The myth of ‘the individual’


One of the strangest and most prevalent myths of our times is the myth of ‘the individual’. It is so prevalent, in fact, that it isn’t often questioned: we are all individuals… aren’t we? It is an integral part of our development to identify as ‘I’ (according to Western psychologists). Perhaps it is actually just a developmental phase – perhaps we have been culturally stunted here because isolation is particularly good for the economy… but wait. I’m getting ahead of myself.

You probably know the story of The Little Red Hen. You know, that iconic story that libertarian Ayn Rand fans love to tell you in the middle of the night when you’re drunk in their kitchen and have nowhere to escape to – because it proves that human beings are selfish and that poor people are just making bad choices? You know, that chicken who wants to make some bread and asks for help at every stage, but all the other animals in the animal farm are too busy being hedonistic assholes, so when her bread is finally made and they all smell the delicious yeasty scent… and come scrounging… and she’s like: “nah ah”. Well, I’m sorry to tell you this, but that never happened. You know why? Chickens are communal animals. They hang out in groups and scratch for bugs together – sure they fight over food, especially when there’s scarcity, but being together is something they do. It’s good for their survival, and it’s company. If chickens were going to bake bread, you can bet your arse they’d do it together.

Human beings are social animals – probably even more so than chickens. We always live in communities. We are never completely individuals. We all depend on each other. It is a bit ridiculous to think of ourselves as independent individuals – when we are all so obviously and completely inter-dependent. It’s a bit like treating a cell in your body as an individual – or taking anything and isolating it from its environment and then trying to understand that thing. It doesn’t work. Individuals can only exist in relation to social and environmental contexts. We cannot be removed.

fish

The funny thing is that people are so embedded in their culture they really can’t see out of it – it’s the water in our goldfish bowl, right? So the way we thing – well it’s just normal – IT’S JUST THE WAY THINGS ARE: OKAY? It’s hard for us to even imagine a society without ‘individuals’… but actually, our mythology is not universal. There are lots and lots of cultures where ‘the individual’ is not really all that important. This is a bit hard to understand from a Western perspective because our philosophical history is based on the idea of ‘the individual’. Our morality starts with ‘me’ and extends out – hopefully – to other people, sometimes it stretches to other animals, but rarely does it encompass the ecosystem (which is probably why the ecosystem makes a better starting point). The anthropologist David Graeber, points out:

Western social theory is founded on certain everyday common sense, one that assumes that the most important thing about people is that they are all unique individuals. Theory therefore also tends to start with individuals and tries to understand how they form relations with one another (society)… With no concept of either “society” or unique individuals, [the Melpa] assumed the relationships came first. (Towards an Anthropology of Value, 2001, page 36, 37)

The thing about assuming that we’re all just selfish is that it ignores that we’re equally not. Sure, it makes a great economic platform if you like to promote the kind of economy that destroy ecosystems and exploits people as much and as quickly as possible, and it fits with the Christian heritage of Western culture that assumes we’re all sinners, but it ignores the blindingly obvious communal aspects of us – as a species. Basically, if someone was like: ‘dude, when you’ve got a minute, can you help me grind this flour so we can have some sweet gluten-free fairtrade bread in five hours’ and you had the time and energy, and that person wasn’t a talking chicken, you’d probably be all over that, right? You’re a decent kind of person… and people have been making bread communally for thousands of years.

Anyway, there’s another reason The Little Red Hen is a terrible story: it sucks to eat alone. If I went to all that trouble to make some kick-arse bread I would want to share it, and the recipe, and get all the social credit for my awesome baking. Just sayin’

Being powerless is scary: confronting the delusions of the romance narrative trap


Over the last few weeks a good friend and I have been having this recurring conversation about attachment and intimacy. We have both been struggling with attachment issues arising in different situations. She says needs intimacy but doesn’t know how to pick which situations are worth her energy. She will meet someone and think they have a connection, only to find that person ambivalent, or find herself in the reverse situation, withdrawing from a love interest who has become too needy. Sound familiar? Just more of the ins and outs of the romance narrative trap, right?

We have been going over and over various factors in this conversation, and listing our limited options: look for someone who is…, learn to be single better, etc – when it occurred to me that maybe our biggest problem is that we think we actually have more control (or should have) than we really do. “That’s a scary thought,” my friend replied, “How do you navigate romance if you have no control?”

Really, with these ‘matters of the heart’ we don’t really have much control, do we? We can’t control who we like or how they will respond to us – our control is very limited to small gestures and behavior… It’s kind of like steering an inner-tube down a river. You never know who you will bump into or whether you can stay connected for very long… or what debris you will encounter along the way.

“So is the bottom line that you should just accept the lack of control in romance and let yourself be swept down the river?” – That’s up to you, but given the lack of control, is it not a bit futile to gesticulate wildly at the current? “Very futile.” And we do seem to strain ourselves going over and over our very limited options… but lack of control is so hard to accept that we get caught up in the minutiae all the same.

This was starting to look rather bleak: “What that means is even though I’m putting time and energy (and getting caught up) in situations I maybe shouldn’t, there is no point trying to do anything to change the pattern, as I really don’t have any control over stuff.” Well, you only (mostly) have control over how you react to the powerlessness… which is your pattern. It is hard to face sometimes, especially if you’re someone with slightly neurotic over-thinking tendencies, but while some things can be relatively self-determined, a lot of the time in life things just happen to us and all we really get to choose is how we react.

“Being powerless is scary, people never care enough about me for it to feel okay.” For you to feel safe? “Yeah… seems that the only person in the end who fully cares about my well-being is me.” Well.. we are all the centre of our own universes – so that makes sense – for everyone…

“It would mean that if you want to be looked after by another person you’d have to accept that they won’t always care about you.” They may not – and they will definitely die at some point too. “Another truth!” Yup – it’s the dirty truth about attachment – and why Buddhists say it’s the root of all suffering… which it kind of is… but is also pretty integral to life. “Maybe life shouldn’t be totally without suffering.” Well, if it should be, we’re all doing it wrong – these are all things that are we are better off learning to accept – over and over – acceptance is a practice, not a one-off event. it’s like emotional breathing. “Emotional breathing?” It’s a metaphor. “Oh”…

Do you fall into the lottery trap? On real happiness and problems with fantasy/destination thinking.

If you reach the destination of life, then what? Then you will be very embarrassed. – Osho

When I was growing up us kids, enthralled by the deluxe smorgasbord of TV advertising, would continuously ask mum “can we go to Disneyland?” or other requests obviously out of our budget. “When I win Lotto” she would always reply. It took a while for us to realise she never bought lottery tickets. Despite that, she still had the fantasy herself: if I win lotto I’ll buy a place in the Coromandel…” I didn’t question it until recently when I started to wonder if this mass social delusion that more wealth (particularly if won) equals more happiness. Apparently it doesn’t.

Research on happiness suggests that people are generally no happier (or sadder) a year after winning the lottery – even if they win millions. Interestingly enough, people are apparently about the same level of happy, a year after becoming paraplegic, as they were before.  Now, that is something to really chew on for a while. If these things we wish for, long for, fantasise about are not actually associated with happiness, then what are we doing to ourselves?

We are projecting our happiness into the future. This is so appallingly common. We have been taught since childhood that when we get to the next stage happiness awaits us: when we finally get to school – when we can read/write/swim/ride a bike we will finally be happy.  When we have a friend, or a lot of friends, when we have a boyfriend, when we graduate, when we finally get a job or clock this XBox game or reach our weight goal we will surely be full of endless joy. Obviously, when we grow up we will be happy. Yes – because we can have ice-cream for dinner and no one will tell us what to do and we can have all these cool jobs and things: happy as! Wait, being grown up is just as much work. Making decisions is tricky. Money is tricky. I bet I will be happy when I reach that next goal: have a baby, get a promotion, get married, buy a house, sell a house, buy another house: happiness will abound! Oh, wait, I’m still chugging along. I know, when I get discovered for my real shining talent as a singer/actor/genius or win lotto or NZ’s Next Top Model I will then be happy… except it hasn’t happened yet, so where is my next goal? I know: when I retire I will be incredibly happy because I can do whatever I want! Yay! No job! Except that retired people often (not always) get depressed because they aren’t contributing to society as much as is satisfactory. They have removed the work from their lives and many interesting things can fill those empty hours, but real happiness is still only a goal away, or did I waste my life going from one goal to the next, projecting my happiness into the future instead of realising that happiness is only ever now? After all, what is the real destination of life? Death? Are you just biding your time ’til the Armageddon comes? Are you hoping for a blissful after-life instead of making the most of this one?

All the Zen dudes will tell you that: happiness is only ever now. They reckon now is the only thing that really exists anyway. The past is just muddled memories in the narrative we tell ourselves about our lives.  The past is often full or sad stories or nostalgia that we can re-live over and over to no-avail.  The future is just projections and uncertainty. Many an anxiety can be found in thinking too much about the future. Life is very uncertain (yes, I have been reading too much Osho).  All this is very obvious. Happiness is a choice, moment to moment. If our established thought-patterns are interfering with our happiness we can change them through therapy or self-help or bazillions of other methods. Thoughts can be changed.

The problem with the “if only”, lottery-type thinking is that it’s not in the moment. It comes from being unhappy with our jobs and our lives and our lack of options. We have been taught to think that money is the problem and that money (particularly a large lump of it right now) is the answer, but really, with more money just comes a different level of finance to deal with.  Don’t get me wrong, having not-enough money and struggling for survival really sucks, but unless your fantasies about winning lotto are a helpful coping strategy for dealing with real hunger and desperation they are probably doing you more harm than good.

For most people who read this, who are in the pattern of ‘lottery thinking’, it is a little escape from the drudgery of every-day life. You wake up, you go to work, you work, you come home, you *insert escapist media here, eg: Playstation, movies, TV series, Facebook*, you maybe get a bit of creative time to work on building that model air-plane, writing that screen-play, painting that impressionist take on the New York skyline, re-designing your poodle’s coiffer, you practice in your steam-punk death-metal band and so on… and you dream… you dream of all the poodling, steampunking, screen-playing you could do if only …If only you had more time, if only you didn’t have to work.

Well, here’s a thought: how about, instead of fantasies and escapism, you try making little baby steps toward genuine happiness. There are two ways to do this and you probably should do both:

1: Choose to be happy. Try it now. Just one moment of happy. Just one moment of letting go of the struggle. Relax those shoulders. Breathe. Good, now go on. Don’t grimace. Smile. Yes, yes! That’s it!  You’re doing it, baby. Every time you realise you’re in a yucky mind state, your going around in circles, you’re dreaming of that day you finally reach heaven STOP! Yes, now, relax. Smile. You don’t even have to smile, but find a tiny bit of happy just by dropping all the shit. I’m glad you’re so good at following instructions. The more you can choose happiness in moments, the more moments of happiness you may experience in your life. Don’t just depend on the external world for you happy, DIY it.

2. Make steps towards doing more of the things you really love. What really feeds you? Do you even know? If you’re not sure, think about the experiences you’ve had, the things you’ve created and done, that have given you moments of happiness. Don’t tell me you’re not creative. Creative is part of human. You are continuously creating the story of your life in your head (right now), how do you want your story to go? Try new things. Figure out what brings your joy, little by little. Write a list. Figure out what you want to contribute to the world in your lifetime. Make baby steps. If your job sucks the life out of you, look for a better one. If you don’t have a job, figure out how you can contribute to your community. Community can feed us when jobs can’t. If you love to paint, sing, write, draw, ski, ride, explore, love, share, don’t relegate your passion to: ‘if/when I have time’. Everyone has the same amount of time. Everyone. It’s how you use it. If you want to be happy, let yourself do the things that bring the happiness with them. Let go of your own internal barriers to happiness. It takes a lot of time to master an art so start right now. You never know, you could be the next professional poodle coifferer.