Sunday, February 21, 2010

No Man/Woman is an Island: How Individuality is overrated in Western Civilization

Islands near Fiji

In Western history, the role of the individual has been of paramount importance. Individual accomplishment has always been praised, and the focus has been on willpower, drive, and determination. We are told not to give up despite resistance, to become independent and stand on our very own feet. Why ask for help and assistance when you can do it yourself.

Our society and family, even religion is structured on and around the individual. We may congregate together in Church, but each will have to work out their salvation on their own. Each person needs to have personal faith. Others may support you, guide you, give you compassion, but in the end, we all keep being “islands onto ourselves.”

There is nothing inherently wrong with individualism. In fact, I believe it is healthy and beneficial. But my problem lies with our over-reliance on individuality. All our life, we have been drilled to stand our own ground and take credit for our accomplishments; our worldview is mostly based on this unique perspective.

As a result, we isolate ourselves more than ever from family members and friends, and we will have a tough time or difficulty relating to another person in a close relationship. By exaggerating individual values, we are fostering isolation from the world around us. We are feeding the selfish voice within us and are guided only by what suits and benefits us best personally regardless of its impact on others or our community.

This is a tremendous difference between our society and that of the ancients, for example. For the Greeks, community / state and family values were highly valued, and one ought to always yield to the benefits of the many despite inconveniences of the self. There is a humility that holds one in check, so that one does not cut oneself off from the crowd.

Certain of these views are reflected in some collectivist societies where the individual works and acts for the whole, and any recognition of the group reflects equally on each individual member. We get this only sometimes, such as in team sport events, where the hockey team wins gold, and every player rejoices in it.

However, each member also wants to become the most valued member and become a superstar, and, at times, these athletes, often referred to as “hogs,” are the ones who want most, if not all, the credit for the success. That would often cause tension within the team and affect adversely the progress of the harmonious whole.

In my opinion, we have to face certain truths about life. First off, we are not alone. I believe that we are all part of the cosmos the same way that each drop of water may have its value, but gathers only force and power in relation to the rest of its members. Secondly, our efforts are often merited, but success does not always lie within ourselves. I believe that there are always higher powers at work that may either help or hinder us from achieving our goals. People who work hard to attain a lot of money through their continuous work or striving may see it all disappear in a haze in the context of a sudden and unexpected devaluation. Overnight that person may become “equalized” by forces beyond his or her control.

Despite all the benefits in science and technology largely due to our work ethic and reliance on the individual self, there have been also drawbacks on our spiritual states. We find it much harder to live a happy life, to relate to others in a meaningful way and to connect to spirituality in a profound manner.

Individuality should have its limits, and we should all regroup for the higher cause because, in fact, we all benefit from it. By understanding in a real way that I am no different from the other, by seeing how individual strings are connecting me with the outside world and everything that happens in it, by tracing all our efforts and lives to one common source and origin and grasping how all of humanity, in fact, how all things living and non-living are part of the same whole, the cosmos, then we are in a condition to enjoy life to a maximum, to feel bliss and not be the isolated individual slowly wasting away on a deserted island somewhere offshore.


Nomad said...

There is something intellectually dishonest about the concept of "a limited form of individuality." Who sets that limit? Religion? Government or Society? Or family?
It is a very short distance between being a team member to marching in goose-step. Individuality- choosing to think for oneself- and being selfish are not- or at least, need not be- the same things.
Even a superficial study of history will show you that those people thinking outside of the fashion of their times are usually the most admired, the models for the future generations.

emre said...

Collectivist societies use your arguments to keep people in line. Go to one some time.

Collectivism is fertile breeding ground for intolerance, and its worse yet.

The Rambling Taoist said...

If we look at nature, it's easy to see the interconnection of all things. It's only in human society that separation is seen.

Incarnate Sensibilities said...

This is an interesting subject. I enjoyed reading this. I wrote on a similar topic on my blog, and would be interested in what you would think of my spin on it.