Our associations with collective identities are fueled by three primal human fears. These fears are universal. They are a product of our uniquely human brand of consciousness. Joining with collective identities doesn’t completely eliminate our fears, but it allows us to placate our anxieties so that we can get on with life.
The most primal fear – one that arises out of our uniquely human ability to project the future – is the end of our existence. This is not the fear of death, for we have devised ways to temper the feelings that accompany the contemplation of our mortality. Rather, our most primal fear is that of obliteration, the complete elimination of any trace of our ever being here.
We console ourselves about our limited lifespans with notions of an existence beyond our present human form. Heaven, reincarnation, rebirth, uniting with the energy of life and other beliefs help us to cope with our mortality and avoid living with constant dread. In some cases, we make a deliberate effort to leave a “legacy,” assuming that if our names survive for a few decades, or centuries or millennia, that we will somehow be less dead.
It is this fear that spawns our spirituality. It leads us to question where we came from, where we are going, and what is the point of being here at all? Organized religions address this fear. Beginning with the teachings of spiritual sages who may have already worked out answers to our questions, religious institutions then codify those messages, transform helpful spiritual practices into rituals and create a myriad of corporate rules and regulations. They attempt to convince us that, although the original sages were quite capable of discovering the ultimate truth on their own, we cannot do it without an intermediary to interpret the teachings of the sages for us.
Organized religions are indispensable for spreading genuine spiritual teachings among masses of people and assembling like-minded people together to share a divine journey. However, when the teachings of the sages become obscured through institutional interpretations, or when corporate goals and ambitions become more important than individual salvation, or failure to toe the company line results in threats of eternal damnation, then we risk having our individual spiritual needs subjugated to the will of the collective.
The second primal fear is that of isolation. Early in our collective history we joined together for practical reasons relating to survival. Social psychologists tell us that being part of a group is necessary for proper development early in childhood, and the need to belong has long been recognized as a basic human requirement. As we grow older, our fear of isolation – our need to belong – continues and is mostly healthy. We join with our peers, or ethnic groups or social organizations that not only provide healthy contacts with individuals who easily understand us, but who may also benefit us in other areas of our lives.
An extreme need to belong, however, can be destructive in several ways. It can lead to unhealthy relationships. It can result in an over-dependence on the artificial connectedness provided by technology. And, it can lead us to subvert our values to those of the group. When we find ourselves clinging to relationships just to avoid being alone, or becoming part of the herd by suppressing our personal values to favor the incompatible views of the group, then we need to re-assess our need to belong.
We need to determine whether our fear of isolation is masking a more prevalent condition of modern times – are we simply afraid to be alone with ourselves? We live our lives amid the constant stimuli provided by others, or entertainment media, or technology. We are never truly alone, even when no one else is nearby. When we find ourselves in this situation, we need to investigate, internally, why it is that we are so uncomfortable spending time with just ourselves.
Whether it be another subset of humanity, or incessant artificial contact through technology, we need to carefully assess whether our fear of isolation is causing us to live a life with values that are not genuine to us. If so, we need to change direction, or otherwise risk arriving at a point in our lives when we realize that we have not lived authentically; in other words, that we have failed to be true to ourselves.
The third primal fear is that of irrelevance. Having cloaked our anxiety about the inevitability of our mortality, and having satisfied our need to belong, we next seek to be heard. We want to have our opinions valued, to feel that we are important in some sphere of human existence. We seek to avoid being effectively invisible. We may become socially and politically active and, at first, we do this to promote a cause, to improve a social condition or to effect positive change for humanity.
Gradually, though, we may find ourselves relinquishing our ability to define our self-worth from within and, instead, seek confirmation of our value and worth from others. Others do this for us when they validate our opinions, appreciate our skills and talents, and otherwise massage our egos. While the cause or the goal of the political or social group may be paramount at first, we may fall into the trap of slowly subjugating our own values to that of the group – so that we may remain a big cog in an important cause – our cause – the right cause! When this happens, the group becomes more important than the cause, or the message, or the values. This can be seen in the polarization of political parties, and in the violent confrontations between social positions.
Our associations with collective identities are most healthy when we avoid extremes. We can join with other spiritual seekers to share a path or worship together. We can enter into relationships with others to share our lives and help each other through the challenges of life. We can become socially and politically active to effect positive change in the world. But when we allow the group identity to overshadow our personal identity, we run the risk of losing ourselves. As we choose companions to share our path, we must be constantly on guard that we remain on our own path. Otherwise, we will awaken one day and find ourselves deep in the woods, lost and confused.
We are unique individuals and each one of us must answer our fears in our own unique way – in a way that makes sense to us, not in a way that someone else has handed down or forced upon us. Only then can we live our lives in an individual and authentic way.