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The Paradox of the Social Animal

The Social Animal

There is no denying that belonging to a group brings with it many useful skills and knowledge but being too enmeshed in a group prevents us from thinking clearly.

Ultimately, we are social animals; we live for others, we want to be useful, popular, and loved. Those who cannot figure out how social dynamics work, implicitly or explicitly, are doomed to a life of failure, isolation, and depression.

The simplest example is money, since anyone who cannot do something that is socially useful will not be able to make money (a form of social capital). If you are unpopular, you will not build relationships that will keep you healthy and sane.

Historically, one of the worst forms of punishment was exile. Between death and social exile, there wasn’t a clear answer.

Through social media, our interpersonal needs have become digitized and simplified – perhaps to our own detriment, since real social connection may require nuances that don’t exist in the digital world (at least not yet). A Black Mirror episode portrays a future where the value of people can be instantly accessed – they are given a rating, like a consumable product, and this evaluation determines the extent to which they can participate in society in a meaningful way. This might seem like a dark dystopic nightmare, but it is not so far from our present reality.

We often feel compelled to fit in, even if it brought damage to ourselves. Our genes want to increase the likelihood that they will propagate, and they do so independently of our well-being. A seed is nested within a delicious tasting and plump apple, which gets transported by animals to new places, which allows the seed to accomplish its original goal: further propagation.

Our DNA is the same, we strive towards accomplishments, physical perfection, and mental sharpness – thinking that these are our goals, but they are only secondary – we are slaves to the objectives of our genes. Many individuals may fail in the process of continuing this propagation, but they are collateral damage to the larger objective. In the same way that entrepreneurship is a terrible idea for any individual, since they are very likely going to fail, the net benefit of entrepreneurship for society is immense. 

In summary, what is good for people is often what is bad for the individual. 

At the same time, all the best things we can hope for can only come from people. Whether we aim for professional success or an ideal partner, lasting friendships, or a lifestyle characterized by self-indulgent, rampant hedonism – we can only expect these aspirations to come to fruition through others.  

Individual harm is the risk we are willing to take, since we can gain nothing without risking ourselves first – even if the payoff is never guaranteed.

All Problems are Interpersonal Problems

Adler said that all problems are interpersonal problems. If you think about the source of all your anxieties, fears, and pain then you will probably notice a pattern – they all come from people. How we respond to inputs from others makes a difference, and without people, life loses meaning, yet we are constantly victims to the whims of others, and to the mechanistic pathologies of the crowd.

Hang around alcoholics, and you will miraculously discover a newfound love for alcohol. It is not a surprise that the people of each country are followers of its traditions. As much as we would like to believe that we are autonomous individuals, we aren’t. We are relentlessly susceptible to the influences of others, and since few people are properly balanced and healthy, there is a high chance we harm ourselves through these encounters.

If the individual is constantly blinded by social obligations to conform, to be useful, then they will be poisoned by the narrow-mindedness of the crowd and never discover anything new. They will never trespass the boundaries of the known and retrieve the treasure they need to rejuvenate their community. The mavericks that follow their own path must also by nature be disagreeable, since their choice to deviate from the crowd will only bring social spite, at least in the short term – so they must be courageous, and lack some social feeling. It is important that such individuals remain few because too many of them will cause societal disintegration.

These individuals, while losing favor temporarily, gain themselves. That is a central message in Jung’s writings and in the hero’s journey by Campbell. The revival of the social order can only come through individual sacrifices and while many individuals will suffer endlessly because of their choices, the rare individuals that make it, not only bring the boons back to their culture, but they are transformed themselves, unto superior versions of themselves. And perhaps it is that hope of transcendence, rather than anything else, that has repeatedly given individuals the necessary motivation to take such a risk. 

Solitude

The only way to transcend the common social predicament, whatever it happens to be, is to remove yourself from the group, and in Montaigne’s words, not only from the people themselves, but the collective habits that you have learned, that are self-destructive.

You do a sick man more harm than good in removing him from place to place; you fix and establish the disease by motion, as stakes sink deeper and more firmly into the earth by being moved up and down in the place where they are designed to stand. Therefore, it is not enough to get remote from the public; ’tis not enough to shift the soil only; a man must flee from the popular conditions that have taken possession of his soul, he must sequester and come again to himself

Of Solitude, Montaigne

The solution to the predicament of the group is solitude. When you purposefully isolate yourself, you gain insights about others, and about yourself. Instead of having a mind that is constantly polluted with the social anxieties of the crowd, you can recreate your thought patterns when you are alone, you can see through the delusions, you can meditate, read and learn about what is behind the root of your behavior. You can only reach such insights when you are away from the tribe. And that is the paradox of being a social animal: it is by moving away from others that you can help them the most – doctors need to spend years being antisocial so that they can be a service to others.

The Trap of Solitude

You should not aim to become like the Underground Man of Dostoevsky, spending decades of your life lamenting your human fate, becoming cynical about people, and refusing to succumb to any social trends. Solitude is an intermittent necessity, not a permanent condition of life.

I could not become anything; neither good nor bad; neither a scoundrel nor an honest man; neither a hero nor an insect. And now I am eking out my days in my corner, taunting myself with the bitter and entirely useless consolation that an intelligent man cannot seriously become anything, that only a fool can become something.

Notes from Underground, Dostoevsky

One of the best and most transformative ways you can be of value to your tribe is to step away from it. The primitive impulse is to constantly surround yourself with people, to never be alone, but such a way of living will only weaken you as an individual and cloud your judgement. The alternative is not a tenable strategy either. Choosing a life of complete solitude, where you cease all interactions with people is a desperate, sad existence.

Like with Flow, the gold is somewhere in between, where you are sufficiently insightful, yet social connected. It is a balance that you must learn to strike, and while this sounds like common sense advice, far too many people spend their lives on either end of the extremes – either isolated from the group, or isolated from themselves.

"Silence is the best expression of scorn" - G.B. Shaw

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