I Think, Therefore, I Am Not [Free]
On the dominance of the surface level personality and how it plays out in the conditions of our world.
It seems trivial to talk about creative daily work when my attention is taken up with current events in Eastern Europe. The conflict is constantly on my mind. I’m scrolling Twitter, jumping from local nightly news to BBC Newsnight for updates. I’m even dreaming about it. Yet considering how fleeting life can be, the imperative to live to our fullest extents doing things that command our curiosity and interest is never more important. Sometimes other people and events command our attention, making it difficult or even impossible for us to live as we wish, and under those conditions, we have little choice. For those in the thick of the action, the imperative is survival. Millions in Ukraine feel this now while the normalities and perhaps trivialities of life are set aside. We might wear different clothes, possess cleverer technologies, and move to a slightly different tune than early Twentieth Century Europeans, but the fundamentals have changed little in my view.
As I sat at my kitchen table this afternoon scrolling Twitter for positive news on Ukraine, thinking about the coming week’s work and how I might manage my time, my eight-year-old daughter caught my attention. She was colouring. Completely consumed by the activity. There was no ulterior motive, nobody commanding her to do it, and nothing to gain other than its intrinsic value. And I thought that is what freedom looks like. Unlike Ukrainian, Syrian, or Palestinian children her age, her needs for warmth, shelter and food are not under threat, so her mind is free to go wherever it wants. Unlike me, my mind consumed by duties, preoccupied with making a living, her mind is in tune with the creative moment. Maslow wrote on this in the 1950s, Csikszentmihalyi in the 1990s, and Stuart Brown in the 2000s. It is the state of being where humans are at their best.
We are free to create collectively and individually, unconcerned with things external to the activity or others who may not be doing as they should. There’s no thought about it; there’s simply oneness with the activity—a set of complex non-hierarchical creative conditions. In contrast, consider the hierarchical, dictated, manipulated, persuaded, managed, and enforced behaviours that are not of the individual or collective unidentifiable self but the egotistical will. The surface-level personality’s need to exist, be noticed, recognised, and admired is dominant. Narcissism, Machiavellianism, psychopathy, and sadism have the space to play. The results are destructive and damaging to both the environment and human wellbeing. And although we might be quick to assign these conditions to dictatorial societies alone, they also exist in the so-called free world. Capitalist systems are rife with them.
Children do it automatically. Adults don’t necessarily. We’re trained out of it by society, whether capitalist-driven or dictatorial. We subjugate ourselves to apparently higher authorities and, en masse, play their game. As such, we are bound to their rules and buffered by external conditions. We have forgotten how to be truly free.
I think where I am not, therefore, I am where I do not think. I am not whenever I am the plaything of my thought; I think of what I am where I do not think to think.