Thursday, July 28, 2011

Are We as Individualistic as We Like to Think?

When we see Iranian Shiite Moslems parading down the street during the day of Ashura, cutting their own foreheads and literally whipping themselves into a frenzy during a religious ceremony, we often come to the conclusion that the entire country has gone stark raving mad.

Surprisingly, however, we all do the same thing to a much lessor extent. As I described in previous posts Of Hormones and Ethnic Conflict and The Meaning of Life, we systematically discount our own natural tendencies to subjugate ourselves for the good of the group to which we belong. In particular, if our family system requires us to squeeze our thoughts and behaviors into some pigeonhole, we too will find ways to force behaviors upon our­selves which are otherwise unnatural for us. We sense that our impulses to do otherwise must be destroyed.

The ways in which we accomplish this are all subsumed by the term mortification. In recent times the word mortification has come to mean something akin to severe embarrassment or humiliation, but that is not what the word meant originally.

In the Oxford English Dictionary (first published in 1933 and reprinted in 1961), we find among the different senses of the word the following definitions: 
  • Mortification. In religious use, the action of mortifying the flesh or its lust; the subjugation of one's appetites and passions by the practice of austere living, especially by the self infliction of bodily pain or discomfort. (p. 678).  
  • Mortify. To bring into subjection (the body, its appetites and passions) by the practice of self denial, abstinence, or bodily discipline. (p. 679).  
  • Mortifying. Involving mortification or repression of natural appetites and desires. (p. 679)  
In earlier times, mortification was viewed as a conscious process by which one constrained one's own behavior within certain narrowly defined limits. Individuals actively searched for ways to push away those natural inclinations that were not in keeping with group norms. They figuratively tried to kill them off.

In particular, people felt that they had to keep a rein on their "animal" impulses. These impulses came to be known as the seven deadly sins: pride, greed, lust, anger, gluttony, envy, and sloth. These" sins" might be seen as roughly corresponding to Freud's concept of the id.

Not surprisingly, skill at mortifying oneself was most thoroughly developed in austere religious orders. By becoming involved in large numbers of compulsively-performed rituals (some of which bordered on the bizarre), members of such orders had little time for self-indulgence.

Even so, the process of mortification through discipline, abstinence, and compulsive behavior was deemed to be ineffectual. No one short of Jesus' could be that perfect. For this reason, most of these groups also had some form of confession - a ritualized self-denunciation in front of the group or its leader - to cleanse from the soul the remnants of self-seeking tendencies.

Most people nowadays are not aware of the importance of the process of mortification in everyday life. This lack of awareness is most likely due to prevailing individualistic values. The loss of such understanding is, however, of relatively recent vintage.

The Victorians in England were certainly aware of mortification, although by around the turn of the century before last it was already the focus of some derision. It was satirized by name in no less than three Gilbert and Sullivan operettas.

In The Mikado, a character named Pooh Bah has to "mortify," not only his own pride, but his family pride. He does so, however, in order to save his own skin. It seems that in order to save his town from losing its charter (something which represents a collective need), someone has to volunteer' to satisfy the whims of the Mikado (the king) by allowing himself to be executed. Pooh Bah declines to volunteer, justifying his refusal on the grounds that it is necessary for him to refuse to indulge his family pride.  Family pride, he argues, would be served rather than mortified by his accepting the job.

In Iolanthe, the queen of a group of fairies has to "mortify" her sexual attraction to a mortal man, and has a problem doing so after one of her favorite subjects has been caught marrying a mortal. This play satirized societal prohibitions against marry­ing across the rigid class lines present in the England of that day.

In Princess Ida, women in a feminist school have to "mortify" their attraction to men in order to maintain their group identity. The mortification, as well as the group identity, dissolves when the school is infiltrated by some charming and handsome young men.

From my point of view, the impulses that are most often mortified by today's individuals can be conceptualized as being those inclinations of their real selves which conflict with the roles that they have been playing within their families. People have acquired these roles because the roles seem to be required in order to maintain family homeostasis.

In Chapter 3 of my book A Family Systems Approach to Individual Psychotherapy, I discussed several ways in which individuals try to rid themselves of some of their own impulses. Some of the forms of mortification that I described correspond to the psycho­analytic concept of defense mechanisms. In general, modern families and individuals have to do for themselves what was once done for them by the larger group.

Where we once had group censure and political exile, we now have family invalidation and emotional cut-offs. In place of fire and brimstone from a preacher, individuals create their own frightening, irrational thoughts in order to scare themselves out of this or that desire. Instead of going to the confessional, they criticize themselves for their base inclinations and find ways to loathe themselves. Rather than engaging in prescribed rituals, they form their own reaction formations, compulsively acting in ways that run counter to their underlying desires. We have all devised ingenious ways to put ourselves down, subjugate our passions, and force ourselves to conform to collective standards or family needs.

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