Wednesday, June 08, 2005

Individuality

The previous post started out by counting my blessings. This is a follow-up of sorts.

The reason I'm really lucky isn't that I have never been badly hurt or that I got to go to a good school. It's that I was brought up with the ability to recognize how lucky I am. My parents are behind that; they taught me very early that I should appreciate what I had, and as I grew up I saw more and more people in situations that made my teenage dramas look mundane and irrelevant (which is what they usually were). I still see things like that, and every time I get too tied up in the little things and forget the bigger picture, something comes along and hits me full-on to remind me that life is not about Me, it's about Us.

A lot of people don't ever realize that there is more to life than Me and My Needs, Fears and Opinions. If You don't share My opinions, You are [insert derogatory word here]. If I want that, I get it. Unfortunately the majority of the world seems to be eager to spread that idea. The "Individualist" culture that has sprung up a few times before has come back en force with a new look. Everywhere I turn today, people are cutting themselves off from their community, their friends and even their family because the new buzz-word is "me-time" and nobody is eager to share.

We live in a world where "communication" is easier than ever before, but we can't even talk to our families any more. I can't remember the last time I sat down and had an honest, open talk with my mother about what was happening in my life, despite her best attempts to dig information out of me when we're driving or on occasion actually eating in the same room. It's tough to say something important to someone who you don't think knows you very well, whether that person is a parent, a child, a friend or a co-worker.

The internet appeals by telling us all about the online communities we can join and the networking we can do with people around the world, but I rarely see it used to bring users together. Instead, people continue to break off from the main groups and start new ones, so that the ever-growing network of solitary computer users sitting in ill-lighted rooms or in crowded workplace cubicles has become like an anthill without a queen. Everyone is doing his own thing -blogging, internet marketing, web design, programming- and occasionally it will attract the attention of a few others, but nobody listens to The Source of All Wisdom anymore and many people are so suspicious of the online world that they refuse to deal with communities at all. I'm not saying the internet has demolished our sense of community, because I have seen a few places where people form bonds just as strongly online as groups do IRL (in real life). However, there are more people who remain separate than there are in the best of these online groups.

For a long time, private offices and cubicles at work have put the focus on the individual. I've heard that some companies are finally breaking away from this and trying to encourage teamwork and cooperation; it's not working very well, from what I've seen. It's tough to get people to work together after cutting them off from one another for so long, and a teamwork workshop isn't as effective if people have already set up perceptions about leaders and followers.

In homes as well, it's all about the individual. Our culture sells the idea that children should have their own bedrooms because they need to be alone sometimes. It also sells personal CD players, game systems, computers, phones, mini-fridges - everything but the kitchen sink - so that when little Bobby is alone, he can entertain himself in private with whatever he likes. The living room has all but disappeared, unless Dad brings home a rented movie that everyone agrees on seeing. The dining room is gone, replaced by a table or island in the kitchen where nobody shares a meal, they can grab plates and head off to the office or bedroom or TV room. Board games are still around, but I can't name many people who sit down with family and play them any more. Today's games are friend-oriented and require as little communication as possible, distracting us with lights and noises so that we never quite get around to conversation any more. I'm bothered by that more than anything else. There was a time when everyone could sit down and talk about anything and everything, even if it was just a short chat over dinner. Now, we have to read our friends' weblogs to hear about how their day was and if we need to talk with them it's through email or instant messenger. We have become cut off from each other, so much that when we do get into a group with others we are awkward, sometimes unsure of social conventions and unable to give a friendly hug if we need to.

Individualism is all around us. We try to personalize our belongings by adding stickers, pins, posters, drawings, and names to the brand-name stuff that everyone has. We want to be heard because being individual means getting My opinions out no matter what anyone else has to say, and even if there are four hundred websites that say the same thing mine does, I will make a new one because then I will be able to lay claim to the opinion instead of following someone else. If You have something I like, I will get it for Myself, but then I will also make it different from Yours so that it is totally Mine. Nobody likes the concept of sharing any more, and it seems sometimes that we are living in a world of four year olds whose favorite words are "no!" and "mine!"

It's funny that with all of the individualist ideas running around, no one really stops and thinks about the trends they are following. I suppose that in any herd of sheep, none really wonder why they're grazing with the herd, because they are following a base instinct that there is safety in numbers and none want to be excluded or left on the edge. The edge is dangerous. Those on the edge are the first to be exposed to the big wide world outside the circle of wool. They get to pick up their heads if they like, and look out not over a sea of uniformity but a panorama of mountains and valleys, sun and shadow. They can, if they are brave or curious, wander out of the herd, because they are not trapped in the middle and have some choice about which way to walk. These are the sheep who might not run when the sheepdog comes to round them up. In people terms, they are the ones who stand back from a mob and instead of running to the nearest mall when a new toy is released, still find joy in the old toys. They are the people who might be misunderstood, but would rather be misunderstood than misled by what everyone else thinks is true. I might count myself among them, because I have more than once gotten glimpses of the bigger picture, which is nearly impossible to see or hear about from the middle of a slow-moving mass of white wool and baa-ing.

Yesterday I was reading Kines' blog and one of his entries left me thinking about what individual really means. He was saying that buying generic products is the way to go because then you are not labelling yourself with brand names and are showing some individuality. While it's true that escaping a brand name is something few people think to do, there is still no individuality in purchasing a mass-produced product from a company that spreads its roots over half the world, no matter how wonderful or unknown that company may be. There is merit in purchasing recycled products, and supporting the use of minimal packaging, but it is not individual. It is simply a movement which few have joined. There is nothing wrong with being part of a movement, and sharing ideals with others, as long as you are doing it for your own reasons and not theirs.

The only way to be truly individual and to truly be yourself is, in my mind, to do everything you can for yourself and not depend on others to provide ideas, decoration or direction for you. Making things by hand is one way to break away from the crowd - nobody else in the world can create the same thing in the same way as someone else can, even if they are making similar products. Each creation is unique, as is each creator. Thinking for yourself is another step in the right direction, and while I see some flashes of it in many of the people I have become friends with, I don't know a single person who has not at some point picked up another's idea and carried it blindly along because it fit what they thought. Even I do it, and I know it, and will not call myself an individual thinker by any means, because I steal ideas left and right. It takes a lot to be able to step back and think about things on your own, instead of picking them out of what others have written or said, but coming to a conclusion on your own and then realizing that others share the conclusion is a better, and in the end more satisfying, path than following the others to their conclusion and then taking it up as your own. I am not saying that people should be aloof and feel that they are above everyone else, either. The best individuals are those who are humble enough to realize that they are not perfect no matter how many flaws they can pick out in everyone else - it is easy to recognize those flaws in others when you have them yourself. It is also a good idea to always remember the value of friends, because many people in trying to be individualist manage to push their closest friends away. A friend should be there to support you, and you should let them.

In trying to be as individual as possible people sometimes forget the value of sharing. It is possible to be an individual in the truest sense of the word and still share much with the people around you. Whether it is a taste in music or food, an ideal, love, memories, or some object that holds a special place in people's hearts, we can not escape the fact that there are similarities between us and others. There are some people who we can share more than just surface similarities with, because we can teach and learn from them, too. And that is the best kind of community there is - one where the members teach each other and learn from each other, always remembering that they are all part of a group, but keeping their identity instead of trying to blend in.

5 comments:

  1. Amazing and breathtaking- it takes everything together, whirls it in a blender and comes up with something more coherent than what it began with.

    It's all too true that we take too many things for granted, and one of these days I'm going to have to sit down and count the many things in life that I have that so many people don't. It's true too that I (sadly) haven't been able to truly reveal myself- sometimes I wonder how on earth they could tolerate a person like me. And it's also very true that a lot of us think that by revealing ourselves online, we redeem ourselves, we're "sharing" ourselves, and we're no longer that lonely island in the middle of the vast world.

    Truth is, we actually might be pushing ourselves further from the dock by thinking that way.

    The immediacy of communication now deters any reason to think profoundly, to put oneself in relation to another. It's almost as though, as the sheep you mention, we pick up the telephone to baa to the sheep at the far end of the field rather than hobble over and speak.

    Sometimes it takes a few moments to hobble back and think, "what on earth am I doing, lead by all the rest of the sheep". I admit, sometimes I end up seeing myself caught by the rush of sheep. But I've come to realise that sometimes you have to set yourself apart by understanding that our lives are part of a greater whole, and that following the crowd is forsaking one's own place, one's own stake in that world, and we get taken away by the tide. As you say, individualism shouldn't be about "Me, My Needs, Fears and Opinions"...

    Wow. Great post. I'm at a loss for words, and for fear that I might contradict myself in light of your eloquence. I shall say no more and just read this whole post again.

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  2. *reveal myself to my parents, that is

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  3. Aww, I'm flattered. I didn't think it was all that good, really.. just a rant that was screaming to be let out. But thanks ^_^ And you add/clarify some good things in your comment.

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  4. Excellent posts. You have good insight. I am always interested in what is going on in your life or your day. Digging information out of you is sometimes frustrating. So lets sit down often have have those talks. I'm available.
    Mom

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  5. I like this. I need to go back to the times that I actually wrote good stuff in my blog.

    Or did I ever have a time like that...? Ha.

    Well, anyway, I like this.

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