Our thoughts are generally not just our own thoughts. What we think, what we say, and ultimately what we do is influenced by other people. We are social animals and come to understand ourselves and define ourselves socially. However, we often are not aware of just how much this social conditioning shapes our thinking and understanding. Fernando Pessoa writes about this in his book The Book of Disquiet which was assembled from his notes and published after his death.
In a translation from the original Portuguese by Margaret Jull Costa, Pessoa writes, “Their inability to say what they see or think is a cause of suffering to most people. …they imagine that to define something one should say what other people want, and not what one needs to say in order to produce a definition.”
When we think about something, it is often in the context of social situations. We don’t exist in a vacuum where we can give everything around us a name and definition, so we must rely on the knowledge and understanding of others in creating a shred definition and shared meaning in what we communicate. At a basic level, we must share some type of understanding to communicate how we are feeling, what something is, what happened, and what it all means. However, we go a step further than just this.
We anticipate what other people want to hear and expect to hear, and we adjust our communication accordingly. Pessoa seems to suggest that we don’t just adapt our speaking and communication when we do this, but we adjust our entire way of thinking to align with what we think other people believe, feel, and understand. We don’t think and develop concepts independently, but we do so socially, depending on others and making assumptions about what is happening in their head as we formulate ideas within our own heads. Because our thoughts are not independent, when we are asked to define something abstract we falter. Rather than simply describing the thing, we become paralyzed as we try to think about what is already in another person’s head, what they are expecting to hear, and what they will think if we provide a definition they did not expect. Rather than being free and brave enough to offer our own definition, or to have our own thoughts, we simply adopt the social beliefs around us, conforming to the shared thoughts of others.
In one sense I find it troubling that we don’t have our own independent thoughts and ideas. But at the same time, I don’t know what it would mean for everyone to have independent thoughts and understandings of the world. I don’t know how we could cooperate and build a society if we all had truly distinct thoughts and opinions about how the world should operate and about how to define the world as it is. I find that when I consider the reality of our social minds, I fall back on the same conclusion as always, it is important to be aware of what is really happening and understand that we don’t think independently of others, but I don’t know how that should change our ways of thinking or our manifesting behaviors on individual or societal levels. Perhaps our honesty with ourselves will make us less cocky and less arrogant, but perhaps it will open us up to be taken advantage of by people who are. Ultimately, having more knowledge of what our minds are really doing will hopefully make us better people.