Individualism Run Amok

In America, individualism (a doctrine that the interests of the individual are ethically paramount) is a driving force, from the basis of the economy to the government. Can this concept of individualism go too far? Perhaps it explains part of why among graduating high school students there is an increasing trend for their number 1 and number 2 goals in life to be ‘rich’ and ‘famous’ (according to a Pew poll).

It seems that individual fame and fortune reap our attention all the time, regardless of its source, from Bernie Madoff to Paris Hilton to John Edwards to Michael Phelps (swimming to smoking): famous or infamous – they seem to blur together.

I was surprised to read the other day that in some cultures if you are asked ‘how are you?’ the answer never begins with the pronoun ‘I’ but rather with a ‘we’ as in ‘we are fine or not fine’. The ‘we’ refers to the extended family of the respondent. Without the health of all, there is no health of ‘I’ at all.

That struck me as a nice way of seeing the fallacy of individualism taken to the extreme. We are never really an ‘I’ alone, we arise through the input and shaping of others – from our genes to the environments in which we are raised, to our parents, families and friends and workplaces. In the psychology of many Americans there is a tendency to ‘push past the family’ rather than embrace it and expand from there. But our ‘I’ of happiness (or not) arises in our dependent nature.

The idea of individualism can be seen along a continuum of sorts – and perhaps we have moved a little too far to the extreme. It is this extreme that may inflate our narcissism as a nation. Perhaps many of the ills of American society today arise because we have forgotten this continuum itself and boxed ourselves into one extreme corner.

From this corner, we create unrealistic expectations for our members which results in widespread ’self-criticism’ and ’self-loathing’. We are doomed to failure if we fall short of expectations, and our expectations are located somewhere in the stratosphere, so high they can rarely be reached.

Our individualism has run amok. We praise our children for being unique and create a sense of expectation that they can rise above the masses and ‘be noticed’ because of their uniqueness. But they have all the same fears, sorrows, joys, and pains as everyone else and the chance of rising above the masses is miniscule in probability – we dangle a carrot that they can rarely reach. The ‘you are special’ message doesn’t match their reality and striving sets in. We want to meet the challenge, to rise above the others in our uniqueness or individuality regardless of the means of getting there: attention from the masses validates our arrival.

How do we undo this social ill, not let go of individualism per se but perhaps move a bit back to center on its continuum? Perhaps we need to change our language, borrowing from some cultures that recognize the We in Me and answer in the plural?

Perhaps we stop idolizing individual successes so much and shift our attention to group endeavors – the volunteers en masses that help with disasters (floods, fires, etc) without singling out a ‘hero’ all the time, attend to the actions of organizations (Congress, Senate, Supreme Court) NGOs, schools, hospitals, rather than focusing on individuals who capture our attention often because of ’scandalous’ behaviors. We need more messages that focus on the importance of our ordinary nature, an embracing of our strengths and weakness, of our humanity itself. An acceptance of who we are just as we are. Maybe we focus on the efforts of teams, communities, organizations and groups, rather than the individual. It is a continuum – this individualism concept – perhaps we can move a bit more toward its center.

We can each investigate how we express our individualism in our interactions in the world. Perhaps our ‘I’ can be ‘We’ more and more. And if we attend more toward the group and our communities than our particular roles in them maybe we – as a society – can move more toward the Center.

And from the Center, we may live with greater equanimity and shared humanity.