Before we can begin to choose more efficacious self-beliefs, we must first examine those beliefs and see what is even down there.
I call what you find when you examine your beliefs about your self: Self-Knowledge. Self-Knowledge is the bedrock of maturity and participation. Those who we call Self-Absorbed are such precisely because they do not know who they are or where they fit in, so they are constantly seeking to make the world fit what they think might be nice at that particular moment. They are disconnected from their environment and community because they do not know how they fit in, leading to the attempt to impose their own order to make sure they are not left out. Because they are disconnected, they cannot read the social clues, which makes them insecure, so they seek to become more secure by applying more pressure, behaving more aggressively to make sure they don't get forgotten.
A more accurate nomenclature for this condition of narcissistic self-absorption would be Self-Ignorance, for the poor narcissist really has no clue of how they connect, both internally and to others. Self-Ignorance has many forms and symptoms, infecting this nation in epidemic numbers. This is especially true for college age students, who are emerging out from under their parents' wings and testing their own. They are bombarded with self-messages from the media and their peers. Often for the first time in their young lives, they are making life decisions for themselves.
If their self-beliefs tell them that they are losers and slackers who can't handle anything too challenging, how prepared will they be to handle the shocks and emergencies of life? If their self-beliefs tell them that they are a precious darling who needs to be protected and is entitled to only the best, how will they cope with the inevitable rejection and deprivation in adult life?
More than any previous generation, the current generation of college aged students (born in the 1980s) has been taught that they were entitled simply by virtue of showing up, in the attempt to bolster epidemic low self-esteem in schoolchildren.22 They have been trained to mistake the map for the territory, to mistake the appearance of value without the substance for authentic value. The result is record numbers of teenage plastic surgery, drug addicts, bulimics and obesity. If the teens were not trying to compensate for a perceived lack in themselves, they would not need plastic surgery, or abuse drugs or food in either excess nor deficiency. They may find out decades later that the self-beliefs that held them captive for years could have been changed in a second, or even avoided entirely. You see this enacted daily on "The Dr. Phil Show" and "Oprah" as well as in countless other media outlets, when the light bulb lights up & epiphanies ripple from the amazed talk show guests.
Protection from Abuse
It might be argued that this is soulcraft and therefore is vulnerable to abuse from radicals and ideologues. In fact, the opposite is true, as the Epistemic Responsibility approach to moral education protects the students' autonomy by placing all the choices and the responsibility of choosing the self-beliefs back on the individual. It is the individual him/herself who must do the internal examination and evaluation of what is turned up by the investigation into the self-beliefs.
The standards used for evaluation are also self-chosen. Therefore, no single belief system is advocated, nor are any particular choices preferred as long as the over-arching goal of integration and authenticity is maintained. Throughout, the democratic values of liberty and equality are respected and in full force. You can lead a student to the font of wisdom, but you can't make him think. Students are always free to reject the concept of epistemic responsibility, but they are not exempt from doing the work. Despite this, the presentment of the option to examine and upgrade one's self-beliefs would represent a profound investment in the future of America, and I believe that many students would recognize and take advantage of the opportunity.
Self-knowledge provides a basis for moral and civic education that cannot be abused or co-opted, for the final decisions always rest in the hands of the students. Self-knowledge provides individuals with the firm foundation from which to participate in the world. Even if confronted with strange customs and beliefs, the individual who knows that they know themselves will meet the world with curiosity, instead of fear and threat, as a strong grounding in Self-Knowledge imparts the ability to discern a true threat from a false alarm.
Creating Whole Citizens
Everyone from Marx to Sartre to Charles Taylor bemoans the "alienation" of the individual from their "authentic" self, although each takes a slightly different tack in their approach. (Marx, p. 96; Sartre, p. 9 and Taylor, p. 10) But what does this "alienation" actually mean?
A cursory semantic analysis yields the answer that something that is in a state of alienation must have had a prior state of wholeness or completion, which has been somehow fragmented. For Marx, the alienation is from the fruits of the workers' own labor that creates the fractured self. For Sartre, the alienation is from the inspirations and potentials of the self, as we seek to conform to the expectations of our families and society. For Charles Taylor, the alienation is from the traditional horizons and definitions of the self. For the monotheistic traditions of the Book, this alienation was the result of the Fall of Adam and Eve.
Whatever the original source of the split, there seems to be a universal agreement that something is seriously wrong with the world. We see contemporary expressions of this subliminal awareness in such books as Ishmael by Daniel Quinn, the widely popular Matrix movies and the record-breaking thirty-year phenomena that is the mythical story of Star Wars. All of these stories are predicated upon the dim awareness that something is seriously out of balance in the human psyche.
Perhaps it is the optimism of fiction that places the power to correct this cosmic-human imbalance within the sphere of human choice. Yet, this has been the driving inspiration for utopians of all stripes, from Plato to the Bible to the cutting edge research of Cognitive Psychology. All seem to agree that human autonomy (a.k.a. Free Will) is sufficient to meet and rise above all challenges. Examples that come to mind are actor Christopher Reeve's response to the challenge of his spinal cord injury and subsequent paralysis, or inspiration that Martin Luther King poured forth to galvanize the Civil Rights Movement. Mahatma Gandhi changed not only the face of India, but served to change the world by spending his time doing very humble acts: spinning thread, making salt, being hungry.
Each of these examples drew on some inner strength that most humans rarely experience. In every case, the man was able to overcome the miasma of internal conflicts and coalesce into focus. The unconventional dance teacher and mystic, G. I. Gurdjieff was noted for often saying "Most men cannot do anything. Most of our experiences just happen to us." Obviously, King and Gandhi were of the few who could actually do something. Reeve as well accomplished something profound on the personal level rarely modeled in the media. In all three, we see a clarity and focus extremely rare amongst the population at large.
Examples such as these indicate that there are far greater potentials available to humans than are commonly accessed. Disciplines such as the martial arts and yoga also indicate that far more is possible of human nature than is usually actualized. Stories about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity abound from the 9-11 firefighters to the Katrina hurricane survivors.
The founding fathers embodied an American ideal of integrity, independence and self-sufficiency that still inspires countless bestsellers. All of these examples illustrate that there is something within the human spirit that can transcend the forces that lead to the alienation from the self, and live a life in meaning and engagement. One way I have heard it put is "living on full throttle," as opposed to living a life of quiet desperation, so popular in these days of Prozac and Welbutrin.
In any case, it is this elusive elan that provides the clarity and inspiration to persevere under the most extreme conditions. Concentration camp survivor and psychologist Viktor Frankl found that humans can withstand almost any torture or abuse if they have a self-chosen reason to survive. (Frankl, p. 86 - 87) Ultimately, whether or not we succeed and are happy as individuals or as a nation depends upon the quality and integrity of our choices, both personally and collectively. These choices are driven and conditioned by our fundamental beliefs about our selves and our place in the world.
Epistemic Responsibility entails the recognition that my own beliefs about myself shapes my expectations about both myself and about the world, which effects my responses, which in turn determines my experience of both myself and the world. For example, if I go on a job interview with the intention to get the job, and if I don't get the job, then I will have failed and my self-esteem will take a big hit. But, if I go on a job interview with the intention to see whether or not the position is a place I can make a real contribution and be happy and I don't get the job, I will know that the job is not the right one for me and my self-esteem will not be damaged. In the first case, the self is to be defined by the environment alone, in an arbitrary and high stakes gamble in which the employers hold all the cards. In the second case, the self is defined by my own values and the environment is interpreted in a holistic exchange between self and the world. In the first case, my values and self-worth are defined by others, and thus are vulnerable to fear, coercion and abuse. In the second instance, I define my own values and self-worth, regardless of the decisions of the potential employers, granting me integrity and protection against fear and abuse.
The majority of people are not awake to this level of personal responsibility, as it requires the willingness to honestly examine one's experiences and motivations. When individuals do become alive to the experience of Epistemic Responsibility, it is usually in the wake of some major identity crisis, often occurring in middle age. The reason for the awakening of this sense of Epistemic Responsibility so late in life is primarily due to poor psychic hygiene and ignorance. We are never overtly taught that we can choose to shed ourselves of maladaptive beliefs without creating a personal drama or crisis. We can't be held responsible for something we never knew we had control over... or can we? Vast numbers of people are held captive by their own selves, squashed down and victimized by their own detrimental beliefs, wasting potential and resources, unaware that all the while they have held the key to their own prisons. As the population increases, so will this problem increase.
While to a large extend we cannot choose what reality exists "out there," we can take responsibility for choosing which beliefs and conceptual frameworks through which we will filter the raw data of our experiences. Without taking Epistemic Responsibility for our beliefs and interpretations of experience, we fall prey to manipulation and loss of self-esteem.
We can choose to be at the mercies of external forces or we can learn how to examine our beliefs and values, and jettison those which do not serve us. We can choose to follow the ancient Delphic injunction "Know Thyself," and thereby come to know how we relate to others and to the world. As always, the choice is up to us, whether we are aware of and avail ourselves of the choice or not.
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