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The Fallacy of "Rugged Individualism"

Western society emphasises the role of the individual, but our individualism has not remained balanced. Isolation and fragmentation have become the order of the day. True community does not exclude individualism. It provides an atmosphere in which individualism can flourish, yet, regardless of our individualism, there is no divisiveness, only cohesiveness. Individualism can exist without being "rugged". In community, it is perhaps best termed, "soft" individualism.

I am alone. I am an individual. That means that I am unique. There is no one else like me in the whole world. Each of us is born into a different environment and develops differently according to a unique pattern throughout our own individual lives. Nowhere is variety in a species more apparent and inevitable than among the human species.

The goal of human development is that we should become fully ourselves. The psychologist, Carl Jung named this goal of human development, "individuation". The process of human development is one of becoming fully individual: separate, from our family, from our society - to learn to think for ourselves, to dare to be out of step with stereotypes. To grow up and become fully human, we are called to be unique and different.

We are also called to power. We have to learn to take responsibility for ourselves. We need to develop a sense of autonomy and self-determination.

Furthermore, we are called to wholeness. We should use what gifts or talents we are given to develop ourselves as fully as possible. If we are to grow, we must work on the weak spots that prevent growth. We are beckoned towards that self-sufficiency, that wholeness required for independence of thought and action.

But all this is only one side of the story.

It is true that we are called to wholeness. But the reality is that we can never be completely whole in and of ourselves. We cannot be all things to ourselves and to others. We cannot be perfect. It is true that we are called to power. Yet the reality is that there is a point beyond which our self-determination not only becomes inaccurate and full of pride, but increasingly self-defeating. It is true that we are created to be individually unique. Yet the reality is that we are inevitably social creatures who desperately need each other not merely for sustenance, not merely for company, but for any meaning in our lives whatsoever. These, then, are the paradoxical seeds from which community can grow.

So we are called:

  • to wholeness and simultaneously to recognise our incompleteness;
  • to power and to acknowledge our weakness; and
  • to individuation and to interdependence.

Thus the problem, indeed the total failure of the ethic of "rugged" individualism is that it runs with only one side of the paradox and incorporates only one half of our humanity. It recognises that we are called to individuation, power and wholeness. But it denies entirely the other part of our story: that we can never fully get there and that we are, of necessity in our uniqueness, weak imperfect creatures who need each other.

This denial can be sustained only by pretence. Because we cannot ever be totally adequate, self-sufficient, independent beings, the idea of rugged individualism encourages us to fake it. It encourages us to hide our weaknesses and failures. It teaches us to be utterly ashamed of our limitations. It drives us to attempt to be superwomen and supermen not only in the eyes of others, but also in our own eyes. It pushes us day in and day out to look as if "we had it all together", as if we were without needs and in total control of lives. It relentlessly demands that we keep up appearances. It also relentlessly isolates us from each other. And it makes genuine community impossible.

Yes, I am alone. Since I am an utterly unique individual, there is no one who can totally understand me, who can know exactly what it is like to walk in my shoes. There are parts of my journey, as there are with everyone else’s journey, that must be walked alone. Some tasks can only be accomplished in solitude. But I am infinitely less lonely than I used to be before I learned that it was human to have feelings of anxiety and depression and helplessness, before I learned that there were places where I could share such feelings without guilt or fear and people would love me all the more for it, before I knew I could be weak in my strength and strong in my weakness, before I had experienced real community and learned how to find it or create it again.

We are desperately in need of a new ethic of "soft" individualism, an understanding of individualism which teaches that we cannot be truly ourselves until we are able to share freely the things we most have in common: our weakness, our incompleteness, our imperfection, our inadequacy, our sins, our lack of wholeness and self-sufficiency.

It is a kind of softness that allows those necessary barriers, or outlines, of ourselves to be like permeable membranes, permitting our selves to seep out and the selves of others to seep in. It is the kind of individualism that acknowledges our independence not merely in the catchwords of the day but in the very depths of our hearts. It is the kind of individualism that makes real community possible.