There’s a parable, a little reminiscent of that classic Disney cartoon Lambert the Sheepish Lion, about how a chicken farmer found an egg near the barn. Thinking it must be a chicken’s egg, he took it and put it into the nest of one of the hens in the barn. Only later did he discover that an eaglet, and not a chick, had hatched from that stray egg. Wanting to see what would happen, the farmer didn’t intervene.
And so the eaglet grew up with the chicks, scratching at the ground and clucking as they did. Then, one day when he was very old, he saw a bird flying high above him. “Who’s that?” he asked one of his friends. “Oh,” said the chicken to his odd-looking brother, “that’s the king of the birds, the eagle. He belongs high above us in the sky. We, on the other hand, belong on the ground because we’re chickens.” So the eagle lived and died a chicken, because that’s what he thought he was.
I really like this story because, apart from the delight of imagining an eagle acting like a chicken, it hits upon a very profound truth: those who live without awareness adopt the stance of the crowd. Put a little differently, those who live without awareness become stereotypes. Okay, I know, that’s a dose of some serious full-frontal pessimism, but I’ve seen this enough in other people, and even in myself from time to time, to know just how true it is.
When people are unable to find a sense of their own true selves — their own sense (I think) of genuine spiritual connection outside of the junk-food spirituality that gets offered up in mindless religious ritual or consumerism — when people are unable to live in the reality of that which is truly transcendent, they become locked in the gravity of values and patterns that they wholeheartedly believe they have chosen of their own free will, but which are obviously just the values of those most proximate to them.
We call this stereotype formation peer pressure, but you could also call it church, or business culture, or drinking culture, or a bachelor party, or sports enthusiasm, or gym, or liberalism or conservatism, or any number of other spaces and formations built to serve and preserve and not disturb the collective mind. When people find themselves simply flowing with the groove of the group, the “intelligence is defeated”, Simone Weil suggests.
Stereotypes are almost laughably easy to pin down: the left-brained engineer/doctor/banker who wears his girlfriend like a piece of jewellery without once taking any heed of her intelligence or personality; or the young designer obsessed with being unique but then who ends up simply fitting in to hipster culture and anything else that smacks of faux authenticity; or the guy who pursues a career in something that will make a lot of money because, well, isn’t that what it means to be successful? All these labels are wrong and limited and irritating, I know, but the point is that stereotypes live into labels. They can’t see out of them.
All of this makes me think of Anthony de Mello’s contention that “[m]ost people, even though they don’t know it, are asleep. They’re born asleep, they live asleep, they marry in their sleep, they breed children in their sleep, they die in their sleep without ever waking up.” I’m not saying at all that I’ve reached some kind of weird enlightened position from where I can tell everyone how to live. I’m not that guy. Still, I try as much as possible to live deliberately; to think through the things that I accept or do not accept or do not yet understand. I insist, for my own sanity and wellbeing, on stepping away from the crowd or the conversation in order to reflect upon and contemplate they way that things actually are. I try to get behind how things appear. I like to challenge the status quo without merely reverting to some stupid anti-stereotyping rampage. After all, merely opposing the stereotype will land us, simply, in the unenviable position of living out yet another stereotype. That’s where we get goth or emo or metalhead culture from — or hippies, or fundamentalists for that matter. Almost everyone is in the business of trying to define themselves by what they are not instead of simply taking the trouble to make choices based on direct engagement with the possibilities before them.
I once heard a feminist talking about the problems with the feminism that she used to adopt; a feminism that was all about career and very anti domestic life. In other words, in her own state of unawareness, she had merely adopted those things that were typically desired by men. She then pointed out that she has since learned to affirm any responsible decision, including choices that may seem simply typical or stereotypical. If a woman chooses to follow the so-called formula of marrying and being a stay-at-home mom, but does so deliberately, then that should be celebrated. Because, I agree, any responsible, thoughtful choice should be celebrated. You can look exactly like the stereotype without actually being the stereotype. That is what awareness is. Being free from a thing means you can choose that thing too because it involves recognising that your personhood is not going to be defined by that thing.
I know so many people, though, who are caught up in living out the narrative of some big Other (to borrow Lacan’s term for society’s unwritten rule book). I know so many who talk about what they ought to do or what path they should take. And I want to say, and often do, “Where is that ought coming from?” or “Why should you do anything?” We can, I believe (because it is something I experience), act out of our being, rather than falling into the Satrean mistake of assuming that we need to create our essence through a flurry of activity. To those friends I know who keep on living out the negative narratives generated by their contexts, I just want to say, with all the grace and compassion that I can muster: You really don’t have to live like this. You can choose. You can wake up. You can reflect, pause. You can contemplate your existence as it really is. You’re an eagle, for God’s sake, so stop acting like a chicken.