Friday, November 12, 2010

Rugged Individualism? I think not

This is the kind of post that comes out of an open house I hosted last night at my job. My thought process starts to dig down into what is taught or said and I decide to use this venue as a place to host my thinking. Lucky for you – you don't have to keep reading.
The faculty were talking about behavior being a function of a person's belief in their own control over their life and how the environment controls their choices. I am in complete control of my destiny – or – I have no control over my fate. I am the wind – or - I am a leaf in the wind. That environment also holds the attributes of our culture, family of origin and any of the other messages that we have received growing up as to what will influence you or not.
Six months ago I would have said that I live at the far end of that individual control spectrum. I would have said that my default behavior is much more informed by individual choice and power to be my own person in the universe. In some ways that is true; however, after spending the last six months building a scholarship for multicultural leadership, a diversity workshop and talking with a myriad of folks with provocative viewpoints – I am very aware of how my understanding of individual choice remains complicated by all that has influenced where I am in the world.
The conversation last night turned to the notion of rugged individualism – a concept that is bandied about by politicians and patriotic verbiage when describing American values. However, I am beginning to believe that it is actually a myth. Rugged Individualism, being completely in charge of one's own destiny is something we aspire towards because we've been led to believe that that stance will empower us. And yet, up until the last century, Americans survived because of their community and familial connections. This country wasn't founded on the principle of Independence and Individualism – it was founded by communities of like minded thinkers that never would have survived the first winter without working together. The west wasn't settled by individuals – family groups and whole communities moved together into the wilderness to form new homesteads.
And yet, we Americans – now – really like this notion of being our own persons and controlling our own destinies without being that leaf blown about by forces beyond our control. Something happened over the last hundred years, a new message has enculturated our society – but only for those who have a certain level of privilege and opportunity. We don't like thinking that forces – whatever those might be – can have so much influence. That emasculates, takes away our personal power. Let's face it, Americans, especially those born to a higher notion of privilege, don't like thinking anyone or thing is going to take away their power.
Those of us who have received a certain level of education, been blessed with good jobs and health - so many of us no longer need our tribes to survive the proverbial winter of scarcity. And yet, as relational beings, how many of us are still drawn to building connection with community and family?
Personally, I have yearned for that sense of individual power like it is some sort of Buddha state of being that will relieve me of pain and suffering. And yet, as I continually acknowledge all the parts of my world that have influence on my perspective, I can't help wondering about what has evoked that yearning in me in the first place.

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