I was raised to do things well. Growing up I got good grades, tried hard in my extracurriculars, etc. However, in high school I learned that this wasn’t enough. The realization settled in as I sat down and tried to write my first college application essay. To be skilled wasn’t enough. You had to be skilled and unique. You had to be an individual that stood out among the hundreds of other straight-A extracurricular-laden students. Schools were selecting for not only intelligent, but interesting applicants. I had done everything right “by the book” yet when the moment came, I had no way to prove that I was more worthy than anyone else.
In the modern world, the demand is high for real, special individuals. But what does this mean? How does one become an individual when everyone else around you is trying just as hard to prove that they too are unique?
In my mushrooms class, the first assigned reading was a short, written dialogue between an interviewer and a fungus (a theoretical, speech-endowed fungus of course). Though I found the reading largely uninteresting, one Q&A exchange stood out to me. When the interviewer asked the fungus what it believed the human “purpose” was, the reply was surprisingly deep and insightful:
“With the advantage of hindsight, I think we can summarize it as a failed experiment
in individualism. The idea of the individual – and there is no fungal equivalent – arose
during a period of rapid change in human society. In the abstract, individualism looked
defensible, even appealing. The ideal individual was to be educated and enlightened,
someone we’d all like to know. However, as a practical matter, the culture of enlightened
individualism reformed itself after a brief period into a cult of personal freedom.”
So is an individual defined by their personal freedom? In a way this makes sense. It’s much easier to stand out when you’re going against the grain, when you make your own decisions and separate yourself from tradition. In a recent NY Times opinion piece, columnist David Brooks wrote:
“Fifty years ago, America was groupy. People were more likely to be enmeshed in stable, dense and obligatory relationships. They were more defined by permanent social roles: mother, father, deacon. Today, individuals have more freedom. They move between more diverse, loosely structured and flexible networks of relationships.”
The column goes on to state various other cultural trends. More adults are choosing not to have children, and those that do more often have children outside marriages. Teenagers choose to hook up rather than go steady. Individuals leave their churches and consider themselves “unaffiliated.” The things that were once considered standard or expected, people are now shunning.
The new individual is not only intellectual, but also enlightened and progressive – increasingly more liberated and more progressive than his peers, because who’s going to listen anymore unless you have an original idea? In my opinion, it’s pretty obvious that maintaining this cult of individuality is impossible. No matter how hard each individual may try on his or her own, not everyone can stand out as special an unique. But that doesn’t mean that society preaches a hopeless ideal, or that the pursuit of individuality is a waste. The pursuit of individuality lures people out of old systems and old traditions; it encourages them to think on their own and do something worth doing that’s never been done before. Even if not every new idea is revolutionary, society is always in need of forward thinkers. Perhaps that the cult of individuality has become the cult of personal freedom is not such a bad thing. And maybe you’re not so special after all, but that doesn’t mean you’re not important.