We humans are rather complicated creatures. Fundamentally, we are social beings, our natural state is to be surrounded by family and community. We are not meant to be alone. Though some will find solace in isolation (or at least in limited alone time), in the end contentment, happiness is highly dependent on having the right people around us.
One of the ways in which our fundamentally social nature finds expression is how deeply affected we are by the opinion of others. Words of encouragement and reassurance versus words of discouragement and derision can lift us up or tear us down. Often without even being aware of it, as an impressionable growing child, we tailor our behavior to how our immediate surrounding environment reacts to us and what it expects of us. In essence, we are often (and some much more than others) guided from without and not from within.
We seek to please and ingratiate those around us and feed off their approval. Our obsession with fame and mass popularity is a further reflection of our need to be part of and accepted by the flock. What is the worth of the last second winning hoop or the game winning home run in the bottom of the ninth without the mass adulation of the cheering fans?
We naturally and rightfully bask in the warmth of human companionship or feel the burning sting of its absence. Humanity progresses by feeding off each other, our developing accumulating knowledge, experience and wisdom are passed down from generation to generation. Differing cultures contribute one to the other, organically adopting and incorporating elements one into the other.
But what happens when the flock errs? What happens when everything and everyone around you says go left, but your inner voice screams no, go right? It is precisely here that we are tested and called upon to rise to the more elevated part of our nature. We are then called to fight our approval seeking instinct, be guided from within and swim against the stream.
The price of following our inner voice can vary. In fact, sometimes we find to our pleasant surprise that the world not only accepts, but respects our willingness to follow our own path. Yet at times the world around us will bear its ugly fangs and exert a deep price for veering from the flock. It is precisely here that our true mettle is tested. Against the forces of our very nature we must cling to our sense and knowledge of our self-worth in spite of the tide of condemnation.
To break is to give in to the flock, knowing you are in the right but surrendering to the pressure, desiring acceptance. Yet such defeat is better than being a human being so utterly dependent on the movement of the flock for guidance that you are not even capable of being guided from within. For the former there is the hope of rising against one’s own weakness, for the latter the only hope is that the flock will one day get it right.
A momentary digression. There are individuals who have become psychologically addicted to or dependent on being rejected by society, or at least perceiving themselves as such. They thrive on it. In fact, this yearning to be rejected or outside the norm drives them more than any ideal or inner truth, whether it started off that way or not. Such a scenario should be distinguished from the main subject of this article.
These individuals find their own self worth and self love in the self-created illusion that they belong to a special elite, whether as a single individual or a small group, who is up against the world. It is the self-perception of being part of this elite beset by society that nourishes their self-worth, their sense of being special. It constitutes in essence an inverse expression of the need for social acceptance, still dependent on approval from without, not within. In this instance self worth is dependent on societal rejection, whether perceived or real.
Getting back on track, there are different flocks moving about out in the world, and most of the time our perceptions, opinions and norms are defined by the flock we were born into or choose to follow, not by our inner voice. The real and deserved credit belongs to those who are able to think independently and position themselves with the right flock or if need be, create their own path.
There exists a delicate balance, a delicate game between individuality and collectivity, a fine line we tread. When is it correct to be a headstrong individual and when to be a team player, each having its time and place.
I cannot but resist to take this in the direction of an allegory.
The quintessential declaration of the Jewish tradition is the Shema: “Hear, O Israel, the Lord is our God, the Lord is One.” I do not pretend to be well versed in the multilayered meanings our sages have deciphered from this most famous attestation. But to me, its fundamental meaning is as follows.
The Jewish tribe (or collective tribes if you will) was surrounded by a world which worshiped multiple gods, idols, various forces of nature and so on. In fact, idolatry is described as being one of the most powerful instincts and urges back in biblical times. In the midst of a world which was enraptured by belief in false idols, the Jewish people cried out to themselves and the world, that the God we believe in, the God who revealed himself to Israel, is the one and true God, a single God. Back in the day, before the concept of monotheism was accepted by half the world (if not more), this was a radical declaration, a rebellious departure from the directional stream of the flock of nations.
From its very inception, the Jewish nation has positioned itself as a contra to the general directional stream of the nations. It charted its own way and has stubbornly held fast to its traditions and beliefs. This has been the secret of the Jewish peoples’ refusal to disappear into the annals of history. In spite of all the pressure exerted on the Jews by endless actors from its very beginning as a nation to the present day, the Jewish people stubbornly refused to let go of its ways.
It could have been so easy to just give in — to become like the Greeks or the Romans, as so many other conquered peoples did. To give in to Islamization and the sword of Muhammad, as so many of the conquered peoples of the Levant did. To shed the yolk of the commandments. To be like everyone else and avoid all the torments perpetrated against us. But by and large the Jewish nation hung on for dear life to its way, to its collective inner truth.
We are repeatedly referred to in the Bible as a stiff-necked people, a stubborn people, and this was not meant as a compliment. But perhaps it could not have been any other way for only such a stiff-necked people could have the capacity to trudge against the current of history and stubbornly cling to its traditions – to its inner truth. In this context I make reference to the modern quip, for every two Jews there are three opinions — a reflection of stubborn individuality.
The Jewish nation now has a nation, the state of Israel. Our state is lambasted by much of the world. Let’s live up to our name and continue to be a stiff-necked people, stand against the flocks of the nations, not let ourselves be defined by the outside world, and hold fast to our collective self-worth. Ultimately, who knows who we truly are better than ourselves?