In mythology, Narcissus was a man so beautiful, he fell in love with his own reflection as seen in a pool of water and never got up again, making him the epitome of self-obsession. Pan, on the other hand, was a god who delighted in running around forests naked, doing exactly what he cared to without any thought of what others might think of him, or indeed morality.
In our social interactions, there’s a little of either inclination to be found. We all want to stand out…just not too much. We’ll agree with the political opinions of those around us, pretend to like the same music and buy overpriced brand-name clothes, all just to fit in. These are only the external symbols that can be aimed at either group identity or distinction; manifestations of our desire to establish our selfhood without sacrificing our sense of community.
In a sense we end up falling between two chairs: we want to assert our individuality, but only on others’ terms. If academic performance is important in the society we live in, it is simply assumed that it is important to every member, and individuals are expected to adjust their behavior and values accordingly. If the community’s focus is primarily on being financially successful or serving others, every person is expected to embrace these as priorities.
While this mechanism can have enormous social benefits, there are also a number of harmful aspects involved. Unquestioning belonging can have adverse effects on both the individual and those around him, just like unthinking rebellion does. A community, class or group is often defined in negative rather than positive terms – who does not belong, rather than the commonalities of those who do. This can manifest in the form of racism or bigotry in some other shape, while simply belonging to a collective can lead to unwarranted feelings of self-importance. Either of these can easily be used as justification for committing some of the most hideous acts without any feelings of shame or remorse.
Furthermore, especially in closed, hierarchical societies, the allowable range of views and the ways in which they can be expressed will eventually lead to a state of almost pathological conformity. Without the opinions of outsiders being heard and seriously entertained, a positive feedback loop develops. Eventually, a state is reached where the biggest zealots are seen as moral exemplars, received wisdom is no longer questioned and any deviance from the norm is seen not as courageous, but as unethical and disruptive.
From an individual’s perspective, similar effects may well occur even when not living in an extremist society. Since we define normality by what we see on a daily basis, we may not even be aware of how dysfunctional some group’s view of itself and its members is without objective advice from somebody acquainted with psychological principles. What is utterly bizarre from an outsider’s perspective may be completely commonplace within an insular microculture, such as supporting the wrong sports team being seen as somehow immoral, or drug abuse being regarded as an acceptable practice.
Both as individuals and group members, we should strive for a state of being somewhere between that of Pan and Narcissus. While completely ignoring societal norms in favor of pleasing ourselves is unsustainable in the long run, so is spending our energy on admiring and extolling our own virtues, without ever questioning their true value. It may be extremely difficult to gauge where on this spectrum both we as individuals and the social groupings we belong to lie, but refusing to do so may be masking the root causes of significant psychic obstacles.