I knew that I wanted to write about the concept of individualism in this post, but was unsure how to do so. The subject has been swirling around in my mind since reading an excerpt of John Stuart Mill’s essay, “On Liberty.” In it, Mill brings up the
importance of being an “individual,” making it clear that it is best to be like the Greek figure, Pericles, who has self-discipline but is non-conforming to the rest of society. This view from Mill is clearly mirrored in our society, a society that consistently claims to adore the different and the strange, but manages to still stifle its definition of what it means to be an individual. We spout “How to Be an Individual” instruction manuals–which I’m sure a countless number of confused and angsty young adults turn to in an attempt to be seen as “different” while still staying within the realms of what is “acceptable.” But what does it mean to be different? And does it really matter if we are?
I think that everyone likes to believe that they are an individual. Who wouldn’t like to believe that they are one-in-a-million (something that elementary teachers and moms consistently tell us all when we are young and impressionable)? But is it even possible to be an individual? Mill seemed to think that, while a great idea, being a non-conformist is nearly impossible to achieve; he even
made a fail-safe, saying that it is better to be self-disciplined and to live in self-denial, than be neither. Similar to The Incredibles quote, “If everyone’s super, no one is,” the idea that if everyone is an individual, everyone is special, and everyone is different means that maybe, in the end, no one is.
I don’t mean to sound morbid and say that everyone is the same. I’ve met enough people to know that in no way is everyone the exact same. There is no carbon copy of me out there (and if there is, I hope I never have to meet them–there’s enough me in my life already), and there is no carbon copy of my friends and family out there either. But it’s easy to see the links between people–to see how they are more similar than they are different. A lot of it is an upbringing thing. Family is similar to family, friends to friends, towns to towns, etc. People bend who they are naturally to fit into their respective groups within an overarching society. To be truly individual, a person has to be raised outside of a society or groups pre-established beliefs, views, practices, etc. But that isn’t necessarily possible; we will always be brought up into a society (regardless of where, when, or how that society exists and lives) that pushes conformity upon its members, whether subconsciously or consciously. Though we celebrate certain differences, those differences don’t make us special (as others within our groups undoubtedly share similar “differences” or quirks with us as well).
So can anyone use a guide to learn how to be an individual? Is anyone a Pericles? To be honest with you, I don’t think so.
But maybe that isn’t such a bad thing. Maybe we are supposed to find people that are similar to us, share the same beliefs as us, and have some of the same experiences as us. If we were completely individual and separate than our peers, then many of us would feel lonely and as if no one truly “understood” us. To me, giving up some of my perceived individuality may be a small price to pay for feeling a connection to those around me and a sense of love and acceptance from those I care about.