IV. 4. Andrew Sinks Back into Nightmares


A very common deviation from the harmonious model of individual moral development is the opposite syndrome to the one described in the previous chapter: that of the deflated ego. It occurs simply because in the process of discovering our convergence with the rest of humanity we lose the grounds for our sense of uniqueness; we feel disappointed, defenseless, as well as overwhelmed by having to compete with everyone else. Why do I have to participate in this stupid sack race, instead of just enjoying the birthday cake? Why should I keep kicking the piñata, since Carl is stronger and will smash it in a single hit, making my efforts look ridiculous? Why did I have to come to this party at all?! I’ll definitely skip the next one!

The drop of self-confidence, of course, can happen at any stage of our lives, due to any series of unfortunate events. The result is losing (or not being able to build at all) what Anton Chekhov calls “the general idea”. We stop trusting our judgment, which makes us pliant to random outer influences. We start floating around like a boat without sails. Chekhov’s description concludes the grim scenario: “When a man has not in him what is loftier and mightier than all external impressions, a bad cold is really enough to upset his equilibrium and make him begin to see an owl in every bird, to hear a dog howling in every sound.”

If not cured on time, the fear of “a bad cold” triggers our self-preservation drive, and we develop a defensive moral position devoted entirely to justify our isolation. This means, of course, front-loading our perception of the environment with non-existent negative (malicious) circumstances (chapter III.4.). We fear and hate the others, and our self-projection gets entangled in planning irrelevant and ungrounded actions against them.

Shortly after returning from boot camp Andrew goes back to continue his military training. In six months he is sent overseas. He gets a discharge two years later when his daughter is almost three. He finally marries his girlfriend, and the young family moves to the big city where Andrew finds a job as a salesperson. They live together for less than half a year. Both of them have changed, and no one is able to restore the harmony between them, let alone revive the passion, which brought them together in their teens. Taking the child with her, Andrew’s wife returns to her mother. Andrew is left alone. He knows that his military service has changed him. Yet he feels that he has become more responsible, more organized and more reliable than the boy he was just a couple of years ago. That’s why he doesn’t have any explanation on this sudden turn of events, except that the world has turned against him, after all the sacrifices he has made for the people he loved.

After getting into several fights with his customers Andrew gets fired. In another couple of months even his former fellow-soldiers can’t recognize him. His occasional drinking and smoking weed turns into a regular habit, and he cuts off almost all of his ties with his past. His new contacts are the occasional encounters with some other lost souls in the near-by bar.

Certainly, this is just the initial swing of the pendulum. Unless clinically unsocial, a human needs the company of other humans. We are herd animals, and actually to remain in a position of isolation is not the choice which most of us would make. Sooner or later we get involved in a certain community, and before we know it we appropriate its collective view on life, and its morality (Harry’s story). The general motive here is to restore the balance (equilibrium) between our self-perception and our perception of the environment. This is a very common process, and it goes through the following stages:
1. The community that accepts us becomes a leading circumstance of our perception of the environment.
2. The positive nature of this circumstance (again, chapter III.4.) induces a change in our self-perception. Since we strive to deserve the right to be part of a community, which we view as a remedy to our low self-esteem, we attempt to prove our merits. Our self-projecting drive is revived, and a positive circumstance takes the lead in our self-perception hierarchy.
3. We restore our self-confidence, which bonds us even more to our new group. Our new morality has little to do with what we believed in before.

The great Heinrich Heine has the perfect description of this kind of union:
Seldom did we know each other,
Seldom were you understood;
But our souls soon came together
When we met in filth and mud.
In other words, our morality crawls out of the self-preservation lair and climbs back onto the self-projection ladder, working on strengthening the bond with the new community.

It is uncertain if Andrew will find a social circle relevant to his potential. If he remains bitter to the world, the more plausible scenario is that he will start fiercely reversing his life, consciously going against the principles that have guided him before. People, who have fallen in the trap of self-pity and its twin sister -hatred to the world, are the ones who form, among others, religious sects. Sects are typical examples of communities, which help their members by just claiming spiritual superiority over the rest of humanity. It is not on accident that we often use the word “sect” when describing a group of people united in a non-productive way. What the founders of these groups rely on is that the self-projection of people who are hurt or rejected by life is very pliable, able to be harnessed in antagonistic and hostile ventures.

The most graphic examples of choosing a community out of desperation or spiritual impasse are related – as one can imagine – to the most vulnerable members of humanity – children. The very first example that comes to mind at the beginning of the 21-st century is the child soldiers in Liberia, Sudan and Congo. In the least dramatic scenario these kids have grown up feeling desperate and without the most basic means for survival. They must have felt lucky to be saved from starvation, but what has turned them into the most loyal (and cruel) soldiers is the restoration of their dignity by entrusting them with a mission. With self-projection on the rise due to a clear new direction, their self-perception becomes inextricably bound up with their new community. Without any other outer influence the terribly twisted equilibrium between their self-perception and perception of the environment gets stronger and stronger, turning them into some of the most tragic symbols of our modern world.

On a larger scale, the sad effects of this kind of human integration are to be viewed everywhere. All philosophical theories, ideologies, doctrines, policies or behavioral patterns that in some way or another divide humanity are the results of the efforts of people or groups who feel threatened by others. It is amazing how many justifications mankind has come up with to excuse these divisions! Yet all of them can be traced to self-preservation. The power of the mob is founded on the force of terribly insecure people, whose moral development has stopped at a certain premature stage. On every stop there are others who share the same insufficiency. It’s just a matter of time and place for them to meet each other, and before long, the group is formed. Now they can go back to where the thundering train of humanity passes and scream out their right to exist. Not that anybody threatens them – but still… there might be owls disguised among those birds!

© 2010 Peter Budevski

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