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Rethinking Individualism

The fracturing of our society is something that I think about often, and actually study, although not nearly to the depth that I would like yet.  It’s on my list of ideas to explore.  Very briefly, Capitalism is a strong driving force that pushes us to greater and greater levels of individualism.  It requires this for continued expansion of the economy.  For the economy to grow, it needs constant feeding; we feed it by producing, selling, and buying.  

In our current way of life, each household needs a refrigerator, washer, dryer, perhaps a freezer, dishwasher and lawnmower.  Most households don’t need more than one of these items (although my parents have two refrigerators for 3 people, along with a well-stocked chest freezer).  So to sell more of these times, you need more households.  To accomplish this, children must move out of the family home and buy homes, fridges, washers and lawnmowers of their own.  And ideally each child should have his or her own home, fridge, freezer and so on.

Within the home we must now all have our own computers, ipods, cell phones, cars and so on.  I have actually sat in the livingroom with four or five family members, each of us engrossed in doing our own thing on our own laptops.  Really, how silly is this scenario?  Not long ago it would have been a spoof in a sit-com.  Today it is a common reality.

Today I was listening to the CBC interviewing the auto-company retirees protesting the possible loss of their private pensions at Queen’s Park.  I can imagine their fear, because I doubt many of them have the option of moving home with their children, something that would be very common in many societies.  I worry myself – if I never have children, who will take care of me when I get older?  And even if I do have some, will they still leave me to my own devices, as so many seniors are left today?

Today I went shopping to pick up some food, and had an interesting mix of experiences.  My first stop was at a butcher shop I have been frequenting for years.  There was a new girl at the counter who, when I asked for certain items, told me they were sold out.  I was frustrated as I had made a trip specifically to that store to pick up those items, and this was the second week in a row that they had been sold, in bulk, to another business instead of to individual customers.  I was beginning to think about  no longer shopping there as driving the extra distance was becoming a waste of my time.  But then someone I knew came out from behind the counter.  He immediately procured what I needed, from a small stash presumably put aside for regular customers.  

On the way back to the car, I experienced several people who didn’t even look at me while I struggled with my arms full of groceries, let alone help me with doors.  Then someone opened a door for me and gave me a big smile.  Pulling out from the parking lot encountered more people lost in their own world, and then a smiling person who stopped and graciously let me pull out.  

In each situation, I went from feeling ostracized and un-valued to feeling like I was part of a community again, just from a smile or a helpful hand.  My mood went from cranky to relaxed and happy instantaneously.  It’s really amazing how much of an impact a little positive human interaction can have.  I live a very isolated life, for the most part, and I regularly struggle with being depressed and feeling like an outcast.  I force myself out to interact with people to try and overcome this.  

I expect more and more people in our society are living and feeling like outcasts because they live alone and work long, exhausting hours to be able to afford to live alone.  Jobs increasingly require us to sit in front of computers, rather than interact with other people, and so our isolation is further deepened.  Furthermore, insecurity leads people to withdraw even further (according to Zygmunt Bauman’s “The Individualized Society”).  Our society is increasingly insecure, as the protesting pensioners at Queen’s Park today have made explicitly clear.

I find this fracturing of society, while driven by capitalism and the consumer culture, is now self-replicating through an indifference people are developing to one another.  Over Easter weekend, while walking the dogs, I found a very expensive Ipod Touch.  I understand these toys to be worth over $300.  I took it home, charged it up with my brother’s charger (he has an Iphone) and discovered an email address in the contact section.  I could easily have kept the ipod, but since I was able to contact its owner, that wouldn’t have felt right.  To me, the loss of such an expensive item would have been very upsetting; I could only project that feeling onto the original owner, and expect him to feel the same way.  That left me with no option but to return it to him.  So I emailed the address I found.

The owner emailed back, expressing (briefly) gratitude and asking that I mail the ipod back to him as he lived out of town.  He offered to reimburse me for my expenses.  So I took the ipod to Canada post, had it nicely and carefully wrapped, and sent it Express Post to the tune of $10.  That was a week ago, and I have heard nothing back from the person I sent it to.  

I have to say, the level of rudeness that this exudes is shocking.  I do not regret sending the ipod back because it was the right thing to do and I wouldn’t have felt right keeping it.  But I am certainly not inspired to go out of my way to help someone else should this happen again.  

What’s going on here?  I tried to help someone who is clearly disengaged from his community and society in general.  He also probably has a disposable attitude towards his possessions (I am assuming here, but he was clearly not overly excited about getting this very expensive item back), which likely translates to other aspects of his life.  Then I have an interaction with such a person, and his attitude has infected me.  I now also feel more disengaged, and less inclined to interact with my community.  My feeling is “to hell with him!” and for some reason that is translating to “to hell with people!”  

I will do my best not to let this happen, and to focus on the person who helped me at the store, who opened the door, and who allowed me to pull out of the parking lot.  I also plan to have my parents live with me when they get older, and really hope someone will do the same for me when my time comes.  

But why wait?  Even now, it makes way more sense to live communally than on my own.  To have my own house, which I did for several years before my current roommate moved in, meant spending nearly every last cent I had.  It also meant doing all my own cooking and cleaning, which pushes most to quick solutions like processed food and harsh chemicals.  If we all lived more communally, either with friends or family, we could reduce the need for every single person to do every task, or own individual versions of every item.  It is this way that we are going to make significant reductions in our consumption without significant reduction in our quality of life.  And to be honest, I expect most people would find their quality of life to improve.  I certainly have been reminded of that with my roommate, as we cook and clean together, or just chat over a meal we are sharing.  

We are meant to live together, in community.  This is why the simple smile or a small, but kind act of a stranger, can bring such warmth to our hearts and give us such boosts to our energy.  It is this that we are losing with our culture of individualism, along with our health and sanity, and the integrity of our society, and planet.  I think it is high time for us to rethink this aspect of our current path, and deeply question the processes that continue to our communities and our live.


4 Responses

  1. What an honest and soul baring post.
    I have never met you – but you are a truly great person – you can tell you are loved by the smiles on your dog’s faces! I enjoy your posts when I get to read them, always remember you have a great talent for writing and if I ran into you at the butcher’s shop I would def. smile as well as hold the door for you. Keep up the great blogging.
    Kelly 🙂

  2. Kelly – You are a very kind and generous person to take the time to say such supportive words to a stranger. Thank you!

  3. As Kelly said, “Keep up the great blogging.”
    Having discovered your blog and some of the interesting thinking and links to be found here, i’m dropping by now and then and still finding the drop in worth my time. And yep… I’m time strapped and pressured too.
    Very well expressed thoughts here that so many can relate to. It’s all moving too fast for the too many of us and is too inticately ballanced. Somethings got to give. I guess, for starters, that something is us cannaries.
    Take care. Take time to breath.

  4. Bravo!

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