The Desert of the Real

It was in Raymond Gaita’s book Romulus, My Father that exposed to me an intriguing thought. Romulus, living in an isolated town in Central Victoria, wrote letters to a woman, Lydia, back in his home country of Romania and she responded with the same feelings of affection that he had. His interest in her became so intense that he invited her to be his wife and she accepted. Yet, his deep and unswerving commitment to his principles put him into a state of disarray when Lydia betrayed him and married another man, developing into a madness that Raymond called, “a passion whose force and nature was mysterious and that anyone who came under its sway should be prepared to be destroyed by it.” This romantic love exposed the deeper vulnerability and loneliness he had within and the mysterious force is the powerlessness he felt for this isolation where a panic begins to manifest, so much so that insanity became the safer option than allowing the anxiety to continue and Romulus shut down, a man of resolute principles and dedication to his duty grew disillusioned before he gave up and admitted himself into an institution.

Kant explains the possibility of transcendence from learned knowledge, the ability to occupy thoughts that are independent from our experiences of them, an autonomy where we contribute to our own understanding of moral principles. Our cognition as children develops through conditioning that articulates the relationship between you and the external world through ‘good’ or ‘bad’ behaviour and we are automatically prompted to react with the same fight or flight response when confronted with a problem. It is an automaton mode of being or relation that is inherently limited and consciousness develops as our brain matures that enables one to become conscious or self-aware. Synaptic pruning occurs in all humans that sheds neural connections that are formed in the brain during childhood in order to make room for a more refined capacity for adult use. The young adult begins to experience conscious impressions of objects that enables him to experience a self.

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We become conscious of ourselves and this self-awareness lacks the solidity that we have in our orientation with the external world, a ‘nothingness’ between our mode of being and our interconnection within an object-oriented world. There are a number of barriers such as childhood trauma, lack of education or adequate guidance such as problematic parenting that disassociates this natural engagement with our own cognitive abilities. The social and religious constructs that are entrenched in our environment conditions one to respond against any deviation from the rules as ‘bad’ (fight or flight) that impoverishes our capacity to reach self-hood.

 The experience of independence and self-realisation becomes fragmented as we are not prepared to acknowledge the responsibility for our decisions and this is further thwarted by feelings of anxiety that deters us from proceeding down the rabbit hole of consciousness. It is like – for a moment – the plug in your brain that treated your existence as a safe, virtual reality awakens to see that reality is, well, real. The emotional response to this realisation is anxiety and it is anxiety because we simply do not know how to be ourselves. There is no language in this independence because we have never used it before and so we cannot explain and articulate our perceptions and identification to our experiences. This is referred to biblically as being born again, the path which is narrow and few are able to find it.

We naturally want to avoid anxiety and are compelled to things that give us happiness. Ignorance is devoid of these emotional responses. Like Romulus, we either retreat to insanity – a realm where one gives up entirely any cognition or responsibility that thus removes the pain of the emotions – or one completely conforms to a belief-system, society or even a person and in effect becoming what Hegel would call a slave where they lose their ability to feel because they get others to think for them. To avoid retreating, familial support can enable a gradual move toward transcendence or independent thinking however reliance on this is ambiguous particularly with the fact that in Australia 132 divorces occur every day and 1 in 4 children are exposed to domestic violence. As language is a tool that enables us to articulate and communicate our understanding, education becomes the primary necessity for building adequate knowledge that explains this ‘unknown’ self hood.

A person who has not been completely alienated, who has remained sensitive and able to feel, who has not lost the sense of dignity, who is not yet “for sale”, who can still suffer over the suffering of others, who has not acquired fully the having mode of existence – briefly, a person who has remained a person and not become a thing – cannot help feeling lonely, powerless, isolated in present-day society. He cannot help doubting himself and his own convictions, if not his sanity. He cannot help suffering, even though he can experience moments of joy and clarity that are absent in the life of his “normal” contemporaries. Not rarely will he suffer from neurosis that results from the situation of a sane man living in an insane society, rather than that of the more conventional neurosis of a sick man trying to adapt himself to a sick society. In the process of going further in his analysis, i.e. of growing to greater independence and productivity, his neurotic symptoms will cure themselves.

As it is a cognitive disposition that we each possess, we are not capable of retreating without forming an imagined meta-narrative, an abstract representation of reality that becomes an apparatus to form an identity within the margins of something imagined and that can be rationalised. Our temporal and spatial representations become linked to a faux ‘unity’ with our environment that conceptualises our identity as homogeneous and timeless, similarly like what Romulus felt when he fell in love with a picture and a letter. In romantic love, we form a symbiotic attachment as a way to possess our beloved and we imagine that this possession – which stems from that inner anxiety – is actually a real connection by framing it within a meta-narrative of true love and other imagined ideas drawn by social constructs and further fed by a false authenticity. It is a self-defence mechanism that enables us to experience the world without being overwhelmed by the emotional impact honesty and authenticity can have, which explains why people become very defensive when this fictional meta-narrative is openly discussed. Social constructs give validity to the imagined narrative and the more people do the same thing, the more real the experience becomes since there is a shared acceptance of this imagined transaction.

Love is something that we give. It is a process that is only enabled once we reach that state of transcendence because authenticity – which is a state of mind or how we interpret our perceptions and experiences – is necessary since love can only be real when we express it through this self-hood. That is, when our motivations and intent are no longer tainted by these imagined meta-narratives but expressed in synthesis or unity within ourselves. Without this, our engagement with the external world is about receiving – where people present themselves like a Hegelian slave by adhering to socially constructed archetypes – where they imagine they are connected to society – and yet there is really no inner connectedness. We are prompted or motivated by the need to be recognised by others and by adhering to social constructs we receive recognition. There is no giving. It is all about wanting. It is essentially a deep vulnerability and these superficial connections based on how well we perform socially only further alienates one from this self-awareness.

We each have layers of cognition similarly to the Freudian triptych between the Ego, Id and Superego, and Bandura explains these stages of cognitive development (coming of age) where consciousness, the unconscious, and our imagination structures our responses through socially learned expectations. Our motivations are filtered and controlled by probable reactions and rewards that we will receive from others. This is why people lie as though they are protecting themselves from punishment, just as much as these meta-narratives protect one from the pain of anxiety since our emotional responses can be just as unpleasant as the threat of punishment.

Heidegger concludes that this anxious response is causally rooted to fear, the fear of something threatening and that compels us to lie and to be self-defensive. The cure is to overcome this fear, to have the courage to be actively engaged with your inner self and accepting the responsibility you have for this cognitive freedom and independence. Moral consciousness suddenly switches directions; it is about developing your own awareness and deciding your own moral standards where you are motivated by an authentic connectedness with your own being. One transcends the narrowness of the imagined narratives and the self-defensive responses to make decisions independently and thus become aware of our cognitive faculty and the possibilities of knowledge a priori and thus reach our epistemic capacity by overcoming all the barriers. It is a type of love for oneself, a belief or faith in your ability.