The Pathology of Modernity: Individualism v. Individuality
As society became increasingly secular this image of individual isolation remained as an unexamined fundamental attitude. Consider how many of our fictional heroes are devoid of lasting relationships. I think this attitude persists because, having learned to think of ourselves in those terms, it became difficult to recognize the importance of when they did not fit.
Yet if you think back, what makes you most individual, what helped create your individuality, are the relationships that helped form your life. What is lacking in the image of the individualist free from social entanglements or relations is precisely what is essential in creating their individuality. But denying what makes us individuals now struts about as individualism.
It Gets Worse
Since the Second World War this individualistic blindness to who we are has been reinforced in a particularly toxic way by the writings of Ayn Rand and her many disciples. Many of us, myself included, read some of her books as teenagers. I found a part of her message invigorating as I strove to get a better sense of who I was in a society that often seemed corrupt and hypocritical. At its best, Rand's writings encouraged us to follow our own drummer come what may, as with architect Howard Roark in The Fountainhead. But when closely studied, Rand's message did not honor individuality so much as individualism, the ideology that each person was properly only concerned about their own "self," but without even an attempt to inquire what a 'self' was. Her most extreme literary statement of this view was Atlas Shrugged. In more spontaneous moments she made it clear that individuals did not matter, only those who conformed to her values did. As she said once at West Point:
[The Indians] had no right to a country merely because they were born here and then acted like savages. The white man did not conquer this country. And you're a racist if you object . . . You believe that if someone is born in a magnificent country and doesn't know what to do with it, he still has a property right to it. He does not. . . . What were [the Indians] fighting for, in opposing the white man on this continent? For their wish to continue a primitive existence; for their 'right' to keep part of the earth untouched—to keep everybody out so they could live like animals or cavemen. Any European who brought with him an element of civilization had the right to take over this continent . . .
What Rand taught about native Americans could be applied to any who disagreed with her views; and though many might rebel at such a blunt statement, they incorporated elements of her perspective and poisoned their own understanding of what it is to be a person. Today we are reaping the unpleasant results of her Nietzschean nihilism reinforcing what was most blind in our cultural individualism, inherited from Protestantism.
Along the way many Americans forgot what it meant to be a member of society rather than just being out for themselves. It is symbolic that Americans are allowing the right wing, aided by cynical 'liberals', to destroy the most visible benign public institution that symbolizes us all as a people: the Post Office.
Gus diZerega is a Gardnerian Elder with over 25 years practice, including six years close study with a Brazilian shaman. He has been active in interfaith work off and on for most of those 25 years as well. He has conducted workshops and given presentations on healing, shamanism, ecology and politics at Pagan gatherings in the United States and Canada. Follow Gus on Facebook.
Gus blogs at Pointedly Pagan.