We need to militantly defend individual rights. But in the formation of the self who we are, we owe to others.
An opinion piece in today's New York Times (2/12/2023) ”What I Know About Married Bliss I Learned From My Husband's Twin” caught my attention. Its subject is something I have thought about for a long time and often. Written by a young married woman, it describes her changing understanding of her relationship with her husband. In short, she moves from an “I” to a “we,” while reflecting on what's at stake in the change.
She begins by recalling her impatience when a member of a married couple would answer a question about an experience they had by invoking “we,” as in “we liked it,” instead of each individual responding on her or his own behalf. It's as if neither had a separate identity, and they were melded as a seamless, undifferentiated unit.
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I must admit that this submergence of the self into a homogeneous dyad always irked me as well. It suggested a relationship too perfect to be true. Glibly smoothing over individuality wherein one's distinctive opinions were lost implied a relationship that was flat and boring. A small thing, no doubt. But to my mind, it is not what marriage means, or how the self finds its place in it.
This leads me to a wider reflection on where our uniqueness and individualism lie in the matrix of human relations.
A circumstance of greater notice that I have experienced relates to funerals. As a clergyperson, I have officiated at scores of funerals and memorial services over a long career. I bring utmost care to them. I have long believed that death makes a special claim on us like nothing else. On occasion, only one member of a couple, who were both friends of the one who died, would attend, and apologetically assert that he or she was “representing the family.” Though it is not an issue to debate, I always found this circumstance wanting. A funeral's purpose is to pay one's respects, to honor the life and memory of the person who has died with one's presence. That respect requires, in my view, the personal attendance of those to whom the person so memorialized was important. That function cannot be fulfilled by or passed off to another. In this instance, individual expression counts for a great deal.
As with the author of the essay in question, my own thinking about individualism has evolved over the years. In the heyday of my activism in the protest movements of the 1960s, I was a staunch and militant individualist. I have a rebellious streak and have always valued non-conformity. I militantly balk at authoritarianism, though I can honor and respect legitimate and informed authority. The two are not the same. This anti-authoritarianism has played itself out in a strong commitment to the defense of individual rights. As such, I have aligned myself with a fundamental American tradition. American freedom and identity are vested in the Enlightenment notion of autonomy, the power of critical thought, and the role of dissent in sustaining democracy, all vested in the individual. It is a political stance I have long embraced and fought for.
After the anti-war movement and the rebellious ethos of the counter-culture faded, I applied my passionate commitment to individualism to the burgeoning field of human rights. I plied my devotion primarily through Amnesty International (AI) which enabled volunteers to do its most important work. I founded a local AI group, and for more than a decade we developed ingenious strategies to win the freedom of prisoners of conscience, otherwise forgotten men or women locked away in faraway prisons. There was a moral imperative to our work. It was a testament to the importance of the life of the individual person on whose behalf we labored.
I later became a human rights academic, teaching in the graduate school of Columbia University, with undergraduates and Hunter College, and for the United Nations at its University for Peace in Costa Rica. In the human rights regime, human rights are the possession of the individual person. Groups are construed to have rights as well, but it has been compellingly argued that the purpose of protecting the rights of a group is to protect the rights of individuals who comprise the group's members. We need to protect the rights of indigenous groups, for example, to speak their own language and practice their religion, or else these languages and religions may die out thus depriving the individual members of the right to exercise them.
I still remain a militant defender of individualism as it pertains to the political empowerment and rights of the person. In these dark times, when democracy is sorely threatened, we need to maintain our individual rights and liberties perhaps more than ever.
But as I am no longer a radical individualist. My thinking has become more complex and nuanced.
What is apt in the political sphere does not necessarily pertain to the broader matrix of human relations. I believe that reality is complex, and no less the human person. While individualism needs to hold sway in the arena of rights, when we are examining the nature of the self within the arena of human relations, our ontological understanding takes on a different structure.
At the deepest level, I believe that we are ineluctably social creatures. Who we are and what we believe is a product of the environment we have been born into and in which we are immersed. We are primarily what we have inherited from others, and we are continually dependent on others not only for our physical survival but for our emotional sustenance and for the cultural endowments we enjoy and through which we live out our lives. We are not individual monads. We may believe that we are the creators of our thoughts, but it is egoism that primarily leads us to believe so.
Assuredly, we retain an individual, creative capability. We all manifest our distinctive personalities. It is here that our uniqueness is found, and this is precious. But for the most part, who we are is a rearrangement of the resources deeded to us by others, our parents, social environments, the values prominent in the place and time in which we are born, and our culture, which plays a powerful and multifaceted role in molding us. The cliché “there is nothing new under the sun,” I believe, is prevailingly true.
In the essay I am referencing, the author, Ms. Michal Leibowitz, writes, “Secular American culture puts the self and self-fulfillment at the center of life. That emphasis, already ubiquitous by the '60s and '70s, continues to transform all areas of life – it's become difficult, for example, to make any argument that doesn't appeal to the ultimate good of one's own happiness. But in viewing couplehood mostly as a vehicle for individual self-fulfillment we have lost the thing at the core of the romantic ideal of marriage: we.”
I would maintain that the loss is far deeper than the impoverishment of the romantic ideal. What's lost is a comprehensive appreciation of where the person is situated within the context of the human family and the universe of moral responsibilities and obligations that flows from it.
She cites the sociologist, Anthony Giddens, who wrote about the nature of “a pure relationship.” Ms. Michal interprets this as a relationship one enters into “...for the purpose of meeting two individuals' needs and continues only as long as it still delivers enough satisfaction to each. If your needs aren't being met – or if the compromises are too great – you're free to move on to someone else.”
There is a place for divorce to be sure. Too many marriages are exploitative and have the life drained from them. But on reading this I couldn't help to recall a refrain made popular in the `60s to the effect that people should remain together “as long as it's groovy.” It had a cache that resonated with the spirit of the era. But even then, in the heyday of my youthful rebellion, the adage seemed wrong to me. Serious relations between people require commitment that transcends the short-range and immediate gratifications of the moment. The traditional marriage vows in which the principles pledge their commitment “for better or worse” convey wisdom that speaks against an ethos of individual fulfillment alone. It is the devotion to relations over the long-range, inclusive of experiences that are challenging and devoid of happiness in the moment, that nurture depth and a richer understanding of life's meaning, and bring us to the farther reaches of human fulfillment.
The writer ends her piece by conveying the discovery that her marriage with her husband did not remain a transaction between two independent, individual selves. It was not a win-lose arrangement in which one needs to protect the self from those things that would encroach on it or take from it. She arrives at the place she originally rejected, but, no doubt, with greater insight. She now sees her relationship with her partner as a “we” and not as two totally separate individuals. Speaking of her husband and herself she notes, “His joy is not simply important to you because he's important to you. It is your joy. The boundaries don't dissolve, but they're porous.”
I think this is right.
Beyond this one person's reflections, her illumination suggests a far-reaching philosophical understanding of our relation to others. As noted earlier, I believe the self is primarily social. While I wouldn't go as far as Marx in his observation that man is exclusively “an ensemble of social relations,” in that I believe we do retain elements of individuality and distinctiveness, I do assert that we need to make more explicit our organic ties to the human community of which we are a part.
We are all organically tied to the human family. In this regard, I favor the Hindu metaphor of Indra's net. Indra is a god who possesses an infinite net. At each vertex of the net is a shiny jewel. Reflected in each jewel is every other jewel.
We are like the jewels that occupy the place where each strand of the net intersects with others. As a distinct jewel, we are individuals, but we are inseparably tied to each other and to the totality that comprises humanity. All our actions ripple out to affect all others and the human family as a whole. Because we are joined with others our actions ricochet back to affect us as well. And we all share a common destiny.
And so, are we primarily individuals? Or, are we primarily communal? I believe that we are both individual and communal simultaneously -- and this is no contradiction.
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Beautiful post, Joe. I wish Indra’s net and her jeweled image of human individuality were closer to our cultural norms and perceptions of self, relationship and civic life. The best I can do is conduct my life in accord with the values of Indra’s jeweled net, connect to others in a ways that exemplified her majestic percepts and encourage others to do the same. Thanks for encouraging me to do the same.