I am very fond of reading commencement speeches at universities. One of the most impactful commencement speeches that I read was by David Foster Wallace. In his 2005 commencement speech at Kenyon College, he told a story,
There are these two young fish swimming along and they happen to meet an older fish swimming the other way, who nods at them and says “Morning, boys. How’s the water?” And the two young fish swim on for a bit, and then eventually one of them looks over at the other and goes “What the hell is water?”
In our flourishing context, just like the fish were not aware of the water in which they were swimming, most of us are not aware of the false narratives in our culture that impact our behavior unconsciously and impede our flourishing. The reason we do not continue to flourish is because these dominant false narratives lead to Means and Ends Inversion or MEI. MEI is a phenomenon where we confuse something that ought to be a means to helping us realize LLP, as our ends. Money is the simplest example of means. We need money as a resource for a good life, but for most people, it becomes their end goal. MEI results when we live compulsively and not consciously.
Why do we live compulsively: The socialized mind
The phrase “socialized minds” has been attributed to Robert Kegan of Harvard University, who built on previous research and theories that proposed five stages of minds. We all go through these stages depending on our age. When we are at a stage with a socialized mind(around age 18 onwards), we draw our meaning, purpose, and scripts from what may be the dominant yet could be false narratives at social and national levels. Human beings are designed to learn through imitation. We imitate whosoever we think we respect. Essentially, we become accustomed to rules, rituals, and customs that we blindly conform to. We internalize these rules by creating narratives around them, which become accepted and followed by society. And these meta-narratives find their way into our subconscious that we use to create values, ideas, and meaning to live by and can take us in the opposite direction of our intentional core of loving, learning and playing. These are constantly reinforced by religious or economic or political institutions as we have a desire to conform to societal norms and do not have the knowledge or the strength to swim against the tide (till we reach the fourth order of mind in Kegan’s framework which majority of us never do).
The socialized mind stops us from living consciously. Our decision-making becomes compulsive and not conscious. Instead of the triple helix of loving, learning and playing as a path to flourishing, we chase the triple helix of money, power, and fame. We basically sleepwalk through our lives, sedated by the prescriptions of society and its institutions.
False narratives are an assumption of what we want reality to look like instead of acknowledging what it does look like. We use limited one-sided evidence to justify the beliefs. It can be easier to place the “blame” on an external entity, rather than taking responsibility ourselves. These human reactions to reality have been happening since the start of recorded history. The history of most religions and world politics are full of manufactured narratives to drive an agenda.
The danger of false narratives is it stops us from realizing our inherent interconnectedness. It limits our understanding of the world, and distracts us from flourishing.
To flourish, we must recognize the false truths we carry.
HOW DO I KNOW IT’S A FALSE NARRATIVE?
False narratives often align with your own beliefs, which makes it difficult to distinguish between reality and your perception. It is human nature to gravitate toward explanations that align to our false perceptions, and ignore those that do not. The internet and social media are filled with such narratives reinforcing our perception. There are common areas we encounter false narratives daily- our views of Beauty, Money, and aspects of Self-Worth.
EXAMPLES OF FALSE NARRATIVES
We all suffer from the illusion that we are the center of the World. Everything in our own immediate experience supports this conviction. The truth is that we are all interconnected deeply and broadly. Extreme manifestation of individualism as witnessed in the West is the foundational false narrative coming in the way of true flourishing.
As Robert Wright in his book Evolution of Gods says:
“Our culture is dominated by an ethos of individualism. It is our core cultural value: we are probably the most individualistic culture in human history. Of course, there is much that is good about individualism: the value it gives to individual lives, the importance of individual rights, individual choice and opportunity. It emphasizes freedom, and freedom is one of the gifts of God. But individualism as a core value leads to a way of seeing life that obscures the enormous effect of social systems on the lives of people. Of course, individual responsibility matters, but none of us is really self-made. We are also the product of many factors beyond our control”
In her book Eastern Body, Western Mind: Psychology and the Chakra System As a Path to the Self, Anodea Judith writes that, not only in America but across Western Culture, our prevailing relational myth is that of the broken home. On a mythological, archetypal level, we are children of divorce. The consequence for the children of this Divine divorce — all of us — is a culture with separation at its center. We experience ourselves as separate from Nature, separate from each other, and separate from God. We separate each other by race, class, gender, age. Rugged individualism is our culture’s core value. Success is defined as “pulling yourself up by your own bootstraps” and “rising above the crowd.” Life is a competition . It’s us against the world.
And as Rabbi Jonathan Sacks said:
North Americans are so used to the extreme individualism promoted by capitalist values that we rarely think of ourselves as having responsibility for each other.
But that is precisely what is needed–an ethos of responsibility to care for each other and the earth, central to Judaism, but a challenge to the ethos of “looking out for number one” and the Anglo-Saxon legal tradition which rejects any legal responsibility to protect or care for others.
The impact of this Individualism is beautifully summarized by David Brooks
“In other cultures, people are formed by and flourish within institutions that precede individual choice—family, ethnic heritage, faith, nation. But these are precisely the sorts of institutions that the culture of individualism eats away at, because they are unchosen and therefore seen as not quite legitimate – The Second Mountain (p. 11). Random House Publishing Group. Kindle Edition
Contrast with the UBUNTU concept in S Africa. “My humanity is bound up in yours – for we can only be human together” – DESMOND TUTU
Capitalism as modern day religion
Our main insight is that Capitalism as a means can be the biggest asset for humanity but Capitalism as an end can wreak havoc on the majority of the world’s population. Capitalism, represented by its biggest institution-free markets, is the greatest social technology ever invented for solving human problems.
The biggest illustration is China. By adopting Capitalism in a communist society China has uplifted over 700 million people out of poverty. Yes Inequalities have increased and the latest campaign of President Xi with the goal of prosperity of all is the response to the side effects of capitalism. I am a Capitalist when it comes to “means” but a socialist when it comes to “ends”.
As American entrepreneur Nick Hanauer said:
“But when Capitalism is an end, unconstrained by social norms or democratic regulation, markets inevitably create more problems than they solve. Climate change, the great financial crisis of 2008 are two easy examples”
Pursuit of Self Interest
In Western society, the dominant narrative about human nature has been the idea that we are fundamentally self-interested. It’s considered to be so axiomatic that we are not even aware of it.
As Jeremy Lent has said in his book:
“The Neoliberal Era was constructed on a myth of the selfish individual as the foundational for values. As Margaret Thatcher famously declared, “There’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” This belief in the selfish individual has not just been destructive of the community—it’s plain wrong. In fact, from an evolutionary perspective, a defining characteristic of humanity is our set of prosocial impulses—fairness, altruism, and compassion—that cause us to identify with something larger than our own individual needs.”
Children learn this culture of competitive individualism at their school as in many ways the the rewards are for are based on individual achievement.
As President Clinton said:
“Someone else is winning, you’re losing. You can only win if someone else loses. It’s fun in sports but bad in an interdependent world.”
Often Adam Smith’s work is quoted in support of this selfish orientation. But in his own words
“How selfish soever man may be supposed, there are evidently some principles in his nature, which interest him in the fortunes of others, and render their happiness necessary to him, though he derives nothing from it, except the pleasure of seeing it”.
My first Job in India was at Unilever. We were known as the best management team in the country. Money never entered in the equation and we were a very highly motivated and hardworking team.My competitor were my best friends and remain so even today
The idea of the “selfish gene”, is often quoted to justify selfishness of individuals. However evolutionists are touting the role of cooperation and altruism evolving via selfish genes! Evolutionary biologists such as Elizabet Sahtouris have concluded that without intra- and inter-species cooperation, a purely selfish and competitive species is likely to die out.When we look at the progress we have made in science and technology, it is clear that cooperation and not selfishness is the cause of these giant strides of humanity. If we extend this cooperation in social arena we will have a flourishing society