With the tremendous and increasing sense of divisiveness we are feeling in our country and in the world, I sense there is an alternate wing of development in the human psyche and that is the notion of the individual. It is the desire burgeoning in the collective unconscious to identify less with groups and more as individuals. Therefore, I would to draw your attention to this paragraph, written in 1968, by Robert Pirsig, in Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance:
My personal feeling is that this is how any further improvement of the world will be done: by individuals making Quality decisions and that’s all. God, I don’t want to have any more enthusiasm for big programs full of social planning for big masses of people that leave individual Quality out. These can be left alone for a while. There’s a place for them but they’ve got to be built on a foundation of Quality within the individuals involved. We’ve had that individual Quality in the past, exploited it as a natural resource without knowing it, and now it’s just about depleted. Everyone’s just about out of gumption. And I think it’s about time to return to the rebuilding of this American resource…individual worth. There are political reactionaries who’ve been saying something close to this for years. I’m not one of them, but to the extent they’re talking about real individual worth and not just an excuse for giving more money to the rich, they’re right. We do need a return to individual integrity, self-reliance and old-fashioned gumption. We really do. I hope that in this Chautauqua some directions have been pointed to.
What does individual worth mean? In Pirsig’s terms, it means becoming a person who makes individual, personal Quality decisions, and approach every aspect of their lives with Quality as a guide.
In the Gumption Chautauqua, which I addressed in my last blog, it is someone who learns how to let Quality guide his train, and the way to do this is to learn how to handle the “gumption traps” that get in the way of Quality. “Peace of Mind” is the antidote to gumption traps. Like the Zen, “beginner’s mind”, or Viktor Frankl’s noetic, it is the ability to step back and see the big picture, thus drawing yourself out of anxiety, out of ego, away from impatience and boredom and most importantly, out of the rigid value hierarchy that is keeping your heart set on the outcome you have pictured in your head.
Viktor Frankl proposed a similar antidote to this chaos, in that a person who has had the good fortune to have insight has a responsibility to make the highest choice, the choice that would imbue his present circumstances not with happiness, necessarily, but with meaning. What is life asking of us at this moment? What can we do right now to make the situation, no matter how awful, better? There is always something you can do, whether it is giving your last crust of bread to your starving bunkmate or not letting the lure of irritation and projection keep you from seeing someone else’s point of view.
Professor Jordan B. Peterson, who I refer to frequently, has based key components of his philosophy on the divinity of the individual, and frequently advises, and sometimes even desperately pleads for us to recognize the critical problem of allowing group identity to substitute for the individual. Peterson, a scholar of the murderous ideologies of the 20th century, seems to agree wholeheartedly with Pirsig, via Peterson’s YouTube lectures, that changing the world for the better is impossible without becoming a “forthright individual”, one that can lay the foundation for society.
There often comes a time in our own lives when we decide that we can’t do anything to change the past, so we enter therapy. Sometimes addressing past issues is a long process, and to finally make peace with attachment deficits, tragic circumstances, and even abuse may take extensive time to reconcile and work through. However, hopefully in conjunction with doing so, we might remember that the ultimate objective of therapy is to become a stronger, more resilient, more “forthright” person. As Freud said, therapy is meant to free us to work and love, and that freedom is earned through strengthening our capacity to do both effectively and with the ability to withstand the “gumption traps” that stand between us and quality, meaningful relationships and vocations.
In chaotic times like these, we might be tempted to throw therapy out the window and go protest against whatever side we oppose instead, to actively fight an embodiment of “evil”. But think about this tidbit from Peterson – you will know probably 1000 people in your life, and each of them, the same. You are one person away from a million. Now, maybe the best strategy for “changing the world” is to let the good rub off on your neighbor. Stated differently, from Pirsig – “A person who knows how to fix motorcycles…with Quality…is less likely to run short of friends than one who doesn’t.” And of a friend or foe, who is more likely to be influential?