What if I’m not special? The myth of individuality

(on creativity & contribution, Part 1)

Mt Crawford Forest, Adelaide Hills

My new favourite place is the Mt Crawford Forest. My family and I ‘discovered’ it during the recent lockdown and consequently found ourselves returning there every few days: It’s a beautiful place, stuff your Narnia-dreams are made of. Closed to traffic, it was so quiet, and hardly seeing any other people there, it felt like ‘ours’. It was easy to spend many hours exploring; I don’t think I’ll ever get tired of the stillness amongst the seemingly never-ending rows of trees. We had picnics and played hide and seek and drank coffee and read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe – perfection, right?! There’s a large part of me that wishes it was still locked to traffic so that it can be that quiet and idyllic again.

Now if you take a walk amongst those seemingly thousands of trees, they’re all different in their own way: Height, branches, number of pinecones, if they are situated on a hill or on a flat, if they’re sheltered in the middle of the row or exposed on the edge; you could spend a lifetime describing the details that make all of these trees unique and distinctive.

In contrast however, one day Shan and I hiked to the lookout of the same forest and before us spread the expanse of the plantation. It was hard to pick out the afore mentioned distinction of the trees: the carpet of green was similarly impressive – but at that height, in its uniformity, not in its ‘specialness’.

So. If a tree [actually] looks like all the other trees in a forest, is it still beautiful?
Does it retain value and worth – even if it is hard to distinguish it from others?

…What happens to us when we’re not unique?

Now we come to one of the pressing identity dilemmas of our generation: in our culture, our worth has become intrinsically linked with the idea of uniqueness, of specialness. Who we are is only really valuable if we’re not like everyone else: if we’re a new/exciting reinterpretation or voice on the stage, we can rest assured in our worth.

Please hear me that I’m not denying the goodness in fresh expressions or new stories, or even strangeness and uniqueness. There is bravery and courage and intelligence when people do find a ‘new space’ or a new voice. Furthermore, the impetus to be different and unique can often come as a healthy push back against unhelpful voices of conformity and ‘sameness’, the peer pressure and group think to conform to the status quo. The pursuit of being ‘normal’ can also fall in this unhelpful category.

But in our day and age, there is a real shadow side and danger for us when we pursue difference for the sake of it, when it is championed to the detriment of all other qualities of our contribution or identity.

We don’t need to be telling each other or ourselves that we need to be new and shiny to be desirable.

My girlfriend commented recently that she was reflecting on some dreams and projects she has in her chosen vocation. She said she was scrolling Instagram and the thought hit her; “You don’t have original thought. That’s not special. Don’t worry about it. Go home”. This accusation came not because she had been proven wrong, just because she saw a post that resonated with what she was already thinking. Instead of reading that post as an affirmation of her ideas, the fear of ‘being the same’ – or arriving at an idea second – turned a moment of confirmation into a narrative of dismissal.

Wouldn’t it be incredible if when thoughts are heard in concert, when you thought the same way as someone else, it was not taken as a criticism of your own lack of creativity, but rather an affirmation of the humanity that we share?1

I am aware that there is danger in only engaging with ideas that we agree with instead of educating our selves about diverse perspectives. Please hear me. This is not what I’m talking about here. I’m just curious why the most revered form of creative judgement – and indeed identity judgement – is in the form of UNIQUENESS = WORTH.

Yes we are different. Yes we carry incredible stories of wins/loss/pain/love. And our stories and context are the very things that shape our contribution. You know, I even wrote an entire piece on this. It utilised the French oenological (wine) term of terroir to make the point. But I’m not going to publish it. Because we hear enough about the pursuit of individualism in our culture: it is implicit in our consumerism, in our relationships, in our spiritual life:

Indeed, our entire political and social model is supported by the concept of individualism: the core of individualism insists that we see our lives through the lens and unit of the individual: instead of communities or collectives, we champion a life that is autonomous and choice-based. Many, many other people (especially sociologists) have written about the story of individualism in our lives, but in short, the ‘gift’ of modernity is the reported stripping-off the burdens of race, religion, class distinctions, giving us a ‘project of the self’ where we can be whoever we want to be.

life is not about finding yourself – it’s about creating yourself

George Bernard Shaw

What an inspiring quote…right?

We have the freedom to be anyone we want. We don’t have to be the same.

This is a wonderful idea. Of course. But we also need to recognise that it is an idea.

Firstly, we still continue to live in a society with realities of race (ism), wealth (poverty), gender (discrimination) and power (imbalance). We can’t always ‘live our best lives’, because our reality may be incredibly hard.

Furthermore, if we can no longer rely on ‘concrete labels’ of identity that our previous generations wore, then “Identity is no longer a ‘given’ on the basis of belonging to a collective, but has become a ‘task’” (Cortois 2017). The consequence? We judge people on their ‘ability’ to make the best life for themselves, even when their social circumstances make that project a really hard – or unachievable – task. This means that those with privilege usually get more opportunities to be ‘acceptably special’.

Secondly, the story of an autonomous, powerful actor, is that –

An idea. A myth – a story of how life is best lived. Here we think of a myth not just as an un-reality, a ‘fake’ or wrong narrative, but a teaching-story. As Cortois (2017) tells us, a myth offers us ‘guidance for orienting ourselves’, and offers us clear expressions of cultural stories – of the values we hold dear.

So what do we learn about our cultural values from a myth of individualism?

I don’t think it’s that we necessarily or always like to be different, or separate from anyone else, because the pressure to be different runs parallel to stories of belonging, of being part of something bigger than ourselves.

The story of being an individual – at its heart- is perhaps a longing for us simply to be seen and recognised.

We want to be special. We want to feel worth something.

And if the loudest voice of society is that in order to do that, you have to do or be someone worth noticing,

than the consequences of that society – are that many of us are exhausted. And intimidated. And paralysed.

I don’t think I’m exaggerating when I say that this thinking can impact and hinder so many aspects of our lives – that we need to prove ourselves so that we can be worthy. We curate our wardrobes, our social media profiles, our podcast selections, in order to be interesting and notable. I’ve noticed it in my relationships, but also in my work life, and even in my faith life – that I need to sprout the newest instagrammable-sharable-profile that becomes a business but also a ministry so that I am reassured in my acceptance and love. It’s exhausting. And not something I want to be modelling to those around me.

I could finish this post by sprouting encouraging and comforting ideas that if your voice is the ‘same’ as someone else, it’s no less beautiful: indeed, a choir of harmonised and echoed voices is one of the most beautiful sounds you’ll here.

But I won’t do that (even though yes I have written a post about that too)

I could tell you to dance like nobody’s watching

But I’m not going to tell you that either.

I do, however, think one of the most important things we can do is recognise the times in our lives or perhaps the parts of ourselves that lean into either or both of these needs –

the need to be recognised (as different),
the need to belong (with others)

and be friends with both parts of ourselves in that moment.

….

nb: This is just the beginning of hopefully a series on the story of creativity in our lives: I want to explore how we view/how society shapes our creativity or simply contribution. I’d love to hear your thoughts on this if you’re inclined.

1The fear that is loud in this space speaks of the myth of a scarcity model of contribution– something I’m planning on teasing and debunking out in a future post.

Liza Cortois (2017) The myth of individualism: From individualisation to a cultural sociology of individualism, European Journal of Cultural and Political Sociology, 4:4, 407-429, DOI: 10.1080/23254823.2017.1334568

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