Lessons From the Pandemic #4 — Confronting “The Myth of the Individual”

 

[The short version: In this time of pandemic, we are being asked, indeed required, to at once more fully appreciate how we are “all in this together” and to respect our freedoms and unique needs as individuals. Historically we’ve tended to view individual freedom and collective responsibility as opposites. Easily, today, the result if we do is responses—from each side—that don’t really serve us. We need ways of thinking that can help us understand how we cannot have one without the other, indeed how the fullest expression of each depends on the other.]

This is the fourth article that I’ve written since the start of the pandemic. It requires thinking more conceptually than previous articles. It also requires that we stretch how we usually think, for many people considerably. And while the topic can be initially challenging, once people spend time with it, many find it seeming straightforward, even common sense. In introduced the notion in my most recent book Rethinking How We Think: Integrative Meta-perspective and the Cognitive “Growing Up” On Which the Future Depends. 

The topic concerns individualism—and how the pandemic for many people is bringing old individualist notions into question. Creative System Theory (CST) the body of work my efforts most draw on applauds this questioning and agrees that confronting past individualistic assumptions is an important part of what moving forward requires. But it also emphasizes that the most important lessons to be learned from reexamining individualism may be more far reaching than most people at first assume. It argues that times ahead invite, indeed demand, that we understand what it means to be an individual in more full and encompassing ways. And simultaneously it challenges us to reexamine our understanding of human relatedness. What CST calls the Myth of the Individual both highlights the fundamental limitations of modern age individualism and offers a more complete way of understanding the individual that reconciles past failings. 

First, the basic observation. One of the lessons that the pandemic is most clearly teaching us is how our modern age individualist ideal is no longer working. In all manner of ways, we are being confronted by how we are all in this together. If we don’t pull together—in our friendships, in our communities, and globally—the consequences could be dire. We are also all in this together in the sense that none of us is safe from the virus’s ravages. In addition, we find ourselves newly appreciative of before under-acknowledged members of society as all manner of people suddenly find themselves providing “essential services”—not just nurses and doctors, but grocery store clerks, delivery people, and gas station attendants. And as we see the ways traditionally disadvantaged populations are suffering disproportionately from the virus and confront the specter of the virus spreading to many of the most vulnerable parts of the world, it becomes increasing clear how social inequities ultimately impoverish us all.  

So what is the lesson? It would be easy to assume that it is simply that we need to be less competitive and more cooperative, better realize how just  “looking out for number one” rarely benefits us. And if we become a bit more compassionate and do a better job of addressing disparities, that would certainly be a good thing. A person could also take things further and turn conclusions into political advocacy, claim that the pandemic is an argument for populist policies. We could also turn them into evidence that our particular religious beliefs, or just greater spirituality more generally, is the answer to today’s problems. Each of these interpretations is in its own ways reasonable. But CST suggests that if we stop with these responses we will have shortchanged ourselves. We will have wasted an important learning opportunity, and in this, in the long run, in fact done a kind of harm. 

The Myth of the Individual provides essential insight into just how this might be the case and what more is needed. Addressing it in the lickety-split fashion a short article demands necessarily presents difficulties. Most often I’ve written about the concept in books—where there is space for preparation and perspective. But the notion is important enough that I will give it a shot (supplying ample links where people might wish more detail). 

The Myth of the Individual describes how the observation that individuality as we have thought of it is insufficient can only be a start. Just as important is the recognition that the modern age concept of the individual misrepresents what has actually been the case. CST goes on to describe how understanding what a next chapter in how we think about what being an individual involves provides an important doorway for grasping the more encompassing and complete kind of perspective that will be increasingly important in all parts of our lives. 

Let’s take the needed new understanding in a couple of steps. The first step turns to the observation that individuality as we have traditionally thought of it is not what we have assumed. We tend to take our modern concept of the individual for granted—see little reason to question it or to think we might need anything more. CST makes clear that in fact it is a developmental notion, specific to our Modern Age. It also makes clear that there is no reason to think of individuality as we have conceived it as an end point and every reason to be fascinated by what may come next. In addition, CST confronts us with how it represents something fundamentally different from what we have thought it to be about. 

A couple examples that I examine in detail in my writing provide particularly good illustration. One is our modern romantic ideal in love. We’ve thought of romantic love as love based on individual choice. But romantic love is in fact based as much on projection and mythologizing as on seeing the other person—or ourselves—clearly. We put the other person on a pedestal, make them our brave knight or fair maiden, our “other half.” I’ve described how success with love in times ahead will require not just a more complete, more “Whole-Person” picture of love, but also a more complete idea of what it means to be an individual. 

I observe something very similar with leadership. The recognition that modern representative government is not what we have assumed provides a way in. The democratic ideal is based on the belief that it reflects the choices of individuals—we speak of “government by the people.” But leadership has also always been idealized and mythologized—we elevate our leaders and project our authority on to them. Giving our power to leaders has served us by protecting us from uncertainty and complexity and saved us from levels of responsibility we could not have tolerated. This dynamic may seem less obvious today than in times of kingly rule, but it remains present with modern governmental forms. And like with love, more will be required going forward. In my writing, I describe the importance of leadership (or followership) that has its foundations in a more Whole-Person kind of identity. I’ve gone so far as to propose that what might most define a next stage in the evolution of governance is the possibility of real government by the people. 

This first observation—that individuality as we have thought of it isn’t what we have imagined—gets us part of the way. It helps us recognize how what we have seen has differed fundamentally from what we have assumed. It also begins to point toward just what has been missing and the needed more complete kind of identity the future requires. But by itself, this first observation gives us no way to understand how these changes might be possible. And more specifically for this article, it gives us no way to understand how better appreciating how we are “all in this together”—and better appreciate connectedness more generally—might result. It also gives us no way to understand how more familiar ways of interpreting what is being asked of us leave us short. 

The second observation turns to the cognitive reordering that comes with what CST calls Cultural Maturity. CST proposes that our times are challenging us to an important new chapter in culture’s developmental story. Cultural Maturity involves not just thinking new things, but new ways of thinking, specific cognitive changes. I subtitled my most recent book, “Integrative-Meta-perspective and the Cognitive “Growing Up” On Which Our Future Depends.” Integrative Meta-perspective is a mouthful of a term, but it gets at what is being asked of us quite precisely. 

Integrative Meta-perspective is a dual process. It involves at once more fully stepping back from the whole of our human complexity, and more deeply engaging it. We see a more limited version with maturity in an individual lifetime (it is what often makes possible greater wisdom in later life). As far as identity, this cognitive reordering replaces old polarized notions with a more complete, more Whole-Person picture of what it means to be an individual. It also helps us see the world in ways that step beyond the mythologized, ideology-based assumptions of times past and engage questions of all sorts in more complete and systemic ways. (CST is a framework for addressing experience from this kind of perspective). 

Understanding how the result helps us better appreciate relatedness requires a closer look at just what thinking more systemically in the sense I’m suggesting entails. Integrative Meta-perspective helps us better grasp the whole of ourselves. As part if this, it helps us more deeply engage aspects of who we are that recognize and appreciate interconnections. You can think of it historically. While individuality has prevailed increasingly in modern times, it was connectedness that most prevailed in earliest times. (In tribal societies, truth is inseparable from one’s connectedness with tribe and nature.) I need to be clear that I am quite specifically not suggesting that the task is to somehow go back. Integrative Meta-perspective unequivocally takes us forward—into a new more sophisticated and encompassing understanding of self and world. The essential recognition as far as identity and individuality is that Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes do two things at once that to usual ways of thinking might seem opposites: They increase our valuing of uniqueness and difference (indeed bring a depth of appreciation and a nuance of detail to understanding difference well beyond that provided by the modern age concept of the individual), and simultaneously they deepen our appreciation of interconnections. While this result might initially seem contradictory, it is consistent with the more systemic and complete kind of understanding that the concept of Cultural Maturity argues will be needed with concerns of all kinds in times ahead.

As we go forward, appreciating the Myth of the Individual can help us recognize conceptual traps that can get in the way of acting wisely. Without question, individual strength is essential in these uncertain times, but doubling down on the old image of the rugged individual in response to that uncertainty today only puts everyone at greater risk. However, falling off the other side of the road ultimately gets us no closer to what is needed. Just being nicer to each other would be a fine thing, but by itself it does nothing to address Cultural Maturity’s challenge. And more populist or progressive views, if they don’t ultimately reflect a kind of romantic going back, at least represent a kind of taking sides. In the long run they stop short in a way that easily only cements—and even inflames—traditional animosities. And while religious and spiritual views can provide comfort, as traditionally conceived they are just as ideological. Leaving behind modern age individualist beliefs in the end requires thinking in fundamentally new, more complete and encompassing, mature and systemic ways. 

Such new ways of thinking more generally produce the kinds of values and understandings needed to address the most important challenges ahead for the species. Are we up to the task? Fancy words like Integrative Meta-perspective might seem to imply that needed changes will be difficult and complex. But CST proposes that what is being asked may not be as daunting a we might imagine. In using the phrase “growing up, I’m suggesting that at least the potential for this kind of change is developmentally built into who we are. It may be that the task is ultimately not that complicated, just new. And because it is new in a way “whose time has come,” when we are ready for it, it can feel really quite ordinary, yes, like common sense. This is a kind of common sense that is only now becoming an option, but if the concept of Cultural Maturity is correct, as we look to the future, it may increasingly become the only option.