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  • Writer's pictureDoug Weiss

Our Aspirational Selves

Updated: Jan 25, 2021

The other day I read an article about consciousness that speculated early humans engaged in a dialog with an inner ‘voice’ they believed came from a source other than their own minds. According to the theory advanced in the article, the thought process was experienced as a kind of question-and-answer refrain, the self acting as interrogator and the externalized voice as respondent. It is hard for me to wrap my own mind around this construct but it did lead me to some speculation.

Our connection with reality—that is our ability to discern what is real, provable, and of consequence in our lives has become increasingly burdened by the growing complexity of the world in which we live. The more we learn about the universe it seems the more confused we become about what to believe. Many question the news, heretofore reliable sources of truth and scientific fact, reject evidence that seems incontrovertible and prefer elaborate conspiracy theories and conjecture to critical thinking. Modern man, it seems, is afflicted with a form of disassociation not unlike our ancient forbears. Perhaps this would have been a natural progression but denial of science, mistrust of heretofore credible sources, and indulgence in magical thinking on many levels has certainly been an instrument of political diversion and can only be viewed as an intentional effort to undermine rational thinking in order to sow confusion and abet a demagogic agenda.

I cannot hope to address in any depth what constitutes consciousness in a brief post such as this, even were I equipped to do so. But I can offer a few established insights as they bear on the question of self-awareness. One is our ability to distinguish the self as separate and apart from others. Typically, the emergence of the ego, the I, occurs in early childhood and progresses as our observations, experience and external input mature. At some point most people have some relatively fixed perception of themselves, ideally one that is subject to some degree of amendment as we gain further experience and insight through our interactions and introspection.

For some, the self is not so fixed, in fact there is an alternate self—one I would describe in positive terms as an aspirational self, but in many cases it is a far less benign. Not that long ago, we regarded those who could not distinguish between the real self and the alternate self as suffering from a mental disorder. But increasingly we see examples of such thinking in abundance. Perhaps it is a rejection of or dissatisfaction with the self—or a response to a chaotic, scary, or overly complex world, but whatever the cause, it seems many people have lost the ability to see themselves objectively. They have transmuted into beings that are more avatar than human.

We can observe this behavior in many different settings and particularly in various social media. Instagram and TikTok for example offer countless opportunities to alter one’s image, quite literally photo-shopping reality into idealized projections. The verbal analog of such projection takes the form of hyper fictionalized statements and anecdotes published in Facebook and Reddit, among other social media in which the authors assume ‘voices’, often extreme, wrathful, avenging, aggressive, and in other ways self endowed with mystical, or supra human understanding. The ability to project a persona on the Internet offers an outlet for repressed emotions, including hostile and abundantly anti-social projections.

Conspiracy mongers are a particular strain, accreting sought after and projected power through manipulation of others. As an example, the current Pandemic and efforts to slow its progression have given rise to a kind of counter hero narrative in which nurses and doctors are perpetrators of a vast global hoax, while those who refuse to wear masks, practice social distancing, reject vaccines or take other reasonable steps are elevated in their comments and actions as the wolves and the awakened—heroic in their rejection and elevated above the ‘sheep’ as they describe those who follow precautions.

Political gatherings attract their own brand of collective aspiration—a sense of belonging to a superior group, a cognoscenti endowed with a special relationship to a politician and their cause. Wrapping themselves in flags, wearing t-shirts or hats –some of which depict images inspired by iconic video games and movies, members of these cults find validation and relief from their real selves in their aspiration, one that so often takes the form of dominance over others. What lies at the heart of this behavior is nothing more or less than anger and resentment with life as it is—and a desire to obtain a change through the subjugation of any and all who do not conform with their acquired point of view, by violence, rhetorically and in fact.

It would be easy to dismiss such thinking as delusional or as some kind of mass mental health issue. Sadly, it is more complicated. Too many have come to believe that transformation, change in circumstances and relief from perceived ills can be had by magical means. We are who we are and accepting that reality is a starting point for achieving the kind of improvement most of us desire. To be at peace, to find contentment we must first accept ourselves—not the aspirational beings we project but our flawed and fragile selves. We cannot become someone else, certainly not by doctoring our images, our personae or our voices, but only by being the best versions of ourselves as we truly are.

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