Discover more from A Memoir Worth Writing
🪟 6 - The tyranny of socialisation
Frame & Axiom #6: On the theatrical nature of man.
Table of contents
The tyranny of socialisation
I can hardly claim any credit for my drive to write a book. It is just that the narratives that have been presented most potently to me happen to be that of the timeless writers. Hence, gripped, I have sought to emulate the legacy of those who come before. In many ways, my internal voice is only an echo, a ghost of the legends, a compass reflecting the ideals that have captivated it. But I am sure even those legends who came before were captivated by certain ideals themselves. Who am I aside from my ideals? Who am I aside from that which advances me socially? I have found that nothing, and no one, is well and truly original. I, we, really only seek to make other stories our own. What then is truly authentic? Or is the authenticity paradigm simply wishful thinking?
For this axiom, I will draw primarily from my own well of experience, reflect on my development, and touch on some of my personal struggles. Let me now start to revisit my own history through my mind’s eye.
The tyranny of socialisation
By María Medem for The New York Times (Source)
As a child, from the ages of 6 to 14, I grew up extremely high in extraversion. One could reasonably conclude that I was a living ball of pure energy, with a battery rechargeable by spending time with others. It is difficult to know exactly why that was the case. Perhaps it was in part due to being the youngest in the family, in part an overcorrection for the introversion of my household, or a combination of a whole myriad of potential reasons. But perhaps not everything requires explanation.
On top of being maximally sociable, it did not help that as a child I was fairly “adorable” and “talented” (not my words). Adorable, since I always looked young for my age, and hence over time found ample drive to compensate for my physical immaturity in the realm of talents. That sowed the seeds for an archetype I sought to maintain — that of the prodigy. From the age of 9, I took on the dream of training to become a professional badminton player. I say “took on”, because the dream was more a product of my family’s leading than my own initiation, but the drive to keep it going stemmed from my unconscious will to the archetypal prodigy. I was also for a long time an active (and fairly decent) football player, this time a product of my schoolmates’ leading. Hence, I was more athletic than others my age. More skilled, as someone who trained seriously most days in a week, and more ambitious, having an active dream to work towards. Also, more musical! From the age of 8, I was trained as a musician to help fill the under-resourced roles in my family church’s worship band. I was first taught drums by my older brother, and then learned more instruments as I was needed to fill in those capacities. I leaned further and further into the world of music, encouraged by the validation that lay in my ability and presence onstage, but the seeds really sprouted when I came to feel the social weight of being able to play four instruments. To play one or two ‘cool’ ones competently, later to tinker with the sound systems, then to produce and create decent music from scratch, and also to direct a band — what a social rarity to be both athletic and musical at once! It supported my feeling of adequacy, of social importance, which I had no choice but to lean into. I say I have “no choice” because I was not yet old enough to be self-examining. Everything was still outward-looking, a simple matter of social approval and belonging. At such young ages, all we can do is look outwardly. It is as if only the social world exists, as facilitated by the force of social approval — in which I was thriving. The thing is, when one comes to have an overgrowth in the world of outward things, something becomes imbalanced as he becomes self-aware, and hence unconscious mazes are generated for his future self to deal with. Why else do those child celebrities, actual prodigies, tend to grow up with such deep complexes?
So the consistent droves of attention and social validation brought my sense of confidence, of importance, to superficial levels. So much that words of affirmation started to not surprise me as a child, it was rather the absence of it that did! The combination of unbridled extraversion and sense of importance was one I leaned fully into, and so it rooted deeply, as a mustard seed grows under a recurring loop of water, air and sunlight in fertile soil. Of course, all children grow up as purely social creatures. I have never met a truly self-aware child, and I imagine that would be quite frightening. But my superficial sense of self-importance corresponded to a reliance I cultivated on a certain social standing. Being a prodigy of sorts was how I grounded my self-esteem relative to others my age, and hence thought myself worthy of belonging. Of course, it was never something I mentioned explicitly or even thought, but I held a great deal of self-importance. I could use the word ‘self-esteem’ if I want to frame this story in my favour, or ‘pride’ if I want to be realistic. I had found a great measure of pride in accumulating too many skillsets for my age. I was what I could do, in other words.
Shuffling through my stages of life, I observe how I have always been unconsciously driven by this will to the ideal self that is for me, that of the archetypal prodigy, as a measure of my own sense of worth. The drive to be superior to others in capability, and earlier than others. I chased the world of business and stacked a professional skillset as a teenager, becoming a freelance designer and cultivating a keen eye for business. Now as an adult, I chase the world of intellect and wisdom! If it seems it is too early for me to be writing all of this, it is because I have always been too early for everything. My conscious will means sincerely, for instance, for this project to be everything I have written in the preface. My conscious side often means sincerely, but I have to admit that part of my unconscious is incentivised by certain things I typically do not like to acknowledge, that my will to write is also a matter of social differentiation and the ascent up the hierarchy of the intellect. It desires nothing less than the highest hills, the deepest thoughts, the most articulate stories.
Room in New York (1932) by Edward Hopper (Source)
It is only fairly recent that I have grown to be more mellow and drawn inward. To necessarily require withdrawal into the self whenever with a large crowd or in extended periods of socialisation, perhaps a simple overcorrection on my part from my crowd-worshipping days of yore. I have found a refuge solely within, in my mind a bottomless well of incomparably rich experience. So if I were to attempt an answer to the question posed earlier: Who am I aside from what I can do? Who am I aside from that which advances me socially? It is in my capacity to simply be for being’s sake. It is the retreat into the inward, into that which is maximally detached from the tainting of the social stimulus. To be for anything other than pure being’s sake is to touch the realm where the all-consuming forces predisposed with socialisation dwell. That is in part why solitude is so refreshing. It is a refuge.
Still, there are lasting repercussions for a childhood of misplaced self-respect, a grounding that loses its footing once one becomes conscious of a self for the self’s sake. If only one could simply rewrite their own code! And yet... I have only gone so infinitesimally far in personifying the prodigy. I feel deeply for those actual prodigies who live their young lives solely in the limelight, with an endless wellspring of validation from the great masses! It is an overgrowth of the greatest magnitude towards the world of the outward things. I feel for them and the impossible maze they have to navigate once they become truly self-conscious. It is not a simple matter to steer the will from the bonds of the social impulse, and to grow towards a direction that is less reverent of them. It was for me a years-long, nuanced endeavour to learn to properly be for being’s sake and to ground a sense of self as far detached as possible from those potent forces of socialisation. I believe most, if not all people go through a similar pattern of life — and hence it is common to have a specific period of life defined by an overcorrection to self-discovery. To percept inwardly is a cultivated lifestyle, but a necessity if we want to transcend the forces that tyrannise us, and live lives that are more than a series of impulses.
In one’s early years, there is that childlike instinct to social validation; to belonging. Then comes the instinct to climb the social hierarchy; to the ideal self. In both cases, they relate to our evolutionary instinct to track our social standing relative to others, a gauge of the degree to which we are socially valued and accepted by other people. This begins in our developmental years when our parents and friends induct us into an ideal character by way of reward and punishment — through the most potent force of approval and disapproval. Is it not fair to say that the sustained disapproval of a child is more harmful even than outright physical harm? At the beginning of socialisation, we are conditioned to subject our personalities to the forces of the nod of a head and a frowning brow. This we never really outgrow. As children, we ever only desire to grow up and become those adults, in order to attain the authority of those who judge, so that we may finally become free!
It is only when we become adults that we realise such games never really end, and that that which judges us never really disappear. When there exists no longer the authority of an individual over our personality, society itself, our vision of the ideal self along with it (usually a socially accepted self), exerts its judgement over us. We do become freer in the sense that our locus of control increases and we have more power to affect — but do we ever really carry ourselves more freely? Our freedom is still subject to the nod of a head and frowning brow, to prune our behaviour to a socially acceptable form, in order that we might come across as worthy compatriots. Socialisation is a game, and the dynamics of socialisation present a gauge for acceptance and belonging. For one, that is the utility of shame. How often have we come off a social interaction only to feel bouts of it? That is when we feel ourselves to not quite be excelling at the game, by unspoken standards! And this is all only vastly exponentiated by the reach of social media.
You may think: Don't be so dramatic. A tyranny? But I might ask: Assuming our basic needs are met, is it not the case that we have our lives driven by the attainment of money, status, talents and such things predominantly because of social reasons? Even the seemingly unegoistical drive to “make a difference in this world” is relative to that of others! We play the game and aim towards competence, lest we become outcasts, and it is easy to see why we are predisposed to play such games from the Darwinian lens of natural selection. Of course socialisation is not the root of all evil, for those who play the social games competently do attain those paradoxically self-actualising rewards of love and friendship (for instance). But games do demand the necessary mechanics, hence we, the players, are measured and ranked on a hierarchy. We instinctively heed these games (and wisely so), measuring ourselves at every moment and aiming towards dominance in the same way the peacock flaunts his multi-coloured tails, and from the same source that leads us to yearn towards validation as children.
Very few things (if anything) are ultimately divorceable from the social hierarchy, that which is relative to others. Hence, I have come to think this to be a reality of human nature — the tyranny of the social factor. Even the seemingly unegoistical derives from mere vanity. The need to flaunt the most impressive coloured tail, sometimes at the expense of others, in order to be recognised as most impressive at the game. To be theatrical is human nature! The world is a stage, and we are all performers. Or as per Ralph Waldo Emerson, it is "a masked ball, where everyone hides his real character, and reveals it in hiding”. What then does it mean to be free, when subjected to such potent drives? Even the wishful free spirit according to Nietzsche draws close lines to a social outcast, or at least non-conformist to the level of ostracisation. Perhaps the only truly free and authentic in this sense are the insane, for they have no regard for a social norm and so fully exhibit themselves like an uninhibited impulse! I have also observed that the elderly, no longer pressed by the need to dominate, tend to be similarly ignorant — a truly admirable trait. In this manner, socialisation tyrannises our nature. Although, the repercussions of avoiding it entirely are probably more harmful, given we are social creatures who find meaning in it. The mechanics it demands is simply a reality of human nature. As per the absurdist Camus: “The tragedy is not that we are alone, but that we cannot be. At times I would give anything in the world to no longer be connected by anything to this universe of men.”
I believe this touches on an inkling of the wisdom behind those common aphorisms to do with comparing oneself. “Compare yourself to who you were yesterday”, for instance, because we are wired to compare ourselves so heavily to the world of the outward. To be in constant pursuit of recognised social dominance, and often unhealthily, since a healthy and virtuous competitive spirit is not the default state of humankind (just ask the primordial man!). We possess a more complete dataset of ourselves over another after all, and it encourages the cultivation of the inward-looking. Hence, it is the wisdom of redirecting our potent instincts towards a more worthy comparative that is, the current state of self, that we might chart our course using a better map.
Even with such a narrative, the reality is we will continue to unconsciously compare ourselves to others. The anecdote then is to be intentional with our associations, the “others” in our vicinity who we compare ourselves to, that we might manipulate our instincts to compare ourselves incessantly towards that which is beautiful, true and good. Ah, this now touches on an inkling of a second common aphorism! It is that of “choose your friends wisely”. Choose your ideal selves wisely — strategically, for yourself to strive towards.
Earlier I posed the question: Given all this, what then is truly authentic? Or is the authenticity paradigm simply wishful thinking? I will write on this in next week’s axiom.
Till next time,