When children in a society struggle, it is often only because they are going through a phase of learning to establish their personal sense of balance.
When facing these struggles, deeper understanding can cure a lot of negative emotions. This is why it is worthwhile to not only notice how ego plays out personally, but we should also do our best to stay aware of how ego manifests in larger society.
When we can see society’s thought-based systems for what they are, we are more likely to successfully negotiate our way through or past them.
Just as our physical bodies are cooperating groups of self-interested cells, the people and mechanisms in our society are made up of cooperating self-interested individuals. Rebellions, law-breakers, and divorce all regularly prove that we are truly cooperating, and that only we as individuals can give someone authority over us.
Despite that fact, some individual authorities will be sometimes be unaware their power is given to them by each person individually. In those cases authorities can sometimes value their own interests over society’s. But if an individual is abused by any authority (the government, the mob, the church, a coach, a parent), their title or uniform will not ensure our continued respect. Our individual belief will have changed.
Further to that idea, if an abuse by an individual authority is not acknowledged to have done harm by their larger authority, we can lose respect for an entire organization. We can all likely think of countless examples where our personal yet limited experience has sullied our long term view of an entire organization.
What all this means is that, when people describe a life as ‘flowing smoothly,’ we are essentially saying that an individual has, over that time, had a relatively consistent record of successfully balancing their needs with society’s.
That degree of balance allows people to efficiently and gracefully move through society’s various thought-based systems and organizations while still maximizing their individual benefits from participation. Learning how to do this can improve a life considerably.
If this all feels abstract, consider that democratic revolution, emancipation and universal suffrage are a good examples of people’s lives being improved by a mass shift in ego-based belief.
No appointed leader ever did have ‘divine rights’ from God. Every revolution is born when a collection of individuals becomes aware that we give authority, it does not exist without our belief. India’s transition from British rule is a well known example.
Due to the echoes of kings, many societies originally extended individual rights to only those who could buy them from the previous leaders. Emancipation and universal suffrage happened when former kingdoms became full nation-states, and both men and women insisted on the right to have a say via the vote. (In most democracies, female and male non-landowners were given the vote at the same time.)
By believing in our shared equality, many groups of people have made themselves equal. And, once we see ourselves as equal to all others, we extend those rights in principle to anyone who agrees to believe in the nation-state we believe we are a part of (hence the concept of an oath and citizenship for immigrants).
It’s worth pausing to think about. It is a massive shift in belief to think we are an impotent slave to an all-powerful, unanimous leader, where might makes right; versus believing that we deserve autonomy as individuals and that we will express it through our individual votes and rights. In principle, it’s shifts in understanding like that, that lead abused individuals to escape abusive situations.
For individuals or groups, balance is key. Nations can know they can rebel without actually rebelling if we know we we will lose more than we will gain by acting our on our new beliefs. After all, even after the French Revolution, societies simply passed on the authority from royalty to a bureaucracy. At least in theory a bureaucracy is aimed at trying to represent our collective individual beliefs, to most of us, most of the time.
Importantly, most people build and live and struggle with these thought-based structures every day without ever recognizing they are dealing with ideas and not things.
As time marches on, we begin to build thought-based systems on top of other thought-bases systems. They are helpful, but each layer helps mask that each system is essentially an agreement between us. So on top of the invention of ‘government’ came the invention of the car, and with it came the invention of traffic laws.
Laws are a common manifestation of the balance between individual rights and legalized cooperation. Traffic laws aren’t ‘things,’ they are ideas that most of us agree to share, most of the time. When we don’t share them, we could say that happens mostly ‘by accident.’
We can go to into the justice system court to fight the interpretation of a system’s rules by some individuals within it, but if we want to ignore the authority altogether then an individual’s self-interest can be deemed dangerous to the interests of the larger society and a person can be shunned or jailed.
Written law makes our conflicts between our individuality and an authority quite clear, so long as we respect both. But some manifestations of thought-based realities are more abstract, yet common. For example, there were those kids in school that did well by getting good grades and having a good attitude for the authorities.
Those ‘successful’ individuals would also show respect for themselves by participating in activities that also made them well-liked. Due to the low friction created by their systems-cooperation, combined with their fluid ability to respect themselves as individuals, these people also often enjoy life a lot. That said….
When attempting to define ‘success’ as the graceful use of a system, it is worth remembering that we all function in multiple systems at once. Just because we ace university does not mean we can’t lose our licence, get divorced, go to jail, or get cancer. Life brings us together by eventually humbling whoever we think we are.
These systems we create for our egos to function in are often easier to recognize when we reach their borders or extremes. For instance, in contrast to a successful student’s balanced, systems-based definition of success, we can all likely think of cases on one end of the spectrum, where a student’s tilt toward their individuality made school as difficult for them as they made it for the authorities.
Any student’s genuine and intense need to express their individuality will exist for a reason. Maybe it’s because they are abused, or they have no autonomy at home, or maybe they are an undiagnosed patient or personality type.
A ‘difficult student’ for a system can even be a genius aimed at target that makes us nervous if only because it is outside the current boundaries of that system’s current definitions. That said, even if resistance exists for the best reasons, a lack of conformity in a system can itself be a ‘problem.’
As the stories in Orwell’s 1984 and Animal Farm demonstrate, too much conformity is also dangerous. On the opposite end of the spectrum from the super-independent kids, the extremes are defined by the students that act as any school’s brown-nosers.
Unlike the kids on the rest of the spectrum, this group is often unpopular with a large number of individuals because other students perceive them as having thin and untrustworthy character. They appear to be no one consistently, simply because they are always slaving to suit or manipulate some individual or system.
Teachers also often notice the attempts to manipulate their feelings as an individual and their resulting disrespect will often be counter-productive to the brown-nosing student.
Troublemakers refuse to extend authority. Brown-nosers give it insincerely. Either way, if any individual or authority does not feel respected it will respond negatively to that. This is a useful fact to remember.
As the traffic and school examples demonstrate, we can vastly improve our lives by raising our awareness of how thought-based frameworks for society work. We may not always agree with those frameworks all the time, so as we move forward what we need most is an awareness of our individual needs, balanced against the genuine needs of our society.
By seeing the thought-based structures around us for what they really are, and by being conscious about where our individuality should supersede our citizenship, we can often navigate our way to a smoother life both inside and outside of society.
Following a serious childhood brain injury Scott McPherson unwittingly spent his entire life meditating on the concepts of thought, consciousness, reality and the self. This made him as strange to others as they were to him. Seeing the self-harm people created with their own over-thinking, Scott dedicated part of his life to helping others live with greater awareness. He is currently a writer, speaker and mindfulness instructor based in Edmonton, AB, where he still finds it strange to write about himself in the third person.