In one of my darker and more discouraging moments the following bleak thought crossed my mind: “Being yourself may be the most elaborate fabricated lie in the history of humanity.”
Individuality has been a modern Western concept contrasting itself self-consciously from what is known as a collective society. The ancient Greeks may have given us the founding blocks, but they still had a more integrated view of the self since it was embedded in the fabric of family and ancestry. William Shakespeare was one of the strongest proponents of individuality by creating characters of flesh and blood with their own unique and life-like characteristics.
Although the idea of individuality spread like wildfire in Europe, it was mostly in the New World that it became a defining trait of society. The American dream was based on individuality, including the myth of the self-made millionaire or the “rags to riches” fairytale. The focus had been on the self, while the goal was to develop your talents in order to be the best you can be in your field. Even the American political system seems to have championed the notion of liberty supporting and encouraging all its necessary characteristics and byproducts, such as free speech, free press, in short, the freedom to voice your personal opinion.
You may have the freedom to be yourself, but how do you know for sure that you are being yourself and not somebody you are told to be? Can you be in fact anybody other than yourself? It would seem that in order to be yourself it is necessary to accentuate what it is that sets you apart from others and hence to differentiate yourself from who or what you are not.
If that were so, then we should see an utterly diverse society, not only ethnically of course, but in terms of different points of view. Yet in reality this is not what society looks like; it is not a cacophony of voices. In fact, our society is surprisingly homogeneous for a world full of free individual beings. For example, in the US, there are only two political parties, in Canada three. Can they really reflect the many conflicting views of each unique being? Why are people easily categorized and compartmentalized considering that each has an individual voice?
One problem may be exactly what I have stated previously, namely that it is all a blatant lie. And when we look at it, just believing that you are free does not necessarily make you free. Is a prisoner who feels free really a free person?
For every society and culture to function and to survive, you need to accept or embrace its basic premises. This is achieved by internalizing these concepts through what sociology calls “en-culteration.” From childhood to adolescence, we are drilled and grilled on how to behave and lectured on what is (morally) acceptable and what is not. There are various sources at work, which means that there is very little room for escape.
We are faced with these ideas at home through our parents, at school and university with our teachers and to an extent even our peers, and finally in our free time through the media, which includes popular music and commercial movies. My question is this: With all this bombardment and overload of information, how can you even remotely be able to find and become yourself?
In fact, some people have suffered and continue to do so. They have been labeled pejoratively as “different,” “weird,” “bizarre,” and have been and are being ostracized. This happened simply because they were “themselves.” It has ranged from issues of sexual orientation to different ways of thinking and alternative lifestyles. A homogeneous and functioning society needs to separate itself from such people as they deem them as dangerous parasites detrimental to the health of the social body.
Hence, in order to be accepted or rather to “fit in,” you need to sacrifice certain parts of yourself. You need to adjust. Or else, you will not be able to find a mate. Your family will turn their back on you. Your teachers will fail you and nobody will want to hire you. You will die penniless and all alone in the filthy street gutters.
So what does it mean to be yourself? It would mean perhaps staying true to your personality, living the life you love, expressing yourself freely. But can you do that without experiencing opposition or even offending people? Because one way or another certain people will always be offended.
There seems to be enough factual evidence against expressions of individuality. But I do not think so, at least not in its ideological sense. I think for any person to be themselves, it is necessary to have critical thinking skills. Being yourself is not just about always doing the opposite of what others are doing.
Being yourself may mean trying to find a system among all the conflicting chaos within ourselves. It means conscious or rational selection. So a person with the urge of killing others, a “natural-born killer” so-to-speak, is not himself because he is acting out his emotions. Being yourself often involves discipline. For example, you really want to pay attention or focus on something but your mind keeps wandering. There seem to be two different selves at war with each other. Which one do you choose?
Though there is nothing inherently wrong with distractions (but a lot wrong with killing fellow beings!), you probably would like to pay attention in that given moment. The same applies when it comes to either acting out aggressive impulses or maintaining calm. These are all in fact transitory purely emotional states and not so much character traits.
You may then be yourself by staying true to your core values, your essence. I think deep down all of us share the same goals. We want to be loved and we want to be happy. There may be differences in the methods and the forms of expressions we use; we may even have different definitions of what love and happiness is for us personally. But it is basically what each one of us is aiming for in this short life.
And as the ancient Greeks would say, our quest for the common good is the main aim in life, be it from a spiritual or humanitarian angle. It is merely that each of us will take our own unique paths as singular as the lines on the palms of our hands or the tip of our fingers in order to get there.