At the end of a long night – which was proceeded by an even longer day – a man stares into a glass containing the last swig of a harsh liquid. While raising the glass, he has one final moment of lucidity, and then the night disappears. He asks himself, “Is this all I have to look forward to?” At the moment this question should be pondered and debated it is relegated to the forgotten and stupefied because joy, as he knows it, is experienced through a state of distortion, a chemical escape from reality.
This is a common escape for many people. After spending 40+ hours per week doing work they hate, people need a retreat. But instead of escaping into the depths of their minds or discovering what brings value to their lives, they follow the crowd, pursue ‘happiness,’ and eventually find they’re stuck on an emotional treadmill. Some realize this and eventually quit, proclaiming that their destination was worthless anyway. Others continue to pursue the idealized dreams that society crafts for them, whether it’s marriage, for the sake of their image; children, to continue their desire to feel needed; a stable, life-draining career, because they can’t fathom instability; or other desperate acts. Either way, people need solutions. These solutions are internal, but people rarely believe they need to change their values, beliefs, or goals. They believe there’s a pill or other simple solution that will make the tedium of their existence disappear. Wait, people hate their jobs and/or majors? You can almost hear some technocrat scream, “There’s an app for that!” What people really need is catharsis through the creation of themselves as individuals; however, they must understand that there is no single source of truth.
Foolishly, people claim they’re individuals because they dress differently, speak differently, and act differently, yet they are individuals only to the extent that they can think differently. The desire to learn should not be for the acquisition of social currency or to impress others; it is for the struggle to become an individual, to discover the self. A man’s worth is defined by the ideas he holds and, more importantly, by the path he takes to discover those ideas. Worth is acquired through individuation which is the process of examining sacrosanct traditions, beliefs, and customs of society in order to arrive at truth, if only as discovered by that individual. What is true for me may appear insane to others. So be it.
Individuals aren’t those who agree with me or my ideas; they are people who question, acquire knowledge, debate, introspectively build and rebuild themselves, and shudder at the thought of falling in line because doing so requires surrendering their intellect. An individual speaks his mind without a desire to look around for the warm smiles of concurring allies. An individual does that which is good without the need to jot down his actions on a résumé or transcript, without a desire to throw his goodness into the consciousness of others. An individual need not confirm every moment of existence through photographs or status updates because his life has value through action and reflection, not documentation. An individual is rare because he must think for himself, and he finds few allies in society. Being an individual is seen as an adolescent fad to be ended by the time job interviews begin. To do so is to destroy the self.
People claim to be many things, but rarely will their responses be, “I am an individual who…” Yet when asked if they are individuals, they will respond with, “Yes, of course.” The reason for such a response is that individuality is an a priori assumption. Everyone is an individual (or person, as they would likely describe it). What people believe demarcates them from others is not their individuality but the group(s) with which they associate. This inversion of identity is unconsciously accepted; nevertheless, it is true.
For instance, there are no ‘iOS people’ or ‘Windows people.’ There are people who use Apple products and people who use Microsoft products. The label and style of your clothes does not represent you. The brand of deodorant you use is irrelevant. A preference is not a definition of self. Similarly, people attend college with the belief that they chose some lifestyle by doing so. They haven’t. They believe that screaming the same fight songs, drinking at the same tailgates, and wearing the same color clothing makes them part of something bigger than themselves. It doesn’t. But don’t tell the alumni; it might shatter the illusions they spent four years worshipping. (If you’re unfamiliar with collegiate-groupthink debauchery, I envy you.) The idea that an individual is only distinguishable from the others based on the group(s) with which he associates is a fundamentally flawed evaluation of a man’s worth. Nietzsche wrote, “What labels me, negates me.” He was right but ultimately ignored by society since people understand themselves only by looking at the logos on their possessions or the beliefs that make them part of a movement or group.
People define their happiness through a false sense of individuality that, surprisingly, their neighbors enjoys too because they seek individuality where only conformity exists. Men and women play their part well, as Tiqqun’s Theory of a Young-Girl describes (introduction, video, and details). I write this not from the perspective of the all-knowing and perfect, but from the perspective of one who has climbed from the ‘happy’ valley to see there is more to life than the pursuit of happiness. Instead of happiness, people should try to find an inner tranquility. Life is dominated by a force outside of our control: fortune. Making peace with this might be the liberation people seek. Trying to grab happiness is like trying to grab mist; it may surround us, but it is never under truly ours to control.
For society, individuation begins through a willingness to see persons, not members of a group. The societal suppression of individuality has caused intellectual stagnation, for the people of the world now view one another as competitors in consumption. This is causing a crisis of dignity in the world, and it is related to the inability of almost everyone to see the person, not a member of some collective identity against whom they must compete. When you shake hands, you do so with a person, not a people. In the same spirit, be an individual on the other side of the handshake.