By Niall Fahy and Dr Jimi Wollumbin
Bringing about the world that we dream is possible will require action from individuals. Indeed, it will ultimately require a re-visioning of what being an ‘individual’ really means.
“The part can never be well unless the whole is well.”
It’s time to reframe our concept of the individual.
The word originates from the Latin individuum, literally meaning ‘that which cannot further be forced apart’. As a mental construct the idea of one individual person makes sense, however it is only in the vacuum of the mind that human beings can be forced apart from the relationships that define, comprise, contain and sustain us.
In the same way that there are no single waves apart from the ocean, the notion of a lone man or woman is a linguistic fabrication – useful, but entirely abstract. And when its divisive aspect is overemphasised, this concept becomes a dangerous one – so much so that it plays a role in many major social problems of the 21st century.
Individuality is a beautiful thing, to be celebrated and nurtured. Problems arise only if there is an imbalance in the sense of how we relate to the rest of the world. Our selfhood is relational, our existence ebbing and flowing between the poles of autonomy and reciprocity. Thus we require a new noun, a new map of what it means to be human.
Rather than defining ourselves by our separateness, we need a definition that implies interdependence – like ‘liver cell’, ‘wing feather’, or ‘birch leaf’. We need to recognise our partness – the fundamental interconnection that exists between each of us and other people, without relinquishing our wholeness – the independence that we cherish as an inborn right.
In Western culture, the last few decades have seen the credo of individualism attain unprecedented and rampant heights. The culturally defined purpose of life has shifted; away from a basis in collectively defined motivations, towards meanings of our own making. This is a double-edged sword – on one hand we are blessed with more personal freedom than ever before, but on the other our sense of social responsibility has begun to fragment.
An overinflated sense of individualism is implicitly accompanied by a heightened aura of competitiveness – in this sense the individual is the basic unit of our global dysfunction. The modern expectation is that you get ahead by running the treadmill as fast as possible in order to gain material wealth, with whatever free time you can manage to carve out being used for passive consumption of goods or entertainment. We’re told that it’s our Darwinian duty to climb to the top of the heap, and devil take the hindmost.
This paradigm has led to vast ecological devastation and economic inequality, along with growing levels of isolation and stress. Now that we’ve gotten to the stage where 85 individuals possess as much wealth as half the world’s population,1 it’s plainly obvious that this way of thinking impoverishes us in more ways than one. Like many others, it’s a paradigm that has become obsolete and is in need of a radical overhaul.
All human beings exist, to a greater or lesser extent, as members of a society. As individuals our contributions to that society, or lack thereof, play a large part in determining whether it can function in a balanced and integral fashion or not. Fortunately, the scale and scope of individual contributions are growing at a faster rate than ever before.
We envisage a new conception of the social institution of ‘the individual’ – from passive consumer, to positively engaged global citizen. From isolated self-serving economic unit, to active member of an interconnected global community. This is an expansion of what it means to be an individual; a reciprocal arrangement where individual needs are not subsumed by those of the collective, and global needs are not subsumed by the needs of a few. The emergence of the Global Citizen represents the integration of individual expression with communal duty, in enlightened – and exultant – self-interest.
We want to empower you to be a part of the solution.
1 Oxfam report ‘Working For The Few’, Ricardo Fuentes-Nieva and Nick Galasso 2014;