Tag Archives: individualism

Putting Ourselves First?

So there I was, standing on the express line at the supermarket, scanning the magazine racks. Who can resist scanning the checkout line magazine racks? The headlines are either laughable, cringe-worthy, or both.

The one that caught my eye today made me cringe. No, I didn’t read the article inside, but far fewer of us shoppers buy the magazine than read the headlines. This one, alongside a gorgeous shot of gorgeous Michelle Obama in a gorgeous gown, said something like, “Michelle Obama: Why you should put yourself first.”

Some psychologist should do a study on which headlines grab us, and why. This one got to me because it struck me as exactly NOT the sort of thing we want to hear the First Lady say at a time of economic upheaval, joblessness, social divisions….  The list of this nation’s maladies is endless. Wouldn’t it be nice to read an inspirational line like, “Michelle Obama: Together we can get through this” or even catchier, “Michelle Obama: United we stand.”

It’s true that this is the First Lady of a country that prints “Out of many, one” on its currency, underscoring the fact that we’ve always played favorites rather than pull together with the rest of the world. But can’t Americans, at least, at last, come to understand that it’s not about dying with the most toys anymore, that the game has changed forever? Globalization, climate change and the Internet are just a few of the myriad phenomena that have us interconnected on a local, national and international level that was unimaginable 50 years ago. The most recent downturn taught us just exactly how connected Wall Street is to Main Street, if we ever doubted it. In fact, wasn’t it those “me first” types that got us into this pickle in the first place?  

Okay, so Michelle was probably referring more to the old airbag metaphor, that is, you can’t help someone else get through the loss of oxygen on a plane if you can’t breathe yourself. Similarly, we can’t take care of our jobs, our loved ones and the dry cleaning if we’re not in the best of shape. I get it. But it still doesn’t sit well. We are already such an individualistic society that this magazine headline seems like a missed opportunity for Mrs. Obama to advocate for communitarianism. Not communism, mind you. Just not always, always, forever looking out for number one first.

I vote for a different story, one I heard Bill Clinton advocate years ago. Forget, he said, if not in so many words, the E Pluribus Unum mentality. We can no longer afford to pit nation against nation in a zero sum game. We are all interconnected, Belarus with Bahrain, Zaghreb with Zaire, and if we don’t accept that fact and act on it, we are lost.

About 30 years ago, former treasury secretary Robert Reich published a book called Tales of a New America, in which he wrote about the four foundational stories of American society. He labeled them (1) The Rot at the Top, (2) The Enemy at the Gates, (3) The Triumphant Individual, and (4) The Benevolent Community.

I propose a fifth: We Are the World. In the meantime, I’ll go read that article. I hope I am wrong, but something tells me I’m not.

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Now Starring in a Life Story Near You

When I was a child walking down the streets of my hometown to music lessons, I used to fantasize that I was the star in a movie trailer. I’d sing to myself some theme song, and I’d work out the plot of the film and my role in it, with an authoritative voice-over that might have begun: “In a world….” Never did I have a supporting role in these fantasies. In fact, I’d be willing to go out on a limb and suggest that had I considered myself a bit or supporting player in the story of my life, that would have been evidence of rather serious mental or emotional distress. 

Western culture programs us to think of ourselves as individuals, that is, the stars of our lives. Identification with the collective—the team, the community, the nation—is not abandoned or ignored, but it is definitely secondary to our identification as unique Selves. For hundreds of years, philosophers and sociologists have debated the evolution of the concept of Selfhood, with many questioning its very existence. The “Matrix” series presented a chilling portrait of our delusions of selfhood, and we need look no further than the selection in our local bookstore (or the lack thereof) to notice that many if not all of our so-called life choices are severely curtailed. Do we truly operate our individuals, or as members of a generation, as the recipients of a marketing strategy? Are our opinions and desires our own?

That said, the Self is a useful starting point for a discussion of perception. An understanding of the varying perceptions and perspectives experienced by varying selves helps us live as social animals. If you are sitting across from me, my right is your left. So is the table on the left or right? Depends on where you’re sitting. There are times, of course, when it is useful to think of ourselves as individuals, although it strikes me that mostly it is more useful to think in terms of the collective. It’s more efficient—think of the European Union. It can also be more satisfying; the Green Pay Packers fans are celebrating their shared victory, while the Steelers are supporting each other in their mourning. 

Storytellers often play with well-known tales by varying the perspective, that is, the star of the story. This has been done to great effect with The True Story of the Three Little Pigs as told by A. Wolf  (author: Jon Scieszka), and well as Wicked, the story of the Wizard of Oz from the point of view of the Wicked Witch of the West (author: Gregory Maguire). The most impressive of these efforts, I would say, is the 1950 movie Rashomon (director: Akira Kurosawa). Unique individuals with their unique perspectives make the world, and stories, interesting.

That’s one of the things that democracy is all about. It can lead to conflict, but for this individual, it’s worth the trouble.