Jane Haddam’s WordPress weblog

All Of Us Individuals Together…

with 3 comments

I’ve finally figured out what it is–when it’s rainy or otherwise yuck out, the computer lab is full of people, most of them with MP3 players that do have earplugs, but they’re playing the damned things so loud, it’s impossible to think.

I said I’d get back to the Protestants, and I will, sort of.

I was thinking about what Cheryl said, about how everybody is so desperate to be an “individual” these days, about how being “myself” has become some kind of holy grail we all have a right to, even if we’re Ted Bundy or Charles Manson.  The book I’m reading by James Schall–called The Mind That Is Catholic–talks about is as people believing they have a right to their own reality, so that it’s not that people began by thinking that everything was relative to our own opinion of it and then went from there to coming up with their own private “values,” but that they started with the private “values” and took up subjectivism because that was the only way they wouldn’t have to change them.

That was a very long sentence.

There’s something here that I find a little confusing.

To go back to yesterday’s navel gazing a little, I am aware of a kind of temperament in myself that I’m pretty sure is at least partially inherited, a temperament that reacts strongly and decisively to anybody trying to tell me what to do.

I don’t get extreme about this.  I’ve managed to put up with taking orders long enough to get a few degrees and to hold jobs.   But there’s something at the base of me that just instinctively recoils when I feel my autonomy is being infringed upon.

If people like Steven Pinker are right, this is not a matter of my upbringing or my environment but of the biochemical inheritance in my brain, which goes some way to explaining both why there is so much of this on one side of my family (and so little on the other), and why the standard joke about Greeks is that they have to start their own businesses because they can’t work for anybody else.

But if this is something inherited, then it must have existed far back in time, at least as far back as the Middle Ages.  And granted, the Byzantine Middle Ages were not the same in tone or structure as the Middle Ages in Western Europe, my guess from what I’ve read is that they would be even less congenial to people with my particular response to hierarchy.

Certainly the will to individuality must have existed in all times and places, and must have existed strongly in some people.

What I don’t know is how somebody like me would have framed the issue to herself given a Medieval vocabulary of human nature. 

Ack.  I’m going around and around, probably because I’m tired and distracted.

Individuality, or at least the idea that the autonomous individual is the standard for human nature, arrives in Western civilization by way of Protestantism’s insistance that every individual man was capable of interpreting scripture on his own, with a good will and the grace of God. 

And it leads to things that are definitely dysfunctional, not the least of which is the constant insistence these days that “what’s true for you isn’t true for me,” as if it were a matter of opinion whether you’d die if you walked out a twentieth story window.

But I don’t want to lose the stress on individuality, either, because it seems to me that it’s given us a lot that is good.

And also that it suits my temperament a lot better than the rest of this stuff.

I’ve got to go confuse a lot of students with poetry.

Written by janeh

March 24th, 2010 at 10:31 am

Posted in Uncategorized

3 Responses to 'All Of Us Individuals Together…'

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  1. I always like to think of myself as being really easy-going and not at all insistent on doing things my way, but it’s been borne in on me over the years that this may be self-delusion, as my closest friends and relatives don’t seem to see me this way, I’m one of the very few people I know who actually enjoys living alone – and, to be honest, one of the reasons I like it is because I can do everything my way. And I’ve always been happiest in the kind of work that I can do rather independently – one job adviser once said that I was the only person she had interviewed who admitted that she preferred NOT dealing with lots of people, and would rather work in a quiet backroom than in a front office with little direct supervision or lots of people around telling me how to do my job.

    So, OK, maybe I am rather strongly individualistic, and I certainly tend to come down on the individual’s side when it’s an issue of individual vs group responsibility for something. I can see the importance of recognizing the value of people as individuals, and although not as much emphasized before the reformation as during and afterward, that was always part of Christianity, even in societies that tended to be much more communal than ours.

    But it comes back to continua, doesn’t it? Someone who’s largely individualistic in a communal society either finds a way to be an individual – as a great saint or sinner, perhaps, or the best weaver in the village – or has a pretty unhappy life. Someone whose meaning in life comes from relationships might find a way to forge strong relationships in a very individualistic society – or else be miserable lonely.


    24 Mar 10 at 12:13 pm

  2. I was an only child in a rather quiet household. Lots of adults, mostly women, around, in my house and not far away. I’ve never minded being alone. I am living with someone now and I often crave privacy. Finally, I have a real office, somewhat away from the rest of the library, although my door is always open and I spend a lot of time up front solving computer issues, circulation problems, reference etc. I still prefer small groups to large ones. I have two grown daughters and my oldest has two children. When we and a few others get together for holidays, that’s enough for me. In most of the jobs I have held, I tended to be more appreciated by the public that I served rather than the people who supervised me. I can interact with a decent size group of folks and people I don’t know well in a work situation but in a social one I am very uncomfortable. While I have opinions that vary greatly from those I grew up with, and from a lot of the people I knew growing up, and a large number that I know nowl I don’t feel my values are subjective. To me, the right thing is the kind thing, kind meaning not to hurt someone else. That’s sort of vague but I tend to lean to the idea of mercy rather than judgment. But that doesn’t include speaking up or taking action when another person is doing harm to someone else or to me.


    24 Mar 10 at 1:55 pm

  3. The Protestants–and I am one–may have an exagerated case, but Christian salvation is inescapably a very individual thing. The Old Testament talks about God’s relationship with a community, and the Koran discusses the righteous man bringing his wives–and his cattle–with him into Paradise, but in every New Testament depiction of Judgement, each individual stands alone before the throne of God. “My community didn’t do things that way” is clearly not an acceptable excuse for neglect of religious obligations.
    I think what we’ve got with subjectivism isn’t an inescapable consequence of Protestantism, or individuality, but of a desire to escape obligations. Any ethical code worth taking seriously involves doing some things we’d rather not do, or not doing some things we’d rather enjoy. This is, effectively, redefining reality to avoid that sort of obligation without admitting that one has dropped out of the game.

    And somehow I keep hearing Ambrose Bierce:

    “Sir!” said the individual, “I exist!”
    “I admit the fact” said the Universe, “but it does not create in me a sense of obligation.”


    28 Mar 10 at 3:28 pm

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