When I was young I had an odd, somewhat unconscious anxious habit. Someone would say, “It’s like in that movie _______, ya know?” and I would say, “Yeah,” and they’d continue with their story. The conversation kept flowing, the other thought I was in tune with them, and all was well. Except that I had never seen the movie and had no idea what they were talking about.
You could call that a white lie, but then you’d miss the point of the function of my silly response. I was nervous, insecure, and while not really consciously trying to save face, I was rather unconsciously wanting to go along with the other, to keep the other person happy and to feel connected. So I traded a real connection in for the superficial connection of going along with the crowd.
What we’re up against
I think that’s a simple, real life example of a pretty serious problem we face in our modern world: the crowd mentality. We’ve all heard about it – it’s that pressure to go along with what others are saying without thinking for oneself, how a person can betray one’s values or original thinking for the sake of not rocking the boat or in order to be accepted, the way a person can shut his/her own brain off and plug into the opinions broadcast on the news, social media, you name it.
Fr. Joseph Kentenich wrote and spoke frequently about the crowd-mentality. He devoted most of his life’s mission to educating people to grapple with it, and overcome it.
“People with a crowd mentality can be found wherever there have been gatherings of the human race since the beginning of time. Let me explain. Wherever we find crowds gathering, we will soon find people with a crowd mentality. Hence the law: Mass-minded people are as old as gatherings of the human race.”
And in another text: “Those people today wear a mask who have lost themselves in the crowd. Becoming part of the crowd – not just as a tendency, but in reality – totally destroys the original self with its original drives. It is mass-mindedness.”
– Fr. Kentenich
Is it worse today?
While the crowd mentality is nothing new, I do think our modern reality has exponentially increased the pressure to cave in to mass-mindedness, and at the same time weakened the conditions wherein a free personality can grow and be encouraged to flourish. And this to me is the real catch-22: an anxious society tends towards a crowd mentality, which discourages free, creative leaders who think for themselves – which (remembering Dr. DeShong’s lessons from Part I of this post) would be just the thing to lead them out of the anxiety (the free person, that is).
Fr. Kentenich did not see this as a Catholic vs. Secular problem, and in fact often spoke about how “Even in the Catholic camp there are people with a crowd mentality.” He gave his life to educating the firm, free and supernatural person. Speaking to Catholic educators, he said, “It is hardly possible today to over-stress the importance of educating people to decide for themselves,” and again, “You should also ensure that each individual person has so much clarity about himself or herself that in normal circumstances they are able to lead themselves.”
What does all this have to do with conviction, belief and stress? When I think for my self, and make decisions based on my own inner reflections rather than the pressure of the crowd, the pressure of my friends, or the pressure of my parents or spouse, then my decisions have at last set down roots deep enough to withstand any storm. And as an added gift to the community, only then does is the strong tree of my original personality, if you will, become able to give shade and comfort to others through the gift of respecting the other’s freedom in response.
Sometimes Fr. Kentenich called this the “radio-man” or “film-man” – I’m pretty sure today he’d say there was an “internet-man” or a “Facebook-man” too! How many times have I slipped into the stupor? It blows my mind how accurate his illustration of this phenomena is, although he was writing this in the 1950s and 60s! –>
This is the typical ‘radio person’. Inwardly such people are incapable of solidarity, they live side-by-side with others or apart from them. Everything loses its cohesion. Since they no longer possess an overflowing wellspring of life within themselves, they search constantly outside themselves to bring together a colourful collection of things. They are helped in this by the radio as though by a mechanical memory or calculator. It lists the things and events of the day in a disjointed fashion and they simply pass by. People accept the content of their thinking and their inner lives from the radio without selection. They are only connected directly with the radio, as it were, and no longer with their own thoughts.
That is why people no longer have an inner history. The radio is their history, they draw their existence from it. As a result people have to fall prey to outward things. Radio broadcasts are presented without any context. So the ‘radio person’ also lacks an inner context and does not even think any more that an essential element of the human person is to have an inner, coherent world of their own. Without inner recollection, and hence without a personal connection to an event, people finally can find no meaning in an event. As a result their inner emptiness grows and they become bored.395 Conversation becomes impossible in the face of this outward coexistence that excludes attachment or cohesion, and leads to a deep impoverishment of the heart.
This is because the dialogue of our lives, or the unfolding of God’s image and likeness, can only come from deep within ourselves. That is where God’s image and likeness lives, which is the content of the dialogue.”
Is that prophetic or what? Another way to put it, as Angelus Silesius said: “Whoever loves freedom, loves God.”
So…what are we aiming for, if not that?
As people of faith, we can have the conviction that it is to God whom we first owe this freedom, and attached to Him and surrendered to Him that we primarily access and develop this freedom. When we incline our self in freedom to Him, we are secure in our self & freedom before others. Thus we work towards the organic inner connection between solid personalities, true freedom and the royal obedience of a child of God. As Pope Leo XIII said:
“By subjecting their minds, human beings serve Christ the Lord. They in no way behave like slaves, but in complete harmony with their intellect and their innate dignity. They submit freely to God’s dominion, not that of another human being. God is their Creator and the Lord of all, to whom they are subject by the law of nature. They do not allow themselves to be bound by the opinion of a human teacher, but by eternal, unchangeable Wisdom itself. In this way they arrive at a natural development of their minds, and at the same time they become free.”
A kind reminder for us all from the last post – this is a life-long project, and it is hard work. Thinking for one self is difficult. Listening to our inner life amid the demands of practical life is a constant challenge. And so it may be helpful to think about it as a real step-by-step journey, a daily life experiment of practicing it. And since this side of heaven we will always be faced with anxiety, I don’t think any one of us will ever “arrive” at being immune to a crowd mentality. But if one works diligently on it and seeks to set down deep roots in God, I do think it is possible to turn the tide of mass-mindedness, one person, one family, one community at a time.