In Robert Sheckley’s 1953 story, “The Specialist”, a disabled spaceship lands on Earth to find a Pusher in order to complete the crew of their ship. It seems that interstellar travel is enabled by a confederation of different life forms and humans play a key role – they “push” thus causing the ship to travel faster than light. They try to convince a person they capture that “pushing” is the essence of their nature. Of course the person thinks it’s insane. But when the confederation begs him to try, he discovers that he is indeed what they claim and the ship moves away at eight times the speed of light and still accelerating.
In our everyday life we assume we are the collection of roles we play, the interests we have and the relationships we are part of. We know that even in the interstices of the most fascinating activities, sexual energy and interest can be awakened and flood our consciousness. We experience a panoply of welcome and unwelcome feelings in rapid fire succession. Civilization developed as a mechanism to keep the expression of dangerous feelings under control.
Wisdom literature, especially the collected aphorisms of the ancient and pre-modern world paint a picture of our deep nature. One of the most intellectually refreshing activities is to pick up a book like “The Anchor Book of Latin Quotations” translated and edited by Nobert Guterman or “The Viking Book of Aphorisms edited by W. H. Auden and Louis Kronenberger.” Wikiquotes and other websites are also rich sources although not as intelligently selected and organized.
At a meta-level, one of the most profound insights that emerges from reading these distilled nuggets of truth is that for the most part we humans tell ourselves (and others) one thing and feel something completely different. It’s not simple hypocrisy. Rather, it’s the need to maintain a consistent self-image as part of a society whose values one must integrate in order to be accepted and thrive. This disjunction between our everyday mindset and our deeper natures creates a subtle tension that often results in somatization. To trick ourselves even more, we create a collection of internalized ‘stories’ that we accept as a true picture of the world. When one of these stories proves itself to be a complete fabrication, the shock of recognition is often so powerful, we turn away and refuse to face the reality.
Much of literature concerns itself with what happens when our illusions get shattered: the husband never who never did love his wife, the attentive children who were only interested in an inheritance or the neighbor who was not the charming, cheerful fellow we thought, but someone who kept a woman prisoner in his basement.
Science has been pushing boundaries in the attempt to answer the question “who are we?” Often, these boundaries are the fault lines of deep societal injunctions against speaking the hateful truth. What is IQ and how does it vary among individuals and groups? Is the tendency to impulsive violence genetic? In what ways do men and women differ? Is homosexuality indistinguishable from heterosexuality? Why are women attracted to violent men? Is feminism simply the reaction of women to an ugly modernity that neutered men?
T.S. Eliot said that humanity cannot bear too much reality. As more truth gets revealed every day, established institutions push back very hard against the exposure and try to suppress it. A guaranteed way to lose one’s job, terminate one’s career and be cast into the outer darkness is to publically utter a forbidden truth. However, when truth remains underground and laws and rules are made that are based on lies, the social contract is corroded. Ultimately, the very foundation of a society can collapse because of an unspoken but powerful injunction against telling obvious truths.
So who are we? We are a shifting reality that sub rosa is becoming clearer and clearer every day. One day perhaps the classic literature of the past, the poems and epics of the ancient world and the sayings of sages will be accepted for the truth and wisdom they contain and the pretty lies that fill the air will be driven into the darkness from which they emerged.