2013-02-20

The Individual, Part II

Read Part One of my series on individuality here.

Part Two: The Search For Meaning
It cannot be said enough that every human being is in some respect a collectivist and in some respect an individualist. While political and ideological pundits will attempt to make us choose between our proclivities, this kind of dichotomy is highly unrealistic. A person who aspires to an ideal of total individuality will neglect his or her invaluable personal relationships. A person who aspires to an ideal of total collectivism - or total altruism - will wind up becoming either a nihilist, believing in nothing in particular, or some sort of resentful martyr who gives everything to others and faces the crushing rejection of never being the beneficiary of that level of altruism on the part of other people.

But you won't catch me saying that "the truth lies somewhere in the middle." Instead, what seems to be the case is that people pursue social relationships to achieve satisfaction on some levels, and pursue self-actualization to achieve satisfaction on other levels. What we discovered yesterday was that our social endeavors are a reflection of our ethics, while our self-actualization is a reflection of our sense of existence, or what the Existentialists called "Authenticity."

Because I am writing about individuality, and because there is enough information out there on the problems with being anti-social, I will focus today on some observations associated with being anti-individual.

While "anti-individual" may seem like a loaded term, I do not intend it to be. "Anti-individual" really means a regular pattern of self-neglect, ignoring one's own needs, persistently being harder on oneself than one is on others, putting the desires of the group ahead of one's own, lending others more credibility than one lends oneself, and so on. To put it succinctly, being anti-individual is a pattern of behavior in which oneself always has less credibility than one's chosen peer group. We can also extend the notion of anti-individuality to those people who ascribe ill motives to people who do choose to look after their own needs, desires, and best interests. However, I would argue that when such criticism is unwarranted, the anti-individual doing the criticizing is quite often engaging in projection.

As I wrote yesterday, a lack of individuality creates problems of an existential nature: feelings of meaninglessness, aimlessness, laziness, a lack of ambition, an absence of responsibility or conscientiousness, and so on. But is this really true?

Consider the popular blog ZenHabits.net. A short while ago, its author Leo Babauta wrote down some advice for his children, which included the following:
All you need to be happy is within you. Many people seek happiness in food, drugs, alcohol, shopping, partying, sex … because they’re seeking external happiness. They don’t realize the tools for happiness aren’t outside them. They’re right inside you: mindfulness, gratitude, compassion, thoughtfulness, the ability to create and do something meaningful, even in a small way.
This certainly is good advice, but it seems a little rich, coming from a website devoted to Zen. Zen, like all the various strands of Buddhism, primarily teaches its practitioners to accept the "suchness," or the "now-ness" of the universe. Zen's adherents believe that achieving perfection, enlightenment, happiness, and so on, involves accepting and becoming one with the universe as it currently is. Forget the past, don't think about the future. Think only about the present - and actually, don't really think about it; just experience it. You are not you, you are a mere part of the universal whole.

...And so on, and so forth. As you can see, Zen is the practice of obliterating one's cognitive time-horizon and aspiring to literal self-abnegation, culminating in ritual suicide.

As such, it should surprise no one that practitioners of Zen would be most concerned with their existential problems. For many, it was these very problems that lead them to Zen, not realizing that the answer they'd be given would be, "Just stop thinking about it." Zen compounds a person's existential problems by providing a non-answer and admonishing anyone who experiences existential difficulties for engaging in "wrong thinking."

I am not at all surprised that among Leo Babauta's first set of advice to his children is a reflection of his own struggle, an existential one. We observe similar struggles in all collectivist stereotypes. The more dedicated one becomes to an in-group, the more time one spends satisfying moral causes, the less time one spends on existential causes, the more likely it is that the sources of one's dissatisfaction will be existential rather than moral.

Naturally, Zen is not unique in this regard. It is generally true that religion is, for the most part, an appeal to our sense of right and wrong, a dedication to the rules governing our behavior with respect to other people. When a person finds that he lacks meaning in his life, religion moves quickly to fill that void, inviting a person to double-down on their religious commitment, contribute more time and more money and dedicate more thought toward religious (moral, social, collectivist) fulfillment.

And it need not even be a religious dedication. Any moral cause or social commitment works the same way. It might be a political cause, or perhaps a charitable one. It could be the ASPCA or the Big Brothers/Big Sisters program. Or, it might just be time you spend with your friends and family. Indeed, I know many people who often voice existential problems to me, but who are basically terrified of being alone. They constantly surround themselves with friends and family members in an effort to fill the void in their lives, but the void is never filled because it is a different void that needs filling.

Please understand that I am not indicting group affiliation or moral causes. The fact of the matter is that time is finite, and the more time you spend doing X, the less time you have to do Y. If we take an extreme example, we could say that at the minimum human beings need both food and sleep. If one spends all his time sleeping, he will starve; if one spends all his time eating, he will collapse from lack of sleep. Collective and individual needs are a lot like food versus sleep: both are vital, and you can't do one and the other at exactly the same time.

So, if you find yourself in a situation where you are deliberately ignoring or negating the individualist part of you, you will soon find yourself wanting for all the things that the stereotypical collectivists desire: A sense of self, a sense of meaning and purpose, a reason to get up in the morning, a Monument. Few truly dedicated collectivists understand that the deep, unwavering sense of meaninglessness they feel is a direct result of their self-abnegation, their refusal to attend to their individualistic needs, their existential desires.

I hope I have impressed upon you the value of individualism as human need. Thus far, my goal has been to establish the fact that all human beings possess individualistic desires and an existential yearning that cannot be satisfied by dedication to collectivist practices. As such, individuality is inherently valuable, because only individuality can satisfy our various existential needs.