A friend left a comment here recently, suggesting that some countries’ cultures have a gentler view of the world than ours. That is so true. Our culture evolved from hard-nosed individualism, shedding compassion along the way as if the desire to be helpful in the face of others’ suffering was a weakness. The culture in this country and too many others elevates individualism and views selfishness as a characteristic to be sought after. Concern for the greater good is frowned on in many ways in these cultures. The idea that our collective concerns should guide us to a greater extent than our lust for individual achievement seems, to me, to be a sickness. Individualism cultivates disdain for the greater society from which the individual emerges. It’s an odd expression of self-indulgence that borders on matricide; and we have grown into a culture that promotes and applauds it.
I’ve written before of the struggle between individualism and community. My thoughts on the struggle continue to evolve, but I think these words from a post three years ago still apply: “Individualism is self-responsibility taken a step too far, a step beyond non-reliance into selfishness and penurious thrift.” Two years later, I was more strident in my assessment: “I believe the legend of the rugged individualist should be allowed to die or, if it won’t go quietly, be killed. ”
Perhaps the fact that my longing for a gentler world-view embraces a certain form of violence against a different one is odd. But I don’t necessarily think so. It’s much like the concept that tolerance must have limits; endless tolerance enables the breeding of intolerance, which is intolerable. Similarly, individualism must have limits; endless individualism promotes the unraveling of civil society, which also is intolerable. The delicate aspect of the equation is found in defining the points beyond which grey areas morph into brilliant red lines that cannot be crossed.
On one end of the spectrum, a utopian social order exists in which concerns for the collective take precedence over individual desire. At the other end of the spectrum, a dystopian nightmare exists in which individual desires always triumph over the needs of the collective. Of course, I realize there may be some who would disagree with my characterization of extreme individualism as a dystopian nightmare. It’s a matter of perspective. Ultimately, it’s a matter of whose perspective will win in an evolutionary timescale. I won’t be here to witness it, unless Trump steals another election. In that case, my argument about a dystopian nightmare will have been horribly and irrevocably proven.
Such are my thoughts on this Thursday morning. My pondering about individualism versus concerns for the greater good are only half-hearted this morning. I wish I knew more about my wife’s condition. I wish I could escape the nightmare of COVID-19 and Trumpism and a world on fire, fleeing with my wife to a magical land where a pervasive sense of collective goodwill is in the air. Canada is the closest place where that dream, as distant and unreachable as it may be, might have a chance of survival. Maybe we can go there after she gets out of the hospital. Or maybe we can just embrace a society in which decency thrives and compassion flourishes.