On Being Oneself
or not we are aware of it, there is nothing of which we are more ashamed
than of not being ourselves.” -- Erich Fromm
The following are excerpts from Erich Fromm’s Escape From Freedom (New York: Avon, 1969: pp. 281-282, 284, 288-289), an influential work of the last century which anticipated some of the cultural and social problems of today. A psychoanalyst influenced by Marx and Freud, Fromm examined the various difficulties encountered by individuals seeking autonomy in a late-capitalist world. He explored this theme in such works as The Sane Society, Man For Himself, The Art of Loving, and To Have or To Be?
the automaton, while being alive biologically, is dead emotionally and
mentally. While he goes through the motions of living, his life runs
through his hands like sand. Behind a front of satisfaction and optimism
modern man is deeply unhappy; as a matter of fact, he is on the verge of
desperation...Modern man is starved for life. But since, being an
automaton, he cannot experience life in the sense of spontaneous
activity he takes as surrogate any kind of excitement and thrill: the
thrill of drinking, of sports, of vicariously living the excitements of
fictitious persons on the screen.
then is the meaning of freedom for modern man?
has become free from the external bonds that would prevent him from
doing and thinking as he sees fit. He would be free to act according to
his own will, if he knew what he wanted, thought, and felt. But he does
not know. He conforms to anonymous authorities and adopts a self which
is not his. The more he does this, the more powerless he feels, the more
he is forced to conform. In spite of a veneer of optimism and
initiative, modern man is overcome by a profound feeling of
powerlessness which makes him gaze toward approaching catastrophes as
though he were paralyzed.
realization of the self is accomplished not only by an act of thinking
but also by the realization of man's total personality, by the active
expression of his emotional and intellectual potentialities. These
potentialities are present in everybody; they become real only to the
extent to which they are expressed. In other words, positive
freedom consists in the spontaneous activity of the total, integrated
of us can observe at least moments of our own spontaneity which are at
the same time moments of genuine happiness. Whether it be the fresh and
spontaneous perception of a landscape, or the dawning of some truth as
the result of our thinking, or a sensuous pleasure that is not
stereotyped, or the welling up of love for another person -- in these
moments we all know what a spontaneous act is and may have some vision
of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and
inability to act spontaneously, to express what one genuinely feels and
thinks, and the resulting necessity to present a pseudo self to others
and oneself, are the root of the feeling of inferiority and weakness.
Whether or not we are aware of it, there is nothing of which we are more
ashamed than of not being ourselves, and there is nothing that gives us
greater pride and happiness than to think, to feel, and to say what is
implies that what matters is the activity as such, the process and not
the result. In our culture the emphasis is just the reverse. We produce
not for a concrete satisfaction but for the abstract purpose of selling
our commodity; we feel that we can acquire everything material or
immaterial by buying it, and thus things become ours independently of
any creative effort of our own in relation to them. In the same way we
regard our personal qualities and the result of our efforts as
commodities that can be sold for money, prestige, and power. The
emphasis thus shifts from the present satisfaction of creative activity
to the value of the finished product. Thereby man misses the only
satisfaction that can give him real happiness -- the experience of the
activity of the present moment -- and chases after a phantom that leaves
him disappointed as soon as he believes he has caught it -- the illusory
happiness called success.
"If the individual realizes his self by spontaneous activity and thus relates himself to the world, he ceases to be an isolated atom; he and the world become part of one structuralized whole; he has his rightful place, and thereby his doubt concerning himself and the meaning of life disappears. This doubt sprang from his separateness and from the thwarting of life; when he can live, neither compulsively nor automatically but spontaneously, the doubt disappears. He is aware of himself as an active and creative individual and recognizes that there is only one meaning of life: the act of living itself."