June 15, 2009 | Leave a Comment

Category: Society

It has been estimated that as human beings culturally evolved over the last 50,000 years or so, radical changes occurred very early in that process.  The river of culture’s evolution began deep and wide.  Many of these changes have been hypothesized to have occurred in relation to language.  It is difficult to discuss cultural evolution without discussing language and its effects.  Here I want to focus on one specific current or manifestation of these changes, community size.

Six years ago I reached 50 years old, the first of my friends from high school and earlier to reach that milestone.  I then noticed in my character the tenacious hold of a specific feature, a characteristic familiar to me my whole adult life, but a feature that then seemed anachronistic or out of place.  I am referring to a deep craving for recognition–the seeking of achievement followed by accolades.  I’d always been driven by my imagining the rewards of affirmation following success.  As the years unfurled, this craving looked more and more like the exhibition of a wound, as opposed to just being part of the baggage of being male or a male member of this culture.  Nevertheless, it is a wound that sometimes requires attention.  It can be mentally distracting, this craving to succeed and have success noted and affirmed.

This drive would not be considered deleterious or even self destructive except that I sometimes interpret success to be recognition by my community, and there are times I feel my community to be the world.  You see, I don’t identify with being an American as much as I feel I am a member of this world.  I seek a communication that I’ve done something good, that I’ve served the world.  Obviously, this is not a particularly well-formed goal.  If my self esteem is connected to succeeding at this goal, which it indeed has been, then I clearly have a problem.  Getting the world to like me is pretty tough.  But I am not alone.

I’ve noticed since I hit 50 that many of the males that I’ve been closest to, men’s whose inner thoughts I hear on a regular basis, are experiencing similar feelings and drives.  When I was younger, perhaps 30 years ago, my own ambitions seemed far more inflated than my friends’.  Not so at this stage of my life.  More and more frequently I’ve noted that what my friends seek to accomplish is nothing less than a vast fame for that specific task that they are so focused on.  These goals vary from achieving political office, artistic accomplishment and business success to writing fame.  Predictably enough, very few of the women I know seem tormented by the same drives.  And, though my male friends are intensely aware of the gap between what they seek to accomplish and the position that they now hold, they are only vaguely self aware of the situation.  A repressed existential disappointment pervades our efforts.  Craving recognition, we deny it.

It is no mistake that a sense of existential dissociation has rooted itself in our Western psyches in the last 150 years.  No doubt there are many sources for this malaise.  One specific cause is that we carry within our 50,000-or-more-year-old genetics a facility for being an integral member of a community–a community of perhaps 90, 120, even 150 individuals–but no more.  From wandering extended family to relatively stationary band, our evolution as hunter-gatherers occurred within a small community of intimates.  Within that community, attaining status as one making vital contributions to the community’s survival was expected and attainable.  When members did what was necessary for the community to survive, the community continued.  And each of us on the planet now comes from an unbroken chain of individuals who so well performed their job that they left children.  In other words, I believe we males are genetically programmed to crave respect for a job well done and status for achievement, and that this craving for hundred of thousands of years could be fulfilled.  For those thousands of years every individual that we were aware of could reflect back to us that respect, for there were so few individuals in our world.

That world has changed.  Our genetics have not.

I have no doubt that the scale of my desire for recognition has been exaggerated by idiosyncrasies of my life history, but the basic thesis holds.  Observe the cult of celebrity that seems to drive popular culture in the West.  This universal focus on the famous few serves to tie together members of our culture and now humanity at large.  We still carry with us that smallish community of less than 150 with whom we are intimate on an ongoing basis, but these few folks are never touched or talked to, only viewed and listened to.  Everyone we know is intimate with the favored few.  In fact, the varying subcultures within American society can be most easily identified by which of the famous few that the subculture most reveres.

There is an answer to this conundrum, the question of how does a contemporary male (or female with the same drives) compelled to work to receive recognition from his community succeed at this goal if he identifies with a community of thousands or millions of people.  The answer lies with the origin of our species–the origin of language–and the evolution of culture and its eventual transition from the archaic hunter-gatherer bands into tribes with magic, civilizations with myth, to the rational and the present day.  We who desire recognition imagine, with language, the circumstances that would engender the feeling of acceptance that we so deeply crave.  It is the language we use within our mind that drives the imagination processes that solidify the concepts that we subscribe to and work for.  Why not just go directly to the feeling of acceptance, bypassing the use of language, imagination and conceptual construct?

Before language there was silence, or rather nature’s music–with no words.  Before language there was still communication and appreciation, just no verbalization.

There is also a place beyond language.

Beyond language is the place where the issue of success at achieving recognition vs. failure becomes a nonissue.  The reason that the drive, the compulsion to attain, becomes irrelevant is because by establishing the self in the place beyond language, we expose ourselves to unconditional acceptance.  Just beyond words lives awareness.  Yet not just awareness, but the kind of awareness we crave when we seek affirmation.  It is an awareness that makes the drive for recognition reveal its true face–the drive for acceptance–and that drive re-experiences its home in the place beyond language, cradled by unconditional acceptance.

And so the place beyond language, beyond the words that drive us to succeed in the venue of our choice, is strangely also the place before language, before we began that swim down culture’s deep, wide river.  There are strong bonds between the hunter-gatherer and today’s politician, businessman or artist.  These ties are not just the raw male craving for achievement.  We are bound by language, at its beginning and at its end, in those places where full awareness is revealed at the source and mouth of culture’s evolution and our own lives.


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