Man the Measure of All Things

March 09, 1994|By DAVID AWBREY

WICHITA, KANSAS — Wichita, Kansas.--As reported in the Book of Exodus, when Moses encountered the burning bush, he asked God for his name. God responded by saying, ''I am who I am.''

Many people today apparently crave a similar divine self-definition. How else explain the explosion of books, lectures and videotapes designed to get Americans more in touch with their ''inner selves'' or ''true being''?

Books by such writers as Marianne Williamson, Deepak Chopra and Thomas More frequently top the best-seller list. Although differing in approach, the authors generally agree that individuals can have control over their destinies and that self-doubt is one of the greatest barriers to happiness.

That was the message brought recently by Wayne Dyer, the author of ''Your Erroneous Zones'' and ''You'll See It When You Believe It.'' In an interview, Mr. Dyer said that individual transformation is the key to changing society's consciousness.

''If people have an idea of how spiritual and divine they are within and begin to radiate that, it has a tremendous impact on the community,'' he said. ''To the extent we can reach individuals, we impact not just the local community, but the global community as well.''

In many respects, Mr. Dyer and similar authors are the cultural heirs of Benjamin Franklin, whose ''Poor Richard's Almanack'' was an early example of the American passion for self-improvement. There is something in the American psyche that sees each person as a work in progress and life as a quest for perfection.

That tendency has been especially powerful in the post-World War II era, which has seen the rise of the human-potential movement in psychology and existentialism and deconstructionism in philosophy -- which see truth as largely a subjective matter. In popular culture, the fetish for personal growth has run from reading Herman Hesse's ''Siddhartha'' during the 1960s to physical fitness in the 1980s.

The trend in the 1990s seems to be spirituality. Having followed the paths of drugs, sex, pop psychologies, material affluence and similar stimulants to dead ends, many people are looking inside themselves for purpose and meaning. As Mr. Dyer suggests, once you are right within yourself, you can change the world.

The problem is that the search for self-fulfillment more often leads to social isolation than to community connection. Rather than being grounded on history, tradition, revealed religion or other aspects of human culture, truth becomes whatever the individual decides. The result is a radical selfishness that sees the world and everyone in it as a reflection of one's ego -- whatever works for me is justified because it works for me.

Philip Selznick, professor emeritus of law at the University of California-Berkeley, wrote in his 1992 book, ''The Moral Commonwealth,'' that people today are more concerned about constructing themselves than in fabricating things.

'' 'Man makes himself' becomes the motto of the age. This includes, most importantly, the choice of self-defining values. As a result, morality is made, not discovered; personal, not social; self-imposed, not ordained. With the ascendence of subjectivity -- the human subject as its own legislator -- even God becomes a human creation,'' Mr. Selznick wrote.

Disciples of Wayne Dyer and other self-actualizers carry a heavy burden. By relying primarily on themselves to make sense of a chaotic world, they are denied the experiences and teachings of centuries of human history. Lacking the support of a time-tested religious tradition, they have no external authority to support their self-images -- no god on high, no inspired texts to guide their way, no absolutes to gauge the wisdom of the latest intellectual or psychological fashion.

This self-centered quest for self-identity is usually futile. Aristotle said that humans are social creatures. To be truly independent, self-confident and aware, people need foundations. Otherwise, individuals are left with little more than prejudice, dissonance and absurdity, and facts become little more than subjective interpretations dictated by political domination.

John Dewey, perhaps the greatest American philosopher, said truth should be grounded in human experience rather than abstract reasoning or wishful thinking. To avoid the self-deception that comes from extreme subjectivity, Dewey argued that the search for knowledge and self-understanding should start with practical, problem-solving examples from the past.

Instead of recognizing limits -- the first lesson of history -- most of the do-it-yourself-spirituality books stress personal choice. Thus, when Mr. Dyer complains that ''people's visions are tarnished by doubt,'' he seems to be saying that boundaries are the problem and that an individual's grasp is restricted only by imagination.

In fact, none of these authors advocates a particular political program or a coherent set of principles and values that can be assessed according to objective standards of truth.

When all ideas are relative, nothing has significance. When choice itself is paramount but choices aren't meaningful, life becomes trivial, truth becomes opinion, society becomes a gaggle of self-absorbed individualists.

Many people today hunger for ''authenticity'' -- a sense of being linked to ultimate reality. But mired in the muck of their own minds, few seekers can transcend self-indulgence.

Thus, just as the ancient Hebrews bowed to the Golden Calf, many Americans look to the banalities of best-seller list for truth. Yet, instead of a burning bush, they find only a pile of ashes.

David Awbrey is editorial-page editor of the Wichita Eagle.

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