In an 1867 play called Peer Gynt, Norwegian dramatist Henrik Ibsen expresses what would become one of the fundamental dogmas of modern, and even more post-modern, humanism: “What should a man be? Himself.” A person is not to become, or to be discovered, or to be pruned and refined, or to conform to an ideal; a person is to be expressed. As philosopher Tzvetan Todorov explains, “the individual is not formed by succeeding attempts, through encounters or experiences which constitute his destiny, but reveals – or does not reveal – an identity which has always lied in him… No experience is negative in itself, provided it conforms to the being who lives it.”
Though simple common sense in the 21st century, this belief, which Robert Bellah names “expressive individualism”, in his classic Habits of the Heart, was not as obvious in the 19th or even 20th centuries. For ages men and women understood themselves according to their roles, their duties, their place in society, or the expectations God or people had for them. People married who was assigned to them; they took the profession their parents had or variations permitted in their social class; they strived to be good fathers, mothers and children; they kept traditions, prayers and prejudices.
We know all too well the wonderful benefits individualism brought us: freedom to follow our own conscience, deeper awareness of oneself, an appreciation of individuality and authenticity, liberty to marry the person with whom we are in love. We are more in tune with our desires, we can gather the courage to venture into unprestigious or low-paying professions, we choose the lifestyle we want. We can follow or not our parents’ political allegiance, religious beliefs and social self-understanding. We can, in summary, abandon everything to marry a local Tahitian and establish a Bed & Breakfast in Bora Bora, praying to the spirit of the island, voting Communist and dancing the hula-hula in the evenings, and feel okay about it.
But while still enjoying the benefits of our freer social self, I guess it would be wise to acknowledge also what raw individualism took away from us. If my personal purpose is to just become and express myself, then I lose all meaningful outside sources of identity. To grow is to refine and use my talents; to love is to follow my tastes. Gone is the notion that I am to be challenged, that often I am in the wrong, that I should resist inclinations and walk away from temptations. We become a self-referential self, and our windows to the outside world get so fuzzy that they become distorted mirrors of ourselves. As someone put it, “The narrowness of such a gaze, caused by its attention to only one object, causes us to miss the world (not to mention God) for what it is. All else sits in fuzziness of peripheral vision and is only seen in reference to the primary object, ourselves.”
I should be myself, true. But I guess I should be also my richer self, a better me, and if that is to happen, I have to look beyond myself: I have to listen and to be willing to be challenged. I have to raise my gaze and look at the world, look at the marvel of existence without having me at its center, and be open to change and grow. I may still abandon everything and head for Tahiti, but that would be not a decision of someone who shut himself from the outside world, but who chose to listen meaningfully and to become my better self.