Among Americans overall, 9% now mention issues such as freedom, independence and their ability to do what they want to do, including financial independence, having free time or a good work-life balance, or political freedoms like freedom of speech. This is up from 5% in 2017.“Where Americans Find Meaning in Life Has Changes Over the Past Four Years,” Pew Research Center, November 2021
Monday’s long-form piece about American individualism and our shift away from the notion of common good was actually a lightly-edited, lightly-revised version of a post I wrote six years ago, in July 2016, with the title “The Glorious Improbability of Us.” Yes, six years ago.
This idea, the intersection of independence and interdependence, has always been interesting to me — starting in my 20s, but more so in recent years. I had been thinking, in 2016/2017, about independence/interdependence relative to my teenage children, my work at Kindred Place, and my personal relationships. The pandemic offered yet another lens through which to see that same tension.
An unfortunate bit of additional, current news here is that rift between the two ideals, individual liberty and collective society, endures. When Pew Research published, in November 2021, an update to its 2017 survey on human well-being around the world, the data pointed to the continued deterioration.
“The U.S. stands out as one of only three publics surveyed in 2021 where mentions of society significantly coincide with greater negativity. The other two are Italy and Spain, but in neither of them is the relationship between society and negativity as strong as it is in the U.S.”
So, we (Americans) are zealously devoted to individual freedom but disappointed in our contemporary, collective society. Surely those two truths are connected.
It bears repeating, then:
You and I might do well to contemplate the impact of our allegiance to the ideal of the individually-magnificent self. While it may seem a stretch, our devotion to the sanctity of uniqueness and individualism could, following the theory of epigenetics, precondition our children, through the gene expression that relates to brain function, toward isolation and xenophobia.
The good news is that we can continually adapt – reboot, rewire, reprogram – through conscious changes in behavior.
We can reevaluate, reinvent, and reroute, taking stock of what’s true (what’s changed, what’s constant, what’s desired), asking “OK, now what?” and then plotting a course.
A short story, for context:
Six years ago I participated in a training seminar designed to help organizations like Kindred Place incorporate practices that help prevent child abuse. The presenters were two professors in the University of Texas Austin School of Social Work. Both women had worked with Dr. Vincent Felitti in his Adverse Childhood Experiences (ACEs) research. Their session, in the day-long seminar I attended, was designed to demonstrate how to use the ACEs inventory when working with parents.
Their approach, in summary, was as follows:
Working with the adult parent to answer the questions on the ACEs inventory (a structured set of ten questions about childhood experiences), the clinicians would ask, when the time seemed right, “Are you ready to think about how to give your children a different experience from the one you had as a child?”
I love the profound wisdom of this simple approach. The birth of a child is often a turning point for an adult parent who struggles with addiction, mental illness, or harmful behaviors. But the challenge is turning motiviation to change into actual, sustainable behavior change — to put the desire into regular practice.
A parent may want to give their child a different, and better, experience than their own. But doing that is harder than wanting it.
The key to doing that hard work, I believe, rests in that pivotal moment of recognizing the unavoidable intersection between self and other (whether that’s parent/child, individual/community, or any similar dynamic), taking an honest assessment of what’s true in that moment, and then deciding what to do next in response.
Family life can’t be better for a child unless the parent is willing to recognize what true and then to be better and do better individually in response. It’s an individual, independent, autonomous response to a relationship need.
Likewise, community can’t be better for our family, friends, and neighbors unless each of us is willing to take stock of the true situation and then decide to be better and do better , individually, in response to that interconnected set of relationships.
Unless we want to keep the insane practice of doing the same things, expecting miraculously different results, perhaps it’s as good a time as any to reevaluate where we are, what we truly want, and what we’re willing to do to get there.
Enough for one day?
OK; see you tomorrow. I’ll have a worksheet and fun exercise. I mean, I think it’s fun. You can decide for yourself.
P.S. Am I going to write about taking my daughter to college and what that means to and for me? Yes. But not today. Or tomorrow. You’ll see.
About this series:
For the month of August, as a birthday present to myself, I’m doing another daily writing challenge. This year, not unlike last year, it’s all about RE-committing to writing. So far that includes: Reengage, Reconsider, Reassess, Review, Redefine, Relish, Relay and Reinvent.