The Modern age has been dominated by the idea of the Individual, and that of ‘Freedom of the Individual’ to pursue happiness, growth, and fulfillment. The entire edifice of Global Capitalism rests on this tantalizing premise. The word Individual has connotations of a single indivisible unit of a group, or society, that cannot be divided further. Are we indivisible, autonomous, and free beings with unique characteristics?
This is what we have been made to believe since our childhood when our parents pointed their fingers towards us and made a repeated sound, which we eventually learnt as our name. We gradually learnt to separate ourselves from our immediate environment and other beings around us. As time went by, as part of the process of ‘individuation’, we were told how different we were from others and how important it was to develop a distinct ‘personality’, ‘opinion’, and ‘expression’ so we would stand out from the crowd.
As humans, we seem to be torn apart by two contradictory directives — the need to ‘belong’ to a group and simultaneously wanting to be ‘distinct’ from a group. Our identities seem to be shaped by tenuously balancing the factors of ‘similarity’ and ‘difference’ as one needed to be both similar to a group and simultaneously different from a group to be perceived as an individual. B was always been troubled by such contradictions. He would sweep such conundrums under the carpet of his consciousness and go about his mundane life until they popped up unexpectedly, begging resolution.
The trouble started rather innocuously, as troubles usually do. B was talking to his friend R over the phone when suddenly R exclaimed, “Hey B, you sound so much like M!” M was a professor and B had been interacting with him closely of late. The irony was that the same Prof. M had remarked to B similarly a few weeks earlier, “You know, you sound so much like Prof. K!”, adding rather reassuringly, “Oh, it’s alright to be influenced.” Prof. K was another common acquaintance in B’s circuit.
B’s wife would often tell B that he laughed a bit like another close mutual friend S. She also confessed that over the years, she had started using some of his favorite phrases and even her tone seemed to have changed subtly to match his. This was believable as B knew how couples resembled each other after years of living together, and how owners began to resemble their pets and vice versa.
The fact was that B was a reasonably good mimic and amused himself by imitating his favorite (and sometimes not so favorite) singers. He did not know that he was unintentionally extending this habit to imitating people around him. Nor was he amused when people pointed this out to him. In fact, he felt mildly irritated. He felt that his very identity was being questioned or threatened in some way.
B wondered if this was just the perception of people around him, that they tended to see whom they ‘wanted’ to see in him, or was there indeed a serious flaw in the constitution of his character that made him appear as a collage of parts — a patchwork quilt, rather than a single indivisible character.
B remembered how every time when he met a stranger, he would try and ‘place’ that person, by associating with some traits of people he knew already. These character associations were like temporary supports, erected till the image got firmer and steadier. He knew that this tendency of seeking the familiar in the unfamiliar was not restricted to him alone. His colleagues were also doing it all the time. It seemed to take almost a semester of interaction with a student before all the ‘familiarizing’ scaffolding fell away and the person took on a distinct, individual character.
Of course, now this character was part of an ever-growing reference-bank of characters against whom new characters would be compared in future. B could understand that this phenomenon of ‘part-association’ was indeed ‘natural’ when dealing with strangers but could not understand why it should happen between people who have known each other for some time. This meant that he must be unconsciously absorbing mannerisms and projecting them unconsciously.
B had read a book on body language and was familiar with ‘sympathetic behavior’. When two people met, depending on how convivial the interaction, one person would unconsciously start imitating the body postures and gestures of the other. If one crossed arms, the other would follow, and if one fussed with hair, the other one would follow suit, and so on. B could understand this happening in a face-to-face interaction. But why on earth would he pick up a mannerism from someone and project them on to a different person on a different occasion? He decided to carry out a private investigation on his Self, seeking answers to these questions:
a: Who all was B trying to imitate unconsciously, and why?
b: What was that essential, original part of B that did not come from others — that rock-like core that was truly B?
c: Was B truly free?
The first question was easy. B was indeed extremely impressionable and seemed to be influenced by several powerful personalities in his life. He saw in all these characters something that he himself did not possess but aspired towards. He absorbed their characteristics subliminally, to fill a perceived sense of lack within him — qualities of Presence, power, intelligence, charm, wit, taste, and sophistication. He had absorbed some other mannerisms, to temporarily to ingratiate himself with their interesting owners, but the impressions had remained long after the interactions were over. Then there were behavior patterns that he had cultivated to blend in and belong — chameleon-like into a group or a setting.
The more B uncovered the collage of layers, the more evident it became to B that his mimicry was not just restricted to superficial mannerisms or gestures. It seemed to extend deeper and even seemed to inform how he dealt with day-to-day situations. It percolated down to his very ‘B’-eing. He had learnt through imitation, not only ‘when’ to be angry, but also ‘how’ to be angry from his parents. As an adult, he was very awkward at making up afterwards simply because he had no good role models to imitate in his childhood. He had modeled himself after his father when it came to expressing disapproval or establishing authority. Where else could he have learnt the sullen frown, the flared nostrils, and the soft icy tone?
He had acquired his cutting sense of humor from one of his favorite uncles, the patient pedantic tone from one of his teachers, the long suffering martyred look from his mother, a business-like tone from one of his previous employers, sarcasm from one of his professors, kindness from an aunt, etc, etc. Even his aspirations, desires, and aversions were hardly original. They were all second-hand and had been recycled countless times before him. Even when he tried to rebel and strike out on his own, he had rebel role models as reference.
B had been constantly play-acting and learning to perfect various roles in life as he went along — how to be a man, son, student, friend, professional, teacher, lover, husband, and so on. For models there were influential friends, relatives, classmates, his seniors, professors, employers, colleagues, and the list went on and on. Apart from real people there were fictional role models too, from myths, books, and films. In addition to R, M, K, S, and N, there were A to Z and more. B was a crowd. This was deeply disturbing. Was B’s self entirely made up of others?
To answer the second question of the essential core, the more he looked within, the more he realized that he was made up like a cabbage rather than a rock. As he went deeper and deeper, peeling layers, he grew more and more frustrated. The promised solid core was nowhere in sight. Instead, he suddenly found himself teetering on the edge and staring down into a deep gaping well that threatened to swallow his very reflection. For a moment B imagined plunging headlong into this void. He stopped himself just in time.
B was frightened out of his wits but was disappointed that he could not take the search to its conclusion. May be someday he would revisit the well of living oblivion and gather enough courage to dive in. For now, it was a relief indeed to return to sanity and to the familiar banal world. However, B he had got an unforgettable glimpse of what he was like inside.
Unlike others, who appeared to be stable like houses or trees, B’s self was more like a tornado that was collecting debris as it careened across the landscape of existence. The ‘visible’ identity of B was all the debris, bits and pieces of impressions and behavior he had gathered along the way — part of a fence here, a branch there, a door here, all swirling around a hungry roaring vortex of emptiness.
This haunting vision of being like a tornado was at once liberating and terrifying for B. It was liberating because he realized he no longer had any control over his own life — neither its direction nor its speed. It also freed him from the tyranny of having to be consistent with his own past. He was free to allow bits of his identities gather as they came along at random and let them drop off on their own when they wanted to. He need not (and could not) grasp or hold on to anything. He need not have fixed ideas of what he was and what he was not. He was free to be a mirror to whatever was around him and be transparent about it.
He had lost, if only temporarily, his anxiety about not being a fixed entity. He was everything and yet nothing. It was this very sense of freedom that was equally terrifying. He felt a dizzying vertigo of motion and stillness — of being at the centre of a fairground carousel while watching the blur of bobbing horses whizzing by on the periphery. He felt his self was fluid, constantly on the move and was being reconstituted every moment.
B knew that the ride would be over, and the horses soon dismantled. Like all tornadoes, this too will eventually lose steam and die; and all that will be left of its existence would be a swathe of destruction and debris. At this point B began to wonder if ‘others’ around him were indeed as stable or fixed as they appeared or was that an illusion too? Perhaps every form of life was but a temporary whirlpool. Forms appeared to be stable on the surface, but they were all spinning at high speeds, while consuming and devouring other forms.
B knew now that the notion of the ‘Individual’ was a myth, and so was the idea of ‘Freedom’. His Body, like everyone else’s, was a by-product of parental genes, programmed to seek security, survival, comfort, pleasure, and reproduction. His Mind, like everyone else’s, was a prisoner — bound within the confines of memories, habitual instincts, desires, labels, roles, and behaviors learnt through mimicry, as demanded by life circumstances, past experiences, and by society.
B thought Arthur Schopenhauer was right when he declared, “Man can do what he wants, but he cannot will what he wills”. The illusion of freedom of the individual is what sustains Global Capitalism as it sanctifies rampant individual greed, and irresponsible consumption as everyone’s birth right. This delusion has eroded the bonds that hold families, communities, and cultures together, leading to a widespread sense of alienation and angst around the world. The all-pervasive on-line media and advertising blitzkrieg promise that only more consumption will make one feel ‘whole’ and fulfilled again, furthering the vicious cycle of discontentment.
The only way out of this maze seems to be for each ‘individual’ to see that their ‘Self’ was indeed plural, fragmented, and dependent on the ‘Other’ — and to make complete peace with that disturbing Truth. For B, the only freedom worth pursuing now was not ‘Freedom of the Individual’ but ‘Freedom From the Individual’.
The first draft of this reflective piece and along with “The Structure of Desire” was written in 2008. A dear friend read them and suggested I study Buddhism. I am glad I took her advice…