We Are Not Rugged Individualists

Photo by Melvin_Es, via Flickr

A couple of weeks ago, I posted a piece of fiction called “Makeover.” It’s about a woman whose life is a mess–grown son dead, marriage in shambles. When she sees her reflection in a storefront, she realizes she doesn’t recognize herself anymore–and she goes to do something about it.

The most thought-provoking comment I received on that story raised the question of whether her desire to change was for her own sake or for her husband’s. In the post-feminist era, we women are always being urged to prioritize self. We should take time for our own interests instead of impaling ourselves on the Mommy Martyr stake;  weight loss and beauty regimens should be for our sake, not so we look good for catching (or keeping) a man. If we consider others’ preferences or opinions, it’s almost as if we’re betraying ourselves.

There’s a certain truth to this. It’s all too easy for us to define ourselves the way others see us, and a healthy sense of self-respect depends upon independence of mind, the strength to hold our convictions and not be blown about on the vagaries of other people’s opinions. Yet that’s not the whole picture. In any healthy relationship, both parties have to give way to each other. If I kept my opinions to myself and took my husband’s as Ye Ultimate Truth, it would be bad news; my husband is a flawed human being in need of growth that sometimes can only be pointed out by someone else.

But so am I. If I consider any decision that accounts for his preferences and observations as tainted…well, that’s just as unhealthy as the opposite extreme–not only for the marriage, but for me as a human being.

It seems paradoxical that to find ourselves we have to empty ourselves. But as human beings, we have a huge blind spot where self is concerned. We’re too close to measure objectively, and if we try to go it alone we’ll find ourselves perpetually dissatisfied with the world, seeing everyone else’s splinters through the moat in our own eyes.

Quite apart from companionship, human beings need each other. We are made, hard-wired if you will, to connect, but those connections are only possible when we allow someone else to become part of us. We are not autonomous.

In childhood, my sense of self was tied to family, then friends. In adulthood, it is tied to my husband and my children, my Church and to the larger community within which I work–you, my readers, my friends, the larger readership I reach through magazines and other projects. I make my decisions on what to write based on a give-and-take between my wishes and what I know about you.

Perhaps, then, it’s time we laid to rest the idea of rugged individualism. We need each other; we always have, we always will. Trying to pretend otherwise undermines the very connectedness that we need to grow and be healthy and whole.