On the Cult of Self

I’m not perfect. I will never be perfect. I do not need to be perfect. Don’t tell that, however, to the powers that be and our own cultural proponents. We frame everything in terms of “what can you do better?” We tell people to work harder, faster and be more. Our managers no longer say, “hey you are doing a really good job here. You could work on X but overall a good job.” Instead they tell you that you are failing to meet expectations. We push the children to meet expectations that are unreasonable, and they must all meet them no matter who they are as learners and people. Every individual must be perfectly self-sufficient.

That is fundamentally the problem with this culture. The idea that because we are all isolated individuals we must be all things to all people at all times. It is never enough. There is no rest. Faster, harder, more, more, more. When you live in a universe that is a vacuum without social context and you can’t or shouldn’t rely on others, you do have to be everything. It used to be that you got married to help each other, now you wait to get married until you are a perfect human being or until you hit 30, which ever happens first.

The problem is that we see communal values as being fundamentally at odds with individuality. This is a misunderstanding. When we see people as being in isolation, everyone has to be the same to function. True communities value the individual contributions of others and see each member as essential for functioning. In my community, I contribute my intelligence and education, but people help to take care of my health and make sure I eat. No one thinks I am perfect, and everyone knows we need all parts, I am not somehow more important or of greater value. In a community, no one tries to change who you are as a human being, they just adjust the community so that you take your place within it.

There has been a lot of talk lately about how “depressed” and “disengaged” people are. I could tell you that the research shows that this is because of modern, individualistic isolation, and it does. I could also tell you that my classes that see themselves as a community and see each member as part of that community are doing better, despite more challenges, than the classes that don’t. I’ve been through an unimaginable hell and I am happier than a lot of people I know who have everything, because I have a community.

I’m engaged. I’ll be one of the first of my friends at Stanford who will get married. I didn’t do everything I wanted to on my own before this happened, I just found someone who saw the journey as something you do together. I am not saying you should marry someone just to get the benefits, but I am saying that if you see yourself as operating in isolation, as an individual without a community, as someone who needs to strive for perfection because you must be completely on your own, love will be a lot harder for you.

This is one of the central political debates of our time. What is our responsibility to others? A huge number of our problems stem from the belief that we have no responsibility to others, so this isn’t just a problem on an individual level; this is a huge social problem. It is easy to disengage from a community when you have material wealth, but it isn’t good for the soul or whatever you believe is the thing that makes you human. And eventually it will come back to bite you, because one way or another you will pay for the destruction of communities for personal gain. No one got wealthy in a vacuum, and fundamentally the people who helped to build that wealth are aware of that.

We see this right now with the debates about tech gentrification. What will the Bay Area be when all of the people who keep the city running doing the difficult and low paid jobs can’t live there anymore? That is really, the issue that no one seems to be able to address, no matter your opinion about how to fix the social problems around that issue. We laughed when I was a kid when people on the news talked about kicking the immigrants out, “who do you think feeds you and cleans up after you?” we wondered. I am still wondering about that.

But this post isn’t meant to hit you over the head, or to be angry or sad. It is to tell you that you are enough. It is to tell you that you belong to a community that wants to welcome you with open arms, and that you will be happier if you enter the community. This post is to tell you how beautiful we are when we all work together. How we are greater than the sum of our parts. How we can flourish as human beings when we have the safety of others. This post is to tell you how much bigger you can be when we have each other. Civilizations exist for the better of the people living in that society, not to make money, which is a tool to make things better, or tech, which is also a tool to make things better. If you don’t want to contribute to the wider community, if you fundamentally disagree with me about that belief, that is ok but I want you to know what you are saying. You are saying you want nothing to do with civilization. Man’s greatest gift isn’t that we can use tools, it is that we can band together and build worlds that are better than the worlds we’d exist in on our own. There is more strength together than there is alone, this is true about most species in the world, but the scale to which we have the capacity to use it is specific to us and it is what defines civilization, it is what moves us forward, it is what makes us human. It is so profoundly beautiful and I just wanted to let you know in case you hadn’t heard that before.


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