Collective Consciousness

I grew up in northern New Jersey, in a relatively diverse town of about 50,000 residents. When I entered high school at the tender age of 14, I found myself associating with some girls who may not have been the best influences. I craved adventure. I craved rebellion. After all, I had a developing frontal lobe. Some of the girls I grew close with would steal from the Mandee’s clothing store closest to the high school. These girls were cool, and I wanted to fit in. At first, I thought it was cool enough just to be around those kinds of activities. But after a while, the rush faded. I had to do it for myself.

Without fully registering the risk of the undertaking, I went for it. My first-round of shoplifting consisted of a few pairs of underwear completely inappropriate for a 14-year-old, which I knew would appall my mom. (I’d hand-wash them in the bathroom and hang them to dry in the eves attached to my bedroom.) I did it by walking in the store, grabbing some jeans and a few shirts to try on, carefully hiding a few pairs of underwear in between the garments, and heading into the dressing room. I added the three pairs of underwear to my current set and put my regular pants back on. I walked out of the fitting room and said the clothes didn’t fit right. I looked around at a few other things to prevent suspicion and walked out the door.

I walked to the next block where my friends were waiting, and I proudly showed them the items I snagged. We all laughed. My new friends were proud of me and hell, I was proud of myself. That was easy! And what a rush!

It’s All Collective

If I had been hanging out with a peer group that shunned stealing and breaking the law, I wouldn’t have done it. There would have been nothing in my mind to make me (A) think it was okay to steal or (B) brazen enough to try it. I don’t blame my friends. I was out there seeking their adventures. But I do blame the collective consciousness that made us think it was okay.

I like to think I’m a good person. I like to think I have morals. I like to think I have a sound conscience. But I’m also a realist. Even with a fully formed frontal lobe, I’m likely still able to be convinced to make some terrible decisions.

In The Tattooist of Auschwitz by Heather Morris, a true and gut-wrenching tale of a gentleman named Lale Sokolov who was responsible for tattooing numbers on prisoners on their entry to the infamous Auschwitz concentration camp. After reading the novel, my head was spinning. I could picture myself in his shoes, trying to survive my imprisonment by tattooing innocent people. There were characters on both sides of that story that forced me to look at myself in different ways than I’d ever have imagined. Could I have been a Nazi guard performing the unthinkable?

It’s less difficult to treat other people terribly or ignore laws when those around you are doing the same. It’s common to begin acting even more terrible if you get away with minor infractions. While my stealing three pairs of underwear after school one day might not have the same effect on the world as the Holocaust, it does have one thing in common: the potential danger of a collective consciousness.

The definition of a collective consciousness is the “fundamental sociological concept that refers to the set of shared beliefs, ideas, attitudes, and knowledge that are common to a social group or society.”

Thinking of the potential danger, I ponder a few difficult questions. If I were surrounded by people who imprison, torture and kill Jewish people, would it be difficult to follow their murderous orders? If I lived in the Southern portion of the United States 80 years ago as a white male, would it have been unfathomable to torture and kill African Americans? If I worked in a prison, would it be difficult to demean inmates? If I grew up in a community that vilified the LGTBQ community, would it be difficult to bully and torture a transsexual woman walking down the street?

No. If you or I were in any of those positions, we’d act horribly human, not humanely compassionate.


It’s 2020. A pandemic has forced me into the comfort of my own home. I still haven’t given up on my no TV streak: I proudly have 16 months under my belt. But I’m home. After working full days, raising two kids, being a conscientious homeowner, and caring for my two dogs, five chickens, and one spider, I habitually crack open a book and read. But lately, I’ve been spending more time on Instagram.

I imagine that may not seem positive to some folks out there, but it’s helped me to widen my perspective in a quicker manner than reading books. I’ve started following people of all nationalities, races, locations, and sexual orientations. These are not people in the media who are pushing agendas. These are people – like you and me – that are sharing their stories and perceptions of the world.

It’s a profoundly powerful place to be. It’s increased my empathy. It’s widened the scope of the collective consciousness to which I belong. And I recommend it to anyone. Let’s stop conforming to our confirmation biases and start widening our perspectives.

Let’s stop acting human and start being more humane.


JoAnna Bennett
JoAnna Bennett
Mother, Marketer, Writer, and Reader. I’m a mother of two wonderful little humans. I’m also an avid reader, an insatiable learner, and a self-acknowledged survivor. I’m grateful to work at O’Brien Communications Group (OCG) because I’ve learned the self-soothing and restorative craft of writing. I used to resist calling myself a writer because I have a finance degree. I naively thought I needed an English degree to effectively express myself in writing. But now, writer is a title I proudly wear, and writing is something I’ll practice for the rest of my life.

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  1. JoAnna thanks for sharing your story.

    In an exercise years ago– as a volunteer on the running it side of a brief skit as re-enactment of the camp you mention — I was assigned the role of magic markering numbers on the people attending. As if giving that tattoo that gentleman you referred to.

    Even in an about-an-hour exercise that freaked me out. And I was on the front-end, for just a few minutes…

    It’s eye opening to put oneself into another role for just moments.

    Perspective taking is a powerful tool.

    Your description of your use of Instagram is a good tool for perspective taking!

    Thanks for your educational reflection.


    • Thank you Cynthia. It’s difficult to widen our perspective in our current climate. We’re all stuck inside. Social media algorithms push our current perspective’s content. We watch too much TV. And we don’t give ourselves a chance to see others as people, they usually remain foreign entities.

      But there is only one way to come together. That’s through commonalities. And we are all much more alike than we are different.

      As I type that a lyric from one of my son’s favorite shows – Daniel Tiger – comes to mind.

      “We are different but that’s okay
      Because sometimes we feel the same way

      In some ways we are different
      But in so many ways, we are the same”

  2. The main problem of human identity is that of how to live a natural existence, that is, not forced by circumstances that lead to making non-human choices. The difference should be minimal between humanity and naturalness.
    If humans lived according to nature, they would not be forced to seek the meaning of their life in excess, in the extreme or in the paradox. In fact, the most symptomatic of this lack of identity is precisely the refined diversity with which you want to live. The anxiety of protagonism, that is, the desire to be desperately someone, is an indication of certain alienation.

  3. Wow… this is such an amazing piece, Joanna! We’d all like to think that we’d rise above and ALWAYS do the “right thing” no matter the circumstances. Research shows otherwise. You nail it here:

    “If you or I were in any of those positions, we’d act horribly human, not humanely compassionate.”

    None of us can say for sure what we’d do if we were the tattoo guy or the prison guard or the person facing the trans woman… until we are there. But one thing I know for sure is that having meaningful conversations like this one is the best way to raise our awareness and invite each of us to get a little uncomfortable with our insecurities. Thank you for sharing this one!

    • Thank you Melissa! Getting uncomfortable is the only way out of terrible situations according to my experience. It’s hard. Ugly at times. And all encompassing. But it’s worth it. And I think we’ll get there. I know we will. Maybe not everyone, but I think if enough of us do the hard work, we’ll be able to make the world a better place.

  4. Oh JoAnna! This was awesome! What a powerful piece. Earlier this week, a guy posted on our local NextDoor site that he had gone into a gas station and the attendant wasn’t wearing a mask, nor were any of the other patrons in the store (even though, FINALLY, we have a mask mandate in TX). It was the first time he had been out in 3 months, since his wife has an auto-immune disorder. Two guys in the store started bullying him for wearing a mask and then proceeded to block his exit and said some really horrible, horrible things. I’ve been thinking all week about how that could happen. What would give people permission to do such a horrible thing to another human being? And you’re right, it’s the collective consciousness of our country right now that’s fueling it. The challenge is, how to shift it. We can shift our own thinking, by doing what you’re doing and consciously seeking out understanding. But how do we shift a nation that is headed for the giant iceberg?

  5. The awareness that I’m coming to – I’m reading HOW TO BE AN ANTIRACIST by Ibram Kendi – is that there is no middle ground in any of the four scenarios:

    “Thinking of the potential danger, I ponder a few difficult questions. If I were surrounded by people who imprison, torture and kill Jewish people, would it be difficult to follow their murderous orders? If I lived in the Southern portion of the United States 80 years ago as a white male, would it have been unfathomable to torture and kill African Americans? If I worked in a prison, would it be difficult to demean inmates? If I grew up in a community that vilified the LGTBQ community, would it be difficult to bully and torture a transsexual woman walking down the street?”

    If I answer “Yes, it would be difficult” to the first question, but do nothing to stop it, am I just as complicit as the ones engaged in the acts? Am I part of the collective consciousness? We could ask and answer to the remaining three. According to Kendi, not supporting racist ideas and beliefs, but not working against racist policies in some way is racist. There is no middle ground.

    Your call to action – start being more humane – is spot on.

    • Thank you Jeff. I started reading Ibram Kendi’s book but picked up something else in between. I know I’ll get back to it, I just needed a break. Sometimes when I read very impactful books that happens. It’s as if my brain can only handle so much truth at a time.

      And I agree with his sentiment. There is no middle ground. I loved how his book started with him being vulnerable and showing his mistakes. We are not perfect. We could never be born with all the knowledge we’d need for life. And frankly I don’t believe we ever hit a final limit. Learning should be a lifelong experience. It’s the only way we’ll truly grow and prosper!

  6. Beauuuuutiful piece lovely Joanna! You have been missed and I’m still moved by how much my essay around protecting our kids from the disturbed manipulators resonated with you! I am still looking for some way to make it viral btw 😁🙈

    What do you think the “collective consciousness” has been replacing? Let me help you my dear friend: the Universal Conscience; our original ‘Center’; what we were ALL fairly granted by the pure love divinity at the moment of our conception by our parents.

    What happened? We were distorted by our numerous limiting beliefs vehiculated to us from our mom’s belly to 7. Who is responsible for those destructive beliefs in the first place? You guessed right! They are the cancer of which every kind-hearted individual needs to become aware…

    “If we want to give ourselves a real chance to fix this superficial, selfish and immoral world we are living in, we need to stop enabling narcissists in the first place…”

  7. Thank you as always Joanna for your superb articles. You pose great questions. Recently, I read that Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn, the Russian author, political prisoner, and much more once discussed referred to the challenging questions you raise. When questioned about the bad guys, he made it clear that anyone of us could be on the other side which he once was in terms of supporting communist ideology. All of us must continue to strive toward being moral because all of us could falter under the right circumstances. Thank you also for sharing about the book. I have seen, and I will put it on my list that seems to be endless.

    • I know the feeling of an endless reading list. Even my bedside table has a stack of emergent reads, how will I ever get to the non-emergent ones! Thank you for sharing Aleksandre Solzhenitsyn’s name, my Google search alone has me very intrigued.

      I know you’ve read a few of my stories involving some of my recent battles with intimate partner violence and a post-separation abuse laden divorce. I think the concept of not everyone who is bad is all bad – helps me cope with some of my decisions to stay as long as I did. It also helps me to be a bit more compassionate. Not forgiving or naive, but empathetic and thankful to have my new life.

      • Joanna,

        I am pleased it could be helpful. I have listened to many people from situations where finances are not the issue. Leaving a situation, no matter how destructive, is never easy. It is about attachment and death of a way of life. I do not have to tell you that. Yes, be easy on yourself.💖