Individualism has been a distinct part of American culture, especially for the last 60 years or so. The American dream is to do the best you can for your self, seek personal happiness, and work hard so that you can be self-sufficient.
At the end of the 1960’s and early 1970’s individualism took an extreme turn. People not only started seeking out their own happiness, but they started doing so at the expense of the people around them. Things like casual sex, divorce, and drug use exploded. Since then things have only gotten worse. As individualism became more and more common (and the hippies of the 60’s and early 70’s became our parents and teachers) it became institutionalized.
When I was growing up I heard so much about how I was special and unique and how I could do anything if I put my mind to it. I was told that I was brilliant my entire life. Even when my SAT scores didn’t reflect my brilliance I was still able to remember the non-stop support of my family and teachers who kindly explained that I wasn’t good at taking tests and that I was a different kind of genius.
What I’m trying to say here is that because I grew up in a system that went out of their way to make everyone feel special and loved I ended up being phenomenally self-centered. People who disagreed with me were automatically unintelligent. People who dared to call me out on my arrogance were cold-hearted and mean. I had no tolerance for other people… unless, of course, they were just like me. I worshipped my own image.
Over the last few years (partly because of getting married and having a child) I grew more and more sick of myself and the infatuation with self in my generation. I longed for the difficult character shaping that only happens with you live life in close proximity with other people. I really wanted to become a better person.
Recently one of my favorite bands (called Fleet Foxes) released a new record called “Helplessness Blues”.
The title track of that album opens up with the following lyrics:
I was raised up believing I was somehow unique
Like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see
And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be
A functioning cog in some great machinery serving something beyond me
I feel like this is the cry of my generation. We are tired of being told how special we are, just to end up with all sorts of personality defects and self-love issues. We long to be a part of something bigger and better than our pleasure and immediate gratification.
Of course, there are exceptions to this. The media is filled with all too many images of self-worshippers indulging in whatever cravings they long for. However, the lyrics of this song show me that I’m not the only person discontent with the lies of selfishness that we’ve been fed since our birth.