Monday, March 14, 2011

The Interdependence of Selves

I have no idea who first noticed it, but psychologists, philosophers and theologians have written about it: the interdependence of selves, the fact that to seek our own well-being we must seek the well-being of others.

One of the earlier philosophers who did notice this was Spinoza. I’ll quote at length:

Men, I repeat, can wish for nothing more excellent for preserving
their own being than that they should all be in such harmony in all
respects that their minds and bodies should compose, as it were, one
mind and one body, and that all together should endeavor as best they
can to preserve their own being, and that all together should aim at the
common advantage of all. From this it follows that men who are
governed by reason, seek nothing for themselves that they should
not desire for the rest of mankind…”

I’ve heard that passage described as “one of the most remarkable remarks in all [Spinoza’s] writings.

In other words, to seek well-being for ourselves, we have to seek it for others. As such, the difference between “self-centeredness” and “benevolence” doesn’t really exist, because all of us are interdependent on others.

This doesn’t mean we should “live for others.” It means, as a famous saying tells us, “to do unto others as you would have others do unto you.” That Golden Rule exists in some form in all religions.

It is a fact, this is, the nature of reality, that our selves don’t exist independently. They only exist in relation to other selves. You can’t have a husband or wife self without a spouse, or a mother or father self without a child, and so on.

The example I often use about this interdependence concerns the prevention of violence and murder. Nearly all violent assaults and murders, as psychiatrist James Gilligan (and many others) has written, is essentially caused by people feeling humiliated (“The most dangerous man is the one who thinks he is a wimp”). Then they seek revenge, which is an attempt to replace feelings of humiliation with pride.

Gilligan noted, after interviewing many prisoners, that what he was hearing over and over was the story of Cain and Abel: I feel humiliated, so I’ll get revenge by killing you and so restore my self-respect.

If you want to damage or destroy your own well-being, then mock, ridicule, insult, humiliate and disrespect other people. Then, sooner or later, they will get revenge on you.

The ancient Greeks described this process in detail. Hubris originally meant to humiliate someone in public, and they considered it so obscene it was banned from the theater. Hubris was always followed by Nemesis, the goddess of fate and retribution.

Humiliate people, especially in public, and you are fated, sooner or later, to be the object of revenge. To avoid this, treating people with respect (what the Greeks called aidôs) avoids revenge. So, by seeking to preserve their well-being you preserve your own.

For that matter, by humiliating other people, you’re automatically not seeking your own well-being regardless of the effect it has on others. Those who seek to humiliate others have problems with the effects of Hubris on themselves, or what the Bible calls Pride. Both the Greeks and Hebrews considered it a type of insanity, and if you’ll read the Old Testament many of the stories and sayings in it are about the destructive effects of an excessive, grandiose pride.

William Blake once wrote, “Shame is pride’s cloak.” You can just as easily say, “Pride is shame’s cloak,” although I think “humiliation” is more correct, since shame is when you think you deserve it and humiliation when you do not.

Blake’s comment has been observed many times by other people: pride on top, masking feelings of humiliation underneath, although the definition of that kind of pride is more grandiosity, or excessive pride. It’s the kind of excessive pride that seeks to humiliate others: Hubris followed by Nemesis, or pride going before destruction, and a haughty spirit before a fall.

Jane Middelton-Moz, who writes on shame and guilt, believes an excessive amount of both are the cause of almost all dysfunction in families (humiliating people, especially children, can just as easily make them feel guilty as humiliated, although with guilt they seek to hurt themselves, and with humiliation, others).

There are people who do attempt to live as if they are independent of others. They only think they are, and the havoc they wreak in their lives and on the lives of others is incalculable.

They’re called “character disorders” and what all have in common are certain characteristics: it’s your fault, never mine; they believe people exist to serve them, and they try to do this by domination, manipulation and control. All of them are afflicted, in varying degrees, with Hubris, or Pride.

Whether it’s humiliation or undeserved guilt, seeking to impose it on others almost always comes back on you. What goes around comes around, to use a very perceptive American saying.

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

Incorrect! I do not believe you could say "pride is shame's cloak." This is an poor reading which hints at contemporary pop psychology. Some kind of "if a person has shame he will behave pridefully." I don't think this follows.

The point of a cloak is it is something that covers nakedness. So, shame can only be experienced by someone who has pride. This is particularly relevant concerning Christian ideology which relies heavily on shame to achieve its ends. It is Blake's noting of a paradox, to shame someone, they must first feel something for themselves, regard themselves in esteem, hence, they will only wear shame if they already have pride.

The irony of Blake's quote is that pride is a sin, therefore, anyone who expresses shame from sin is actually committing a sin by manifesting pride.

Bob Wallace said...

I am correct. "The cheaper the hood the gaudier the patter." The more the arrogance, the more the humiliation and shame covered up. Pride is shame's cloak.