Erich Fromm:
Spontaneity

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We’ve already touched briefly upon Fromm’s notion of individuation, which we've described as a course of maturation that faces each individual. As children we generally live under the protection of a higher power, the parent or guardian, and our bondage to them provides us with a sense of security. In growing we are forced from beneath their wing and out onto the path of maturation; we are free to fly our own course, to make up our own minds. In becoming free from primary bonds – those ties that are characterized by our relationship to our parents, that imply a lack of individuality, but also a sense of security and orientation – we are faced with the bewildering reality of our independence; a situation that, as we’ve seen, was brought about on a societal scale by the advance of capitalism. If we are unable to bear the anxiety that is constellated by our state of isolation and unsurety, we may choose to escape our freedom and flee once more into bondage.

In our escape we abdicate the responsibility of maturity; we flee the path on which we are set, fearing the vulnerability of open space, and the interminability of the horizon, running instead for the safety of cover, of stasis. To walk the path is to realise the self as a totality; we must become transparent to ourselves, so that as little as possible remains repressed. When we can see through ourselves we are able to more fully be ourselves.

Here we can see parallels to the idea of mindfulness; becoming transparent implies recognising our nature; understanding, for example, the meanings that are guiding us, the categories and assumptions that we are living by, and how they are influencing our thoughts and actions.

When we are able to be ourselves we are more able to be spontaneous, and spontaneity is, for Fromm, an expression of “genuine happiness”37. He points to small children as an example of those who are able to live spontaneously; “They have an ability to feel and think that which is really theirs; this spontaneity shows in what they say and think, in the feelings that are expressed in their faces.” He goes on to say, “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 as spontaneous act is and may have some vision of what human life could be if these experiences were not such rare and uncultivated occurrences.”38

Fromm is careful to qualify his ideas about individuality, reminding us that the path from primary bonds to an realization of the self is also the path towards new bonds; those built on an affirmation of the self, rather than a denial; “Spontaneous activity is the one way in which man can overcome the terror of aloneness without sacrificing the integrity of his self; for in the spontaneous realization of the self man unites himself anew with the world – with man, nature, and himself.”39

Individuality, for Fromm, implies uniqueness, with spontaneity as the ability to affirm this difference in the presence of the community. It is the opposite of the pseudo-self or the social-self, which is always a compromise to conformity.

Fromm’s notion of spontaneity is closely tied to Terry Eagleton’s ideas about love. To become transparent – to see the self and accept what we see – is to love the self; and to love it is to be disinterested in it – and here we can draw a distinction between self-love and selfishness. Disinterestedness is in many ways an opposite to selfishness, the latter involving an incessant concern with the self founded on a lack of self-love. To be disinterested is not to not have interests, rather it is just that our interest lies in another rather than in ourselves. The selfish person is unable to be disinterested because their sense of self rests on decidedly unsteady foundations, necessitating a constant looking downwards – and inwards – a paranoid self-monitoring that fears dissolution. In contrast, the person who is disinterested - who loves the self - has firm foundations, allowing them to direct their gaze outwards into the world, safe in the knowledge that their bedrock is solid.

If love is, as Fromm suggests, a “lingering quality” waiting to be actualized by an object, then transparency – self-love - is the first instance, and the flowering, of a love that is able to flow outwards and into the community. So we see that Fromm’s notion of self affirmation – that is, acceptance of our individuality “in all our squalor and recalcitrance”40 - is in the end an affirmation of love, a love that can lead outwards towards the other.

To be spontaneous is to see and enjoy the positive aspects of freedom; it is to stay on the path, and to walk onwards with open eyes. “The basic dichotomy that is inherent in freedom – the birth of individuality and the pain of aloneness – is dissolved on a higher plane by man’s spontaneous action.”41 It is, then, freestanding, instead of freefalling. The fear of the child who, upon contact with the expanse of the world – its whirl of experiences and possibilities - rushes to the security of his parents and the various protective illusions of a cosseted existence, is made redundant by a new sense of security – “The new security is dynamic; it is not based on protection, but on man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security acquired each moment by man’s spontaneous activity. It is the security that only freedom can give, that needs no illusions because it has eliminated those conditions that necessitate illusions.”42

Like mindfulness, spontaneity is generally discouraged by our various systems, many of which can be seen to exist as a refuge from negative freedom.


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1 comment:

  1. It's also important to be aware that our joy and our suffering are intimately linked to those of others.

    We can see in everyday life what a difference there is between people who are completely preoccupied with themselves and those whose minds are constantly turned toward others. The former are always ill at ease and dissatisfied. Their narrowness of mind gets in the way of their relationship with others, from whom they have a hard time obtaining anything at all. They never stop knocking on closed doors.

    The latter, on the other hand, who have open minds and are very little concerned about themselves, are always focused on what might be best for others.

    They enjoy such strength of mind that their own problems hardly affect them, and others are always ready to listen to what they have to say.

    [Matthieu Ricard]
    The Monk and the Philsopher, p.195

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