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The existential task of coming to terms with society represents man’s most difficult challenge. Society refers to anything and everything that occurs when people en masse come together, those things that we, as a people of any particular culture, have in common; our shared concerns, common artifacts, social institutions, and an amorphous blend of attitudes and values. And in order to understand the enormous impact of society, it is absolutely essential that everyone recognize the fact that “no man is an island”…… that it is impossible for one to live his or her life without “being touched” by the reach of society, without being affected by the stretch of those with whom we live our lives.
At the moment of birth the challenge to understand begins, not that man wants to understand “what is going on,” but, as a human being, he essentially has no choice but to understand, for a choice not to understand would soon relegate him to the status of “something less than human,” a step not far above that of being “an ape,” and an insipid one at that! Consequently, as the cerebral cortex continues to expand, man has little choice but to respond in kind, little choice but to wonder about “the truth,” the truth about God, if he (she or it) perhaps does, in fact, exist, about what happens to us when we die, and, last but certainly not least, what it means to be a human being. And, one way or the other, every one of us will, with little choice, struggle to find an answer to each of these questions.
But no one does such a thing alone. For everything we come to understand has been dealt with (“reality” having been massaged) by those preceding us. Over the period of a lifetime, many things will be brought to our attention, but only after having passed through the “filtered lens” of society. We would very much like to believe that each of us sees reality for what it “really is.” However, such is never the case. We need to understand that to do such a thing (to know something “as it really is”) is an objective impossibility, in that those out there, those who seem to be in power, will do everything they can to “tell us” what we are “supposed to” see, that is, what we are supposed to believe. And, of course, the existential challenge for us, as human beings, is to “sift through the chaff,” you know, the crap, the propaganda fed to us by those in power, and, through an independently chosen decision to think for ourselves, to know that we have done our very best to figure out what “the truth” just might be.
It is perhaps instructive to look upon society as something of a “large giant,” one that embodies that of many smaller giants (parents, teachers, church authorities, employers, generals, policemen, etc.), the primary purpose of which is to maintain order, that of protecting us from ourselves as well as that of others: a parent’s hold restraining her child from running into a busy street; a teacher demanding that students pay attention in class; a preacher urging laymen to read their Bibles; an employer requiring workers to show up on time; generals demanding that soldiers kill on call; policemen arresting those who speed, etc. Quite certainly no one can argue against such a need for control. For without such restraint, society would be wracked with chaos. Without the firm hold of a parent, children (especially adolescents) would run wild killing themselves as well as others, students would destroy the sanctity of a classroom, layman would lead sinful lives, employees would not get to work on time, soldiers would refuse to fight, and men and women on the street would violate many laws.
On the other hand, society can be seen as that of a large giant that enchains man; one that binds his soul, kills his spirit, destroys his dreams, dulling the fine edge of a once proud conscience. A force that ensures that man will be an automaton just like every other man on the street, one that compels him to become, and for a lifetime to remain, a compliant cog in the troubled machinery of life, that he suspend all powers of thought, that he take pride in having allowed himself to become a functionary, a mere clerk, duped by the lies of a land polluted by the poison of paradise lost.
Every human being is required to make a choice; to be controlled by society or else to rebel against it…… to allow one’s self to have become a slave of the powers that be or to strike back. The very chains ripped from that of one’s own body are the same that constrain another. For those who remove such chains before they are ready, death and destruction will surely follow. However, for those who fail to remove such chains, their lives will amount to little more than the hop, skip, and jump of a scum-sucking stooge on his way to pick up a check.
Every one of us, as human beings, have within us the seeds of great hope as well as those that lead to destruction. And, of course, the secret to greatness is that of knowing the truth of oneself. For those who are not ready to shed such chains, it would be a far better thing for them to welcome their keepers. But for those who are prepared, ready to make their own way in life, it is essential that they muster the courage to demand that the shackles be removed. However, if society is unwilling to acquiesce, unwilling to grant one the leisure of liberty, then it would seem that folks have little choice but to “bust loose;” with no consent whatsoever, to move forward, ready and willing to tear down “the walls of society,” doing whatever must be done in order to make their way in life!
However, one must keep in mind the alternative, a completely different way of dealing with society; the private path of the saint, the lonely road allowing oneself to be imprisoned within “the walls of society,” willingly choosing to suffer in silence, bearing one’s burden alone, an alternative every bit as noble as that of choosing to take control of society. Such is the way of “the lamb,” rather than that of “the lion.” But there are few willing to take the way of the saint. Considering the actions of the great civil rights leader, Martin Luther King, when he chose to challenge society he was no doubt acting as “a lion,” but in peacefully submitting to authorities, in allowing himself to be hauled off to jail, he was no doubt conducting himself as “a lamb;” neither better than the other, each perfectly appropriate for the occasion at hand.
Now, a couple of points regarding morality as it relates to society. How one chooses to navigate the rather murky (no doubt “very gray”) waters associated with an effort to distinguish between good and evil will no doubt determine one’s approach to morality, which in turn will influence how one eventually comes to terms with society. In society, there are some who rather proudly refer to themselves as conservatives, while others, every bit as proud, refer to themselves as liberals, and, as we will see, their approaches to good and evil have set the stage for an ongoing battle between folks that have little, if anything, in common, folks who are no doubt breeds apart!
Conservatives, the most extreme who tend to be rather authoritarian (harbor an authoritarian personality) believe that human beings, in and of themselves, are inherently evil. According to such folks, in order for society to function effectively, it is imperative that people be controlled. For conservatives then, many of whom tend to be religious, God has evolved into nothing more than a mere projection of their own rather narrow-minded view of the world. God and country having become one and the same, the purpose of society becomes that of protecting them from others who do not agree with what they believe to be true. Thus, in having designated themselves to be the true believers, the true followers of God, the divine protectors of society, they have become convinced that they have been given not only the right, but also the responsibility, to punish those who disagree with them. As a result of such thinking, conservatives seem to have gravitated towards a kind of “personal morality,” an assortment of values that disapprove of anything that might tend to threaten the spiritual welfare of the individual, and, as a matter of course, the moral fabric of society, anything that might lead one to disregard the sanctity of the status quo requirements needed to maintain social order (homosexual behavior, religious practices and activities that are inconsistent with what they believe, atheism, liberal values, socialism, humanism, environmentalism, stem cell research, abortion, sexual behavior outside the bonds of marriage, the use of drugs, anything that might weaken an authority figure’s control over others, and, of course, educational practices that encourage young people to develop critical thinking skills, those that urge them to critically examine the authenticity and legitimacy of the church as well as that of their own nation).
On the other hand, there are liberals, and these folks believe that human beings, in and of themselves, are inherently good. They tend to look upon society (that of the status quo) as something that restrains the human spirit, stifles creativity, and thus limits the capacity for one to develop his human potential. And for such individuals (most of whom tend not to be religious even though some are rather spiritual) God becomes synonymous with that of the higher self (the moral inner core of man), that which directs one to live above and beyond the status quo requirements of society. For the liberal then, society becomes something of an antiquated barrier, something that essentially gets in one’s way, something that hinders man from doing what needs to be done in order to change society for the better. Simply said, liberals believe that “the needs of man” are much more fundamental, and therefore much more important, than the so-called “needs of society.” As a result of such thinking, liberals have gravitated towards a morality that is devoted to the best interests of society, a kind of “social morality,” an assortment of values that affirms one’s right, even one’s responsibility, to challenge society: a need to risk “what is” for “what perhaps could be;” a willingness to challenge those in authority; the need for social protest (the need to protest against such things as war, racial injustice, poverty, laws that deprive homosexuals of their human rights, as well as activities that lead to the destruction of the environment); and, of course when necessary, the explicit need for individuals to engage in that of civil disobedience.
Clearly then, it seems that our country may well be in the beginning stages of a turbulent time much like that of the 1960’s. Given the last two presidential elections along with that of a host of social and political polls, it is clear that our nation is divided right down the middle; one-half of us rather liberal (the blue states), the other populated by red state conservatives. Two vastly different moralities: one believing that individuals should live their lives according to the status quo requirements of society (the need to support traditional family values), the other encouraging folks to question authority, to stand up, even to rebel, against society; each aghast, staring at the other wondering “what in the hell is wrong with you,” puzzled by the incredible stupidity and evil of their adversary, dumbfounded as to why “they” never seem “to get it!”
Ultimately then, each of us must figure out how to best cope with society; to become an obedient slave like that of the conservative or to challenge the status quo like that of the liberal, but, of course, with a realization that either heading taken to the extreme would be detrimental for society. Therefore, it is imperative that each of these forces be accorded their rightful place in society; the conservative to preserve the wisdom of the past, while the liberal is freed to challenge the limitations of society. But regardless of one’s persuasion, be it conservative or liberal, one thing that every rational person can agree is that the much more legitimate needs of mankind (that which is required for the human race to survive) must be allowed to supersede the rather provincial and, no doubt, shortsighted interests of any particular group (vis a vis nation) of folks. Otherwise, no one: not the good guys nor the bad guys; our allies or the enemy; Christians, Jews, Hindus, or the Islamic, will survive. Thus, I suggest that the goal for everyone (conservatives as well as liberals) be that of peace, love, and justice, that each of us, as individual human beings, be ready and willing to lay our life down for that of our brother……. and, when the time comes (and it will) to do the same for that of our enemy.
G. Doug Soderstrom, Ph.D.