The dark side of individuality & independence

The theatre that has consumed the US elections has brought to life the disturbing reality that society no longer really matters, it is all about the selfish individual. Compare either candidate to, say, Mandela and the shift in humanity becomes clear. Mandela brushed aside his own feelings built-up from years of persecution and suffering so that selfishness could not poison the bigger ambition: a betterment of the South African society. Do Trump or Clinton truly have that in mind? This shift towards an unhealthy form of individuality and independence made me wonder whether our society is now engineered to spit out a lot more Trumps versus people like Mandela.

The opposites of humanity share a photo

Genuine care for community, genuine respect for another human being, and genuine interest in creating happiness in today’s world rarely supersedes ones own desires and needs. After all, we are living in the era of individuality and human independence. Natural evolution and socio-economic changes are driving this movement. Much of it is good: greater innovation and entrepreneurialism, greater freedom, a stronger push for individual rights, an opening of opportunity to all walks of life, and so on. However, the negative side of this movement is that selfishness is a natural result and thus the basic acts that create bonds of true togetherness lessen or are wiped out entirely.

There are some basic behaviors that illustrate the point that basic acts of genuine human connection and appreciation for one another are fading. Probably the most noticeable example is phone behavior. Most people generally prefer texting over speaking. Sure, costs have precipitated this, but also the fact that texting avoids real contact and shelters you from emotions that can be transmitted via a voice. In a nutshell, you are protected by a screen and characters on a white background. Then there is the ubiquity of not responding to calls, texts, and so on. Most of us seem to think that this behavior is not only acceptable, but expected. However, it only reinforces the message that no one is more important than “me” and everyone else is replaceable. Is this what we want to teach our kids?

Another manifestation of weakening togetherness is the disappearance of the family meal. This used to be a staple of family living. It helped you connect with your parents, your parents with you, and it allowed healthy conversation and curiosity to energize the family. We need only look at films of today compared to those of the 20 or more years ago to notice the difference in acceptable family dining. Too often in films today you’ll see parents rushing off to work or people coming home late. A few decades ago these scenes were very different. They were given much greater emphasis and appreciation. Family should precede the individual, and a meal together is the ultimate daily reinforcement of this. By watering it down, or removing it, we are suggesting that individual needs are more important.

Scene from sitcom “Modern Family”

I would even argue that social media behavior suggests a fading of genuine human connection and appreciation for one another. Sure we are able to connect with people that we have not seen in a while or be in regular contact with those close to us, but through what kind of content? Looking at most posts of others, and even myself if I’m honest, the general tendency is to celebrate your own discoveries, your own travels, and your own good times. In short, social media is your public relations platform. You are putting your best self forward and merchandizing content that demonstrates how cool or traveled you are versus having honest displays of who you are, which is fundamental to the creation of genuine human connection. Moreover, the interaction with others on social media is more about “keeping up with the Joneses” than showing appreciation for another. Even your “likes” or “comments” are more about demonstrating your coolness, knowledge, or “being part of the dialogue” rather than about sharing an honest and one-to-one moment with a friend or acquaintance.

Global forces have spurred this on: a broken economy that has brought about a non-loyal corporate way of life, a series of governments around the world that are more preoccupied with their own growth than the care of the people that they are there to serve, a culture of celebrity that teaches selfish values, a culture of consumerism that puts “stuff” over people, and even the proliferation of “screen living” where you can hide behind a piece of glass in most of your daily interactions with the world.

Let’s start by looking at the break-down of the world economy, and its ripple effects on how businesses operate in the world today. Not only is employment difficult to come by, but once you are employed you can expect little to no loyalty from your employer. The pressure to stay competitive is so strong that corporations frequently have to make drastic moves that affect its people to sustain shareholder value, company cash-flow, even company life-support. As a result, people have been learning to trust only themselves. Not only do they know that their employer can drop them at any time, most of their colleagues are in a state of “constant political awareness” in order to best shield themselves from the erratic company tides. Students and young professionals are taking even more drastic measures by not bothering to enter the traditional workforce, opting instead for entrepreneurial undertakings. This clearly requires a big hustle and a lot of “me” versus “we”.

Governments also play a big part in driving unhealthy individuality. It is rare to come across someone who is proud of his or her government, or someone who believes that their best interests are being merchandized by their governmental representatives. Instead we are seeing massive and comprehensive reactions by populations against their leaders. We need only look towards the Middle East, Greece, Spain, Turkey, Thailand, the Ukraine, and so on. Even the mighty USA has been dealing with civil unrest that was last seen in the 60s. The Occupy movement is a prime manifestation of government and societal dissatisfaction. Why so much revolt across the globe? Quite simply, governments are no longer about the bigger “we”, they are about the “party me” or even “leader me”. If the systems that are dictating our daily lives are not furthering community and genuine respect for you fellow citizen then why on earth would those citizens do the same. Quite the opposite, they are being taught the negative aspects of individuality and independence. As a consequence, governments will be irreversibly harmed as well as some of the basic unwritten rules of healthy communal living.

The culture of celebrity plays a profound role in fueling the negative aspects of individuality as well. We need only look to those leading the cult of celebrity. Many of them are simply socialites whose “star” has risen through absolute selfishness and “me” behavior. What have the Kardashians ever done for their community or their fellow citizens? What has Paris Hilton done to further the wellbeing of mankind? The answer to both questions is nothing. Instead they have flaunted the importance of yourself, what you have, where you are seen, etc. Average media-consuming citizens see this and start to, even if it is subconscious, acknowledge that this behavior breeds success. Many famous actors, musicians, and athletes further this perception. They merchandize a reality that revolves around them, where outlandish requests, ridiculous actions, and indulgent consumption are more than fine, they are what “accomplishment” is all about. As a result, the population that sees these people day-in day-out in the media are taught to focus on themselves at all costs.

The poster child for a “me” way of living

The evolution of consumerism is also a force that is driving the bad side of individuality. Society has become so obsessed with the accumulation of “stuff”. Never before has ownership been a sign of success and accomplishment to the degree that it is today. All aspects of social society seem to push this ideology: people we look to, institutions that we rely on, Brands that we buy into, news that we consume, and so on. Much like the celebrity “perfect paradise” picture, the evangelized ideal family life is surrounded with owned “stuff”, be it the latest electronics, fashions, cars, etc. Unfortunately the implication of this force in society is that people put more emphasis on bought items rather than nurtured friends. As such, the opportunity to gain often comes at the expense of a human relationship.

The last big reality that is contributing to a growth in the negative side of individuality and independence is “screen living”. As smartphones have become fairly ubiquitous, work life is increasingly computer enabled, and entertainment is primarily delivered through a glass interface (think not just TV and streaming film, but also gaming and music), we are starting to view our “real” world through a screen. The problem with this is that the screen acts as a barrier to real contact and real implications. It becomes our protector. As such, we feel that our everyday responsibilities through screens are different than in real life. We feel we can be more egotistical and less considerate. This certainly doesn’t encourage genuine thought, respect, and politeness for others because we somehow feel insulated from the reactions of our actions.

None of these global forces alone are solely responsible for the growth of the negative side of individuality in independence. Instead it is the collective power of their momentum that is causing this society shift. They feed each other. There is also little sign that any of these global forces are slowing down, yet alone receding. As such, it is important to work with them instead of trying to curb them. A way to do this is by helping individuals be more receptive to opportunity, which is ultimately the goal that is at the heart of these forces. However, instead of bringing about opportunity through the means that further the negative behaviors that we have been speaking about in this article, we bring about opportunity in a way that furthers greater human connection, greater appreciation for one another and what lies around us.

A way to bring about opportunity in a different way is to break the addiction with being future obsessed. All the forces that have been discussed in the preceding paragraphs are being pushed by the societal paradigm of living in the future. Let’s revisit these forces for a moment to confirm this point: When it comes to the force brought about by a shaky economy, the response to look towards the future is a natural way of thinking. When it comes to an unreliable government, the immediate feeling is to find another leader or party in the future. When it comes to celebrity culture, we aspire to have their lives in the future and live with that ideal in our head instead of enjoying what we have now. When it comes to consumerism, we always strive to accumulate more stuff (and have no problem putting ourselves in serious debt that we will continue paying off in the future, perhaps distance future) instead of thoroughly enjoying what we have right now. When it comes to “screen living”, we are always gazing through the screen and doing things that put is in an “ahead moment” — opting to live in a virtual space versus look up and see what is in your world at that point in time.

The simplest way of making future obsession less consuming is by indulging yourself with the present. If you thoroughly enjoy the moments that you are experiencing instead of thinking about your next move, the place you will be later, who you will meet in the evening, etc. then you are a lot more receptive to opportunities that may be sitting right in-front of you. Every moment houses opportunities and thus living more aware allows you to see them and take advantage of those that are most fitting.

Adjusting your built-in routine is by no means easy, especially because the pace of life has accelerated dramatically over the years making taking the time to look around and truly enjoy the present all that more difficult. However, there are three tips that can help: keeping your head up to see the breadth of what lies around you, picking up that phone or responding to that text instead of thinking “I’ll get back to them later”, and embracing a “yes” attitude.

Making a conscious effort to keep your head up as you travel through your daily life will force you to absorb a wider spectrum of your surroundings and thus also force consumption of a greater pool of information. You become more aware of what is happening around you and thus are more alert to the present. So, keep your head up, look at your phone only if it is to answer a call, and take deep breaths to give your head the reset to absorb all the opportunities right here, right now.