Toxic Individualism and Service

At first I called it ‘abject individualism.’  Not sure which will be my final phrase—which will catch on?  Do you already know what I mean? 

It goes beyond selfishness, really.  It’s a culture, an ethos; it took root somewhere in early American history and has infiltrated the collective psyche with exponential acceleration in my lifetime.  This mindset values winning over service, status over integrity. “Eat What You Kill.” It is myopic, and it so permeates our daily interactions that we hardly even notice.  It steeps us in competition, scarcity thinking, and righteous anger.  Toxic individualism, while not the sole driver, contributes mightily to division, negative tribalism, and violence.

I won’t go into detail here, but I see it in so many realms: media, finance, environment, education, and healthcare, among others.  A cumulative movement in policy and deregulation that favors competition over collaboration, and removes incentives for long term resource renewal and sustainability in favor of short term gains, grips our culture.  It’s all about looking good and getting mine, to hell with everyone else.  Most of us probably don’t identify with this most of the time, but consider how we think and act under stress.  When we feel our own families threatened by circumstances like a pandemic knocking at our door, how did we instinctively respond?  Contract, protect, and suspect.

Of course, this is a natural survival response to threat.  I would never advocate for ridding ourselves of it.  And, when a culture’s balance between self-protection and group connection tips too far and too long toward the former, especially under collective stress, bad things happen.  Successful social living is always a give and take proposition.  In order for us all to be well, we all have to make sacrifices sometimes for the greater good, namely and often first and foremost, our comfort.

I will have facilitated two calls this week on ‘elevating our conversations.’  The central premise is that in order to communicate effectively across differences and disagreements, to problem solve in the face of divergent perspectives, we must tolerate more discomfort than our current cultural ethos often allows.  We must stand in openness, curiosity, humility, generosity, and fairness.  Too often today we are rewarded (instantly gratified) more for standing rather in defensiveness, stubbornness, righteousness, and ad hominem. 

This hyper-individualist attitude translates to the collective:  If you’re not with me (us) all the way, you’re with the enemy.  Dissent within a tribe is quickly suppressed and punished.  It’s us against them, black and white, right against wrong, no exceptions, no nuance, no discussion.

The antidote for this poison is service.  A service mentality puts the collective good at least on even footing with that of the individual, if not elevating it.  Service activities and professions center around giving, selflessness, and responsibility for others.  Teachers, healthcare workers, and military servicemen and women understand this intuitively.  We need one another—for us all to be healthy, we all need to look out for each other, thereby keeping each other healthy—for society, and thus all of its individuals, to truly thrive.

It’s not weak to need others.  Individual strength is necessary, important, and admirable.  So is interdependence, relational connection, and emotional cohesion.

Simon Sinek interviews General Stanley McChrystal on his podcast on quiet service .  Their conversation resonates with me so deeply right now.  It’s not either self or group. It is always both and, in dynamic balance, holding tension for some competition, and also much collaboration, creativity, synergy, and progress.  See some highlights of the “A Bit of Optimism” episode below.

What are we each doing to keep the fabric of society from tearing? As we care for ourselves, how can we also care sincerely for others? How will our culture be better for our having lived?

3:34  Sinek suggests that the call to service has declined.  McChrystal:  “That sense of responsibility… has decreased… In some ways you say well, everybody’s their own person…  The problem is it’s hard to run a society like that… It’s hard to have those things which we do better jointly than we do individually.”

4:27  Sinek:  “There’s a paradox to being human…every day we are both individuals but we’re also members of groups, and we have responsibilities to both…  We’re all trying to learn how to take care of ourselves, but where are we learning how to take care of each other?”

5:40  On civilian national service for young Americans, McChrystal:  “You can plant a seed through behavior, getting them to do something for a year… They won’t like it every day, but they’ll come out of it differently,… more thoughtful…  Healthcare, education, the environment… there is so much room for people to give…  and they come out differently themselves—they are the real product.”

7:40  Sinek, on the race to get mine or else someone else will get it, referencing Naval commander David Marqet:  “Force a change in behavior, then people change what they’re thinking,” rather than the othe way around.  McChrystal responds with the example of someone running for public office, asked how they have served.  Sinek:  We should ask of polilticians, do they serve us or do they serve themselves?

11:30  On the push for equality, McChrystal:  “Every young person… should have a roughly equal opportunity in life, should be our goal, shouldn’t be able to argue against that… (13:00) for example healthcare—every American (should have) healthcare not because it’s fair but because it’s smart for society…”

15:35  Sinek:  “How the heck are we going to inspire people to want to do something that comes at personal sacrifice?”  McChrystal:  “I think people want to be inspired… they’re just…waiting to be asked.”

24:33  Sinek on quiet service, humility:  “A lot of the stories you tell are about quiet, and about being humble…  Maybe the lack of service is a symptom that we’ve lost our humility, as individuals, as a nation…”

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