us, the price we would have to pay for confronting authority would be far too prohibitive; hence, we learn it is acceptable (as well as politically useful to our power mad leaders) to displace our anger and fear upon outsiders. Ergo, the so-called Clash of Civilizations is unloosed and slouches, by way of the Washington Beltway, to Iraq, Iran and beyond to be born.
This is the manner that we as a society came to believe we can “compromise” on acts of torture committed in our name and not fear the loss of our souls as a result of our complicity. Although, the loss of our national soul would only prove redundant: Years ago, we decided our souls, both individual and national, were somewhat less than useful to us –” and not nearly as compelling as a new widescreen, plasma TV and the like — hence they were discarded into the reeking landfills of this toxic country like an old appliance.
These actions are what the corporate/military/consumer empire demands of us: For it does not take long for us to learn which aspects of our personalities are accepted and rewarded, and, conversely, which ones will be punished and scorned. In essence, the roles we’re expected to play in exchange for being loved, fed, clothed, and sheltered.
This exchange insures us that we’re given a "safe" place within the community — not cast out into the wilderness and fed to the wolves. This fear is not an outrageous fantasy: It is, in fact, a primal memory. Due to the fact, numerous forms of infanticide were once common practices in nearly all cultures, including the act of abandoning outcast children to die in the wilderness.
Moreover, this knowledge still lingers within our psyches, where the memories of such terrors still howl just beyond the tree line of our waking awareness, instilling within us the terror of ridicule, of failure, of being ostracized. Far too many of us succumb to these fears and begin playing the roles circumscribed by their families, communities, and cultures. Tragically, their true selves, for all practical purposes, were smothered in their cribs.
In itself, the False Self, as well as other varieties of habitual self-centeredness, is a variety of imprisonment. The world is spread before the cell of the self, yet we prisoners cannot leave the confines of our small, self-involved anxieties; therein, mind, heart and imagination become atrophied by a lack of experience, empathy and spontaneity. The bars of the cage might be invisible, yet the sense of confinement is palpable across our corporatized culture. Ergo, a collective numbness and apathy levels upon the land –” and ultimately our desensitization to genocide and torture.
To begin to free oneself from the bondage of the False Self, one must become aware of one’s own fraudulence. That being: the awareness of one’s desperate machinations before exploitive authority.
Self-knowledge can provide us with a point of entry to the act of empathy. Yes, even extending it towards one as loathsome as George W. Bush. Years ago, Bush put on a mask (its contours, both menacing and ridiculous) in a vain attempt to shield himself from being crushed by power. Imagine having his parents: that soulless cipher of a father and blood-freezing Medusa of a mother. Try to imagine the psychological carnage involved. It’s the same trauma we experience daily due to our own powerlessness against the dictates of the corporate state and its threats, both implied and overt, to cast us into the howling wilderness of financial ruin, poverty, and homelessness.
(A caveat: The proffering empathy to Dick Cheney would be pushing the parameters of empathy to the breaking point: Upon being subjected to Cheney’s glowering, reptilian aura, even Mahatma Ghandi would be reaching for a pair of brass knuckles.)
Even in this fear-ridden era, there are some among us — types such as non-conformists, creative thinkers, and artists — who welcome (rather than cower before) the metaphorical wolves (that are recognized, each to each, as fellow outcasts). Instead of being eaten by the wolves, they are suckled and raised by them.
Nourished by their outsider status, the creative spirit thrives when freed from the constraints of a mindless adherence to groupthink. The dark terrain of societal abandonment becomes their natural habitat: they howl at the moon; they reject the daylight world of bland consensus; they learn to see in the dark, apprehending their own interior darkness and, as a result, gain an understanding into the hearts of darkness beating within those in power.
The wilderness of political activism, of poetry, of art becomes their home: they don’t clean-up nicely for polite company; they don’t let themselves be bred down (as a few domesticated wolves did) to yapping Toy Poodles, in exchange for a few food scraps.
Yes, when you’re looking at a Toy Poodle — you’re looking at a former wolf, as when your looking at the corporate press corps, you’re looking at folks whose ancestors long ago were journalists.
One moment, you’re loping through the woods, snout held high, smelling the scent of fresh game on the wind, then the next thing you know — you’re being led around on a leash and collar, encrusted with tacky rhinestones and you’re salivating at the sound of an electric can-opener. One moment, you’re a child, entranced in play, hardwired to eternity — the next thing you know, you’re sitting at work and your passions, hopes, and yearnings have been shrunk down to Toy Poodle-sized agendas … You’re truckling for your boss’s approval; you’re counting the minutes until break time, when you can devour some junk food. Like a domesticated pet, or an unfortunate animal incarcerated in a zoo, you are no longer a noble animal –” you’re a Thing That Waits For Lunch.
To resist, we must cast off the fear of being an outcast. I remain hopeful: There is yet a molecule or two of the wild wolf left within us cringing, cloying Toy Poodles.
One must always remember this: We human beings are of nature too. Accordingly, within us lies an indomitable self, encoded with the grace and fury of the natural world, and, if acknowledged and respected, it will awaken and arise. Then the real dogfight begins: The fur will fly, as we fight, fang and claw, to retake our own essential natures, and, by extension, begin the struggle to restore health, imagination and empathy to a nation of cage-accepting, torture-countenancing sick puppies.