The collective ego imperils us as individuals if we permit the standards of the group to become our own standards without any critical evaluation as to whether they are congruent with our personal values, or even relevant to our own individual lives. We begin to accept the beliefs of the group as absolute truth. We judge ourselves against the norms of the group and either find ourselves lacking, or lose our individuality in the process. Our personal goals become subordinated to those of the larger segment. The collective ego replaces personal responsibility: the responsibility not only for our own actions, but for our own thoughts as well.
Because the collective ego does our thinking and directs our actions for us, at some point in our lives most of us experience an underlying feeling of malaise, of non-fulfillment. One day – if we are fortunate – we examine this feeling and realize that we feel small and unimportant, as though our very existence is irrelevant. Once, we felt we were the center of the universe. But there comes a time when we realize that our absence, though it may be momentarily lamented, will not mean much in the grand scheme of human affairs now, or in history. The greatest fear in our daily affairs with the collective ego is rejection, and it is acceptance we seek by becoming a recognized member of the collective. But our primal fear as individuals is that of being forgotten, of not being “special.” And so, we despair.
From time to time, most of us sense a general uneasiness, an inner unrest. We realize that there is something that we’d like to change about ourselves – perhaps something big, perhaps something small. Some ignore this yearning, but most make a few cosmetic, surface changes and return to their usual lives. A smaller number, either as a result of personal crisis or because a lifetime of chasing and achieving success has not resulted in the inner peace and happiness that was expected, take the time to stop and examine their reasons for wanting change and discover something much more significant, something usually hidden. Most of us sleepwalk through life, busying ourselves with the mundane, distracting ourselves with the quest for success, unaware that we are in the midst of despair.
Most of us despair, though only a relatively few know it. To the extent that we realize it, despair is a good thing. It is “the self’s longing to be itself.” Despair is like pain; it is a sign that something is not right. Without pain, many of us could be dead, but we do not like pain. We avoid it. It makes us uncomfortable and interrupts our fantasy that everything is perfect. But everything is not perfect, and despair tells us so.
Some ignore their despair and live, as Thoreau noted, “lives of quiet desperation.” They re-immerse themselves in worldly affairs, society’s goals. Or they escape into the mindless diversions provided by the media or the ever-quickening pace of technology that provides constant connectivity and artificial connectedness. Some escape into drugs, alcohol, hazardous behaviors or other destructive activities. This results from the inherent conflict between needing to be ourselves and fearing rejection by the group.
But, it is not rejection we fear; it is annihilation. Nor is it acceptance we seek; it is affirmation of our importance. Our fear is that we are unimportant and that our lives will be meaningless. This fear manifests into a need to belong– a need for acceptance by others — and we come to depend on others to validate our self-worth. Such validation is unreliable though, and basically unsatisfying, because it fails to address the root cause of our malaise. We ignore the reality that all happiness, and all feelings of self-esteem, come from within. We seek validation from others as a confirmation of our self-worth but not everyone will validate us, nor will others continue to validate us once they initially do so, no matter how much we hope that they will.
Despair is the absence of hope, and hope is one of the most negative and destructive of all feelings. Hope implies that anything beneficial that can happen to us is entirely outside of our control. Hope tells us that for anything good to come about, it must arise from external circumstances. Hope implies that we are powerless. Despair tells us that we are in control. Something is wrong; otherwise, we would not despair. Whatever we’ve done, we haven’t done enough, or we’ve done too much, or we’ve been doing the wrong thing. But we are responsible, not our genes, nor our parents, nor our social conditioning. We are responsible. We are in charge of our lives, and despair tells us that it is time to change course.
Kierkegaard wrote that “every human being is destined to become himself.” When we realize that we have not fulfilled this destiny, we despair. Such despair is universal. Such despair cannot be eliminated through the herd mentality perpetuated by the collective identity. The herd is controlled through inertia. Change begins with the individual.