Community and Individualism – is there a right way?

Any time I have a reaction of vehement disagreement towards someone or some thing – or actually, any reaction of disagreement stronger than mild but bored curiosity – I try to remember to consider closely the whys of my reaction as much as the idea to which I am reacting.

So when I read this statement from a Hmong woman:

“All men and women are mostly the same, most of the time. Everybody knows that.” (Hmong Grandmother, p 42, Committed by Elizabeth Gilbert)

I found myself having an internal reaction that I thought was worth paying attention to.

It didn’t take much analysing to come up with some possible reasons for a reaction to that statement from a woman in an ancient, enduring community that values the collective over the individual.

For me, my own self-ness and special-ness is an integral part of my identity, unconsciously planted there by the society in which I live.

So my first reaction was a polite, I don’t know about that.

Which was covering up a deeper unsettledness the statement had set off, like a pebble dropped into a pool of water. A pool of glassy water into which i had been looking, studying my own reflection. And in that moment, I couldn’t see myself clearly anymore and I didn’t like it. We never do. But very often we bear the disturbance impatiently until it is gone and we can return to admiring ourselves. And our specialness. Or critiquing ourselves and our unique shortcomings.

Both of which I am starting to suspect are as pointless and fruitless as each other – we are, in fact, not more special than anyone else. Which we don’t like to contemplate. But it also follows that we are not more flawed, or more a failure, or more irrelevant or unworthy than anyone else either.

And that is the rather important point we miss by not allowing ourselves to let go of our stranglehold on individuality.

Are all men and women mostly the same, most of the time?

The individual in me objects to this. We are all special, we are all unique. And in terms of relationships, it certainly feels like it matters who I am with, who I choose to love, who I feel compelled and magnetically drawn to love. That certainly doesn’t feel like something that is arbitrary, like any man will do.

Though we may joke about stereotypes of gender, most of us don’t actually wish to be confined to such stereotypes. And most of us don’t really believe in them when it comes down to it. Sharing commiserations over the trials of men – ‘they’re all the same, good on us for putting up with them, haha’ – in a group of female friends is a far cry from actually swapping husbands, even though we may lament, “They’re all the same.”

But this tendency to use stereotypes is far different to connection among more tribal groups like the Hmong women. Whatever the strengths and shortcomings of their style of living, it can’t be denied that all to often, ours is a farce of community.

And though we say these things with the apparent purpose of bonding over shared experience — I fear it actually does the opposite. Comparison blooms like an unchecked weed.

Either you leave feeling a little smug that you do indeed have the best boyfriend/husband/life. Or you leave wistfully pining for some other life, because the edited, curated and selective portrayal of the lives of other women seem better than yours.

None of this is actual community.

Is our commitment to and praise of individuality to blame?

In this way, perhaps I envy those Hmong women. Perhaps they have a female community that is truly devoid of the competition and comparison that we either glorify in grotesque portrayals of womanhood — TV I’m looking at you, especially of the oxymoronic ‘reality’ flavours — or pretend isn’t there, while allowing it to flourish and multiply from a young age, while it erodes us like a flesh eating disease.

And so for a moment, I think about the Hmong women and I consider the bliss of it. The lack of barriers to connection — barriers born of individualism that we have to work so hard to break down — become more like an wide open door to them. Or maybe no door, no walls at all. The comfort of knowing your purpose and simply fulfilling it, without the burden of excessive choice. A sense of oneness and belonging, feeling no more nor less than anyone else.

For a moment it sounds wonderful.

But then I wonder, is it a case of ignorance is bliss?

Sometimes there is definite wisdom in ancient ways that we are sorely missing in modern society. But we tend to romanticize it also.

And even if it were better ‘back then’ — I think we have come to point where we cannot return to that in the way it once was. Nor would most of us actually want to, even if we were given the option.

Perhaps it is a case, like I suspect most things are, of neither one being ‘better’ – but both holding aspects of the truth.

Ancient ways bring both wisdom and inadequacies. Modern life brings both advances and blindness.

And we are at a point like never before in history of having so much available to us so easily, as to be able to actually choose freely what we want our lives and our world to be.

We may argue that this is not true for many, in light of what is happening in the world to so many. But I would argue that this is a symptom of those of us having the physical freedom to exercise our choices not actually being aware of this freedom in its true form. And so our freedom is a farce too, since we are not aware of the true boundlessness of it.

So instead we grasp for power and trample on others to protect this freedom, and we participate in subjugation (our own and that of others) as inevitable. As if freedom is a limited commodity that we might lose our piece of, instead of the truth — that Life is abundant and its flow unlimited.

We just have to become conscious of that true freedom. We have to become conscious of the true form of our individuality (not just living it out blindly as it has been conditioned into us.) And then marry that true individuality to our Oneness — the state of Being that unites us all with each other and with all of life.

It is possible to express the ways we are uniquely and creatively ourselves, while living deeply in the truth that we are all one.

Our capitalist, consumeristic society is not actually the answer to being free, acting like spirit and connection is only an after thought. But neither is renouncing everything of form and self like physicality doesn’t matter.

Our uniqueness is a truly invaluable thing. We should celebrate it and be free to live it fully. The world needs us to, in fact, be ourselves. But simultaneously we must also know, just as completely, that this uniqueness is but one solitary and temporary expression of the same thing — Life itself.

We are different to everyone else. And we are the same as everyone else. We are each special, not less than anyone else. But we are not more special than anyone else.

The truth is better than that — we are just as infinitely valuable, worthy and special as each other.

This Being that is each of us cannot be lessened in value. There is absolutely nothing you can do to lose it. It simply IS. You are. I Am.

But there is also nothing you can do to earn it or climb higher into it either.

That bothers us because of pride. We don’t want to believe that those we have been told are beneath us — the down and out, the failures, the hopeless cases — are actually just the same as us. But we only see it this way, as a bad thing, because of a false idea that we are in a hierarchy. Even those for whom the hierarchy is not doing much good will cling to this system because of the belief that they *can* rise if only they work hard enough. And this belief is followed by the inference that since climbing is possible, if you are not climbing you are less than, failing, unworthy of equal respect. Because of that shame, we continue to participate blindly in a farcical system, out of fear of losing what small foothold we do have on the ladder.

This is our modern challenge. While societies still living by ancient ways might find their challenge becomes assimilating individuality into a corporate identity, ours will be to bit by bit weaken the walls of individuality to at least open cracks into the connection between us.

To risk stepping off the ladder and realise life is more like boats on the water. Rising water lifts all of them — so bailing water *into* your boat (read money, status, resources, skills, talents, power) and hoarding it for yourself in case it runs out is not simply greedy — it is madness. You are sinking your own boat while simultaneously lowering everyone else’s.

Soon our siphoning of water (Life — not solely defined by, but inseparable from, earth’s resources) will outstrip the rate of replenishment.

And so maybe those Hmong women are more right that I first thought. We are the same. All of us siphoning off the very stuff that sustains us, mindlessly, just because everyone else is doing it too. Most of us are mostly the same, most of the time.


But we don’t have to be.

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