Collectivism v. Individualism

Since you were a small child, you have probably been trained to believe in a core concept called “individualism.” This foundational thought has most likely affected every area of your life. It influenced how your parents interacted and disciplined you as a kid. It impacted where and how you went to school. It indicates how you measure success, and therefore your level of self-esteem. It regulates how your peers measure your success, and therefore how they treat you. Most aspects of your life are controlled by the underlying concept of “individualism.”

According to the individualistic mindset, individual success is more important than the success of a group. Why? Because human life is valuable, and people are special. Also, because humans are competitive by nature, and there must always be a winner and a loser, individuals strive to be better than everyone else. This applies to school, to the workplace, and even inside of a family unit. Children are sent out at age eighteen to find their way on their own, because one measure of success is how well you can survive without the help of your family. Becoming fully independent is typically the primary goal of a young adult, and is obtained through a system of schooling and a gradual pushing of parents. The irony is that the factory-like public education system in the United States does not create unique or special individuals, nor does it guide them toward independence, since very little of the work meets every student at their individual level. After this transitory stage of schooling, success is determined on which individual can earn the most money, or have the most comfortable job, or have the most well-behaved children, or the most organized home. Failure is defined by an individual’s inability to measure-up to the individual next to them. I would guess that most people don’t say, “I have more money than my friend, so I am better,” but instead they average their rankings into an overall score, and summarize into, “I have done a better job at life than my friend, so I am better,” or, “My friend seems to have their life on the right track, I must be worse.”

The golden standard of life is “individualism.” We must have freedom of speech. We must have the freedom to vote, even if we only vote for things that benefit ourselves. We must give “participation ribbons,” because everyone needs a ribbon (because everyone is special). We must have two political parties to give an illusion of choice. We must all drive our own cars, find our own jobs, do our own homework, pay our own rent, and earn our own friends.

Even in a less individual-oriented arena such as team sports, our society has focused on individual success rather than the effort of the group. How many times has Kobe Bryant been celebrated for his high level of skill? Because he has shown more skill than others, he has been given more opportunity to play, and with more individual attention. His “success” has grown exponentially compared to other players. However, Kobe Bryant himself could not have achieved anything without a team of other extremely good players surrounding him. I would submit that if Kobe Bryant’s teammates were not as skilled as they are, Kobe Bryant would not be very successful either.

Where is selflessness in this equation? Where is charity? Of course, we are selfless, in small ways. We give Big Macs to the homeless because we feel apologetic for our success. We philanthropize because we need to show the world how big our heart is. Even those that donate large sums of money anonymously to charity do so because they believe in a world of sharing and selflessness. But no one buys their best friend’s birthday present with their very last dollar. No one lets a homeless man sleep in their bed while they sleep on the porch. Charity should not be done because “it’s the right thing to do.” Charity should be done because people see one another’s needs and they accommodate at their own expense. That is actual selflessness.

When did living with your parents gain such a stigma? Why is it bad to stay with your parents into your twenties, as an unmarried person. Throughout history and in other cultures, it is standard to live with, learn from, and inherit a trade from their parents. Children would take over their parent’s job as soon as they could prove they were responsible enough to wisely care for a business. It isn’t about owning the family business, it is about carrying on a family’s legacy. The parent would work in the business for twenty years, and retire. The whole family was responsible for paying the bills. The entire family unit– cousins, uncles, grandparents– would pitch in and give their best to ensure the success of the family business. Every family member would find their skills, whether it was salesmanship or craftsmanship, and would contribute. Sometimes it was unequal, and some members of the family had more work than others. Sometimes there wouldn’t be enough food to eat, and those members of the family with more physical labor than the others would eat more. The community worked together for the good of the community, and you lived and suffered and succeeded together as a whole unit.

In this way, traditions were high in value. Family heirlooms had more meaning, since they had passed through more hands and had been treated with more reverence. Mistakes could be covered instead of exposed, because it was in the interest of the group as a whole. People are not individual stars hanging millions of light years away from one another, trying to see how independently successful they can be. People are links in a chain, binding their hands together and forming a network of individuals, all carrying on an inheritance together. When you join a community, it is focused on the group as a whole. It is bigger than you, and you don’t just receive the gifts of the one person next to you, or even the current leader’s influence. You are influenced by every member of the group. You are also dependent on every member of the group, because you cannot survive alone when you have filled your life with other people.

Inter-dependency is a healthy thing. It promotes vulnerability, which is also a healthy thing. Vulnerability is the first step in growing in relationship to other. People were not meant to be lone wolves; we are meant to be a thread in a tapestry of the other people we welcome into our lives.

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