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An agreed madness

Overcoming transference for the sake of our future

By Andrew ScottPublished 16 days ago 14 min read
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Detailing of the reverse collar of the new England football shirt

It is not for him to pride himself who loveth his own country, but rather for him who loveth the whole world. The earth is but one country, and mankind its citizens. -- Bahá’u’lláh

I think the juxtaposition of the leading picture and quote illustrate the profound tension that lies at the heart of our world today.

On the one hand, there is a heartfelt wish to find ways to live in peace with one another; to develop a society in which we are all treated fairly, and can develop ourselves and each other to the truest extent of our potential.

Yet on the other, we see ourselves clinging on to conceptions of ourselves as tribalistic, nationalistic; helplessly drawn through our nature into conflict with each other; prone to distraction and escape in the most servile and basic ways.

A perfunctory scan of recent news headlines seems to illustrate this well. A recent update to England's new football kit "has reignited the passions that regularly erupt with each redesign of what is, in essence, a plain white shirt." The 'row' was centered on a "tiny cross on the neck of the home team's new shirt."

This modest and almost inconspicuous redesign has been called "disrespectful" - "we shouldn't mess with" what is "a source of pride"; a "unifying symbol that doesn't need changing." Some of the reactions were "eye-opening" and "vitriolic"; reactions that a source in the article attributed to a "less confident" "wider discourse present in the country."

Newton Newton Flags' alternative version of the Stars and Stripes

Such was the recent level of public interest and so strong were the reactions that a UK based flag maker decided to create an alternative version of the US flag, the Stars and Stripes, to make a point. "People in the US would rightly not tolerate anyone messing with their flag, and the same courtesy should be extended to the cross of St George", they said. This is after all something they well understand: according to their founder, "nothing will stir up emotion more than a flag."

One may very well ask why we allow ourselves to behave in this way. It really doesn't seem sensible to get hot under the collar about something so minuscule on a shirt collar. Yet it is inescapable that we are affected - to many of us, to such a degree that it feels the same as though the flag were planted, hugely scaled up and cracking in the wind, on the top of a giant flag pole full-square on our front lawn.

Impossible to ignore, and massively objectionable.

What gives rise to these strong reactions, and can we understand them and moderate them?

Looking at the bigger picture logically and rationally, it seems obvious that for the sake of each other and for our future, we somehow need to find a way to moderate our stubborn emotional attachment to the national flag as exemplified by the national football team. Of course, not just football - any team sport could be inserted.

Photo by Andy Bridge on Unsplash

In Paul Hanley's book "11", he asks the question of how we as a human species are going to live on a planet of eleven billion people, with population growth, when today with eight billion we are already consuming more than our planet can sustain.

Putting national team sport in the wider context of entertainment, Paul asks "to what extent are we undermining the future of civilisation merely to be amused? How much more amusement can the planet take?". For Paul, the "point is that investing an inordinate amount of time, money and resources in these activities has substantial socio-ecological impacts" (my emphasis).

The author isn't moralising: indeed, he emphasises that it seems impossible to avoid some kind of consumption of entertainment; and indeed moderate consumption is healthy and can be enjoyable. However, Paul writes that the extent to which such activities are carried out are "unnecessary and excessive in the context of an 11 billion (population) world."

Paul writes that it is not just the direct impact of these activities that is to be concerned about. Each dollar spent on this spectacle of entertainment intensifies "the human ecological footprint": it "triggers a cascade of negative social, health, and economic impacts that waste trillions of dollars."

Those "who participate in the spectacle or are plagued by its additions" are not to be criticised or condemned; but "we will have to get free of this impediment: in a full world, we simply can't afford to waste our time and energies on an illusion" (author's original emphasis).

It may seem a bit jarring to zoom out from a discussion of football and national flags to entertainment as a whole. I am taking us on this journey here not merely for the sake of it but because I believe there is a common underlying factor behind this entirely understandable behaviour. One that is so deeply rooted in our sense of self, and of our collective culture. In our deepest sense of security, as it were. One that I believe the evidence shows we can change.

Let's look briefly at a couple of other examples, to illustrate the point.

Photo by Melissa Askew on Unsplash

In what is a stand-out example of a decades old (or timeless) trend, a well-known pop star apologised publicly for "surprising my fans who have supported me" for not previously disclosing a personal relationship. "We supported [their] bright future, believing in a shared dream, but it was our misconception," blared the super-fans previously. "Is the love given to you by your fans not enough?"

Super-fans dedicate much of their lives to the worship of their idol, but as this example shows, woe betide the star who makes a mis-step; but especially anyone else who criticises their iconic hero. They stream their music to schedule, avidly buy into dozens of digital music platforms to assure their legend's success; they fundraise, campaign to vote, they put in labour to ensure the group's success.

This is far from an isolated instance of what super-fans are prepared to do to assure their hero's success. According to the content machine YardBarker, they metaphorically 'bow down to the queen'; buy concert tickets within minutes after going on sale and wait in line for hours before doors open; and support [their icon's] endeavors until the end of time. Writing of one artist, the site writes "this is the alter-ego fans want to be around."

One such fan group even has an extensive Wikipedia page describing their activities, encouraged by the artist's "constant self-disclosure." A loyal fanbase with high levels of participation and creativity, they have built a "huge virtual community unmoored from a single platform, based on a world around" their star. Such is their enthusiasm and dedication, that they have been described as both "mighty and frightening". Making an analytical connection, one commentator notes that "[p]eople like to frame [them] as an extreme case, but it sort of functions the same way as in sports."

Photo by Jack Lucas Smith on Unsplash

As the "huge outpouring of love and support for" a well known member of the British royal family recently attests after her cancer disclosure, this kind of symbolic idol-worship isn't only manifest in sports and music, it is also - and especially - present in our connection with royalty, wherever or whomever they may be.

These large-scale public reactions - 'outpourings' - are not merely the result of a very human feeling of a connection to another person in their times of trouble or misfortune. They operate on another, symbolic, layer; entirely separate from the literal person involved.

At a recent royal funeral, people who are known for being normally taciturn and reserved, even cold, came away "in tears, describing the sight of the cloaked coffin as overwhelming." The period of 'national mourning' that followed the passing of the sovereign was described as an "outburst" - strong language, indeed. This isn't unusual: a well-known national figure described the widespread reaction to another royal's passing years earlier earlier as “hysteria” and “contagious mourning”.

It seems that we look to the royals as "reliable constants" in a world beset by "turmoil, risk and impermanence"; we, as it were, project something very personal onto the media representation of the real person.

So how then can we understand this deep-seated behaviour that to some degree affects us all, yet seems to defy our expectations of clear-headed, rational and logical conduct? How can our veneration of national symbols, entertainment heroes and cultural icons be understood in a way that helps us identify and transform the attitudes and actions that are harming not only others but our own futures?

Photo by Artem Maltsev on Unsplash

According to the highly regarded cultural anthropologist Professor Ernest Becker in his acclaimed Pulitzer prize winning work 'The Denial of Death', we act this way subconsciously to transfer our wish for stability and safety - immortality - onto a venerated cultural figure. When pressed, we agree that it is not sensible to do so, but we still do.

Becker writes that to avoid exposure to death, annihilation, the powerful and chaotic, meaningless and absurd universe, we engage in "personal preoccupations so far removed from the reality of [our] situation that they are forms of madness – agreed madness, disguised and dignified madness, but madness all the same."

He continues that we understand ...

at some dumb level of [our] personality: “Our locus of power to control life and death can himself die; therefore our own immortality is in doubt.” All the tears and all the tearing is after all for oneself, not for the passing of a great soul but for one’s own imminent passing.

This central idea of attachment to 'our locus of power' is called 'transference':

This is how we can understand the essence of transference: as a taming of terror. Realistically the universe contains overwhelming power. Beyond ourselves we sense chaos. We can’t really do much about this unbelievable power, except for one thing: we can endow certain persons with it. The child takes natural awe and terror and focusses them on individual beings, which allows him to find the power and the horror all in one place instead of diffused through-out a chaotic universe. Mirabile! The transference object, being endowed with the transcendent powers of the universe, now has in himself the power to control, order, and combat them.

We can understand that by 'individual beings' is meant both people and objects that have symbolic representation: a flag, a crown, or a super-star them themselves be 'transference objects'.

Becker concludes: "The transference-object is then a natural fetishization for man’s highest yearnings and strivings ... What is more wanted than immortality-power? How wonderful and how facile to be able to take our whole immortality-striving and make it part of a dialogue with a single human being."

Becker's idea of transference that he develops in this book is then that in our horror at the thought of being unmade, we deny the terror and project our immortality wish onto a cultural hero.

How terrible is it then when the receptacle of our longings is touched or harmed - or appears to be - in any way! Likewise, there is no limit - beyond reason itself - past which we are not prepared to go to pursue and preserve our transference object.

It seems that we are prepared to tear each other - and the world - apart for the sake of preserving our immortality wish.

Photo by Rene Böhmer on Unsplash

I started this article with a profound juxtaposition of apparent opposites that really represent conflicting ideas of who we are as human beings.

Are we bound helplessly to our fates to run away from our terrors and consume everything around us like locusts? Or can we find within us the agency to act and overcome our latent fears, and therefore build a better world for ourselves and others?

I submit that there really is no more important question in the world today than this one.

Where we go next depends, in my opinion, on our willingness to consider lines of evidence on the question of who we really are that perhaps we hadn't fully appreciated before.

In recent decades, and especially since the power of the Internet has been gifted to the majority of the people on this planet, scholars have been investigating and publicising something called "near death experiences." As a collection of many thousand of anonymised accounts illustrate very well, the value of these reports reveals itself when subject to an analysis of their common and consistent themes.

Estimates vary, but it is believed that somewhere between five and fifteen percent of all adults have had some kind of similar experience - but the support that most need is lacking, and they don't often know what to make of it.

Without proper support, many commonly feel isolated from others, rejected, and made to feel outcast. They may feel marooned in a society that doesn't understand them, and rejected by their contemporaries and peers, family and colleagues. They often feel that there is no way they can authentically relate what happened to them to other people. The consequences can be severe: loss of friends and relationships, losing one's job, and divorce, among many.

No wonder that for most they just don't want - or feel able - to share. Consequentially for them they feel that their life is like an iceberg: most of their life that has any meaning has had to be submerged.

However, what enormous value it is that they have to give, if they feel able and are well supported!

There are many ways in which careful and systematic study of these accounts can be of benefit. It's not only the unconditional love that both underpins our world but also just knocks our socks off. Nor is it just the interconnectedness and oneness with everyone, regardless of who they are, how far away they are, or in which generation. And nor is it limited to the testimony that what they experienced was 'more real than real' and very different from dreams or hallucinations, even down to veridical observations that they couldn't have known otherwise.

No, for me the single most impressive - and world-altering - consistent theme that runs through these accounts is the diminution or in a lot of cases complete loss of their fear of death.

As one account puts it, "learning to die is learning to live fully." No longer is the world out there chaotic and threatening - we can go forth and live with courage.

According to another:

Not having any fear means that life is lived differently. It allows me to live in a way that is exciting, full of adventure and feeling the wonder like I felt as a child.

A third writes: "I do not fear death and I am free ... All human beings would greatly benefit from these experiences so as to bring about a world of peace." From the account of a fourth: "I felt free for the first time in my life."

The people who have left us such accounts tell us that their lives - and life goals - have been completely transformed as a result. As an example: "My life has never been the same. It took several years of reflection to understand what happened and how my life seems very different from other folks."

Here is another slightly lengthier example:

"I wish to be Love to the most underprivileged children in the USA, those that live on Native American Reservations. I am taking classes and have become a brain plasticity international mediator/educator, helping students to gain optimal cognitive potentials, no matter what diagnosis they are given (ADD, Brain damage, stroke, OCD, mental health issues, fetal alcohol spectrum, autism spectrum, Down's, more, and cognitive delay)"

The opportunity to challenge the way we think about ourselves and each other is not at all solely gifted to experiencers. This is a priceless gift that is being offered to us all. As one scholar, Professor Kenneth Ring, put it:

[M]erely acquiring knowledge about NDEs can act rather like a 'benign virus'; that is, by exposing yourself to NDE-related information, you can 'catch it,' because the NDE appears to be 'contagious'

Through overcoming our fear of death, we can build deeper connections between ourselves and other people, and act accordingly.

We can build a more positive image of the future of humanity.

Above all, a deeper, visceral appreciation of the oneness of humanity, which the loss of the fear of death engenders, according to Shoghi Effendi, "represents the consummation of human evolution":

It implies an organic change in the structure of present-day society, a change such as the world has not yet experienced ... attainment to this final stage in this stupendous evolution is not only necessary but inevitable ... its realization is fast approaching ..."

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Andrew Scott

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