Expanding the Boundaries of Individual and Self
Written by Will Zentmyer
Today we live in a society that preaches the glorification of the Self, one that teaches us that the aim of all our efforts is—and should be—to “do well for ourselves.” This attitude of self-improvement and self-gratification usually extends to include one’s immediate family, and in its most generous forms it includes one’s community. But by and large, we are expected first to pay for the processes that keep ourselves alive, and then to build as large of a personal empire as we can; by ourselves, for ourselves. This attitude has been passed down to us generation to generation since the nation’s founding. In a way, the “American Dream” is the dream of the Self.
The United States succeeded in expanding the jurisdiction of the Self by changing the individual’s ideas about his place in the world. The colonists were able to use the land they settled on to build a country that became strong enough, with the help of foreign allies, to defend itself from the mightiest empire of the time. Our successful separation from England was also a victory of the individual breaking off from a larger whole, a Self detaching itself from exterior constraints. The “rugged individual”, a strong and independent individual capable of surviving and even subduing nature, was an American character that emerged out of successful westward expansion. The opportunity for ordinary individuals to “own” a piece of land merely by virtue of settling there, having a place where one could live by whatever means one could devise and where one was free from persecution, was an expansion of the individual’s power beyond anything that European immigrants to the Americas would have known in their countries of origin.
As our country developed, so did our ability to make individuals feel more powerful. Affordable cars and highways to drive them on expanded the limits of what ordinary individuals were able to see and experience. With grocery stores, individuals no longer had to spend time and energy growing their own food or relying on the limited supply of local farmers. With highways, railways, and air travel, ordinary individuals became intercontinental ambassadors. And today, most American individuals have at our command even more than our immediate forbears; through the Internet, we have an entire virtual world accessible at our fingertips, and if one desires, it is no longer necessary to leave one’s house, even to get food.
But at this point in the story, we are becoming like Icarus in our pursuit of elevating the Self. Our bubble is bursting. Our ice caps are beginning to melt.
Let me make it clear that I distinguish between the Self and the reality of who a person is. The Self is a construct, a composite of ideas that we use to define ourselves in relation to something outside ourselves. If you say, “I am afraid of heights,” you define yourself as someone who feels a specific reaction to something in the world. But that “I am” statement does not sum up the entirety of who you are. You can identify yourself as being made up of atoms, as being a combination of your mother’s and father’s genes, as a spiritual entity, as a bundle of neurons, as an object acted upon by gravity—and all of these concepts are true, but do not give a full account of who you are.
However, our physical bodies make it necessary for us to think of ourselves as individuals that exist at particular places and particular times. It is important for me to distinguish that I am a person who has to wake up and get myself to work on time, because otherwise a chain of events will ensue that lead to me not being able to acquire the food my body needs to survive. And since the actions of our bodies are the only part of reality that is directly under our control, it is important to develop a sense of one’s self as an individual in order to act out one’s beliefs and values.
The danger I see in individualism lies in limiting our understanding of Self to what has been spoon-fed to us. There is an unspoken premise in our society that our lives could always be a little “better” in some way: a little faster, a little more convenient, a little more exciting; that what we are experiencing now is not in fact true happiness but is just shy of it, and that we’ll get there once we just cross a certain boundary. The Self that is advertised to us presumably grows quantitatively happier by expanding the territory of its ownership. We are fed an existential framework where there is always a gap between what we have now and “happiness”, and then we offered a self-gratifying solution.
Buying into this premise leads to individuals who are taught that their purpose in life is to expand the territory of their Selves, by buying more, making more money, producing more, becoming more “_______” (fill in the blank). Human happiness is made to seem directly proportional to how “more” we can possess. And it is easy to believe that the world exists only to give us “more” when society makes it possible for a person to press a button on their phone and summon cleaning services, lunch, a taxi cab, or even a private chef to their door.
We are kept entertained, content, and well-fed, and we become content. We work to gratify the perceived needs of our selves, and by default the needs of the world become separate and secondary. It is hard to question ourselves when we feel we have worked hard and earned the right to some self-gratification. But our situation begs a question, whether we want to ask it or not: What happens when we allow the world to be at our service, and feel ourselves the owners of our individual kingdoms?
The answer: consumption, waste, and neglect.
Consumption of the world’s resources; taking without giving back. Wastes of water, electricity, oil, power, money, potential. Waste that piles up faster than we are able to responsibly handle it, causing us to throw our hands up and throw in the towel. Neglect of streets littered with trash, neglect of demanding children, neglect of social problems that we abdicate responsibility for and vaguely assign to business and government. These are what lie behind the default path. If we care, it is our responsibility to re-envision our place in the world and act out of a new understanding of who we are.
So, who are you, and what are you doing here?
Instead of believing ourselves to be the masters of everything around us, I propose we try to see ourselves as the world’s caretakers, as people whose primary purpose is to ensure its well-being. Not people whose purpose is to inflate themselves or to accumulate as much as possible. I propose we identify ourselves as stewards.
I understand if this concept is difficult for Americans to embrace. After all, our laws practically make it possible to feel like the god of our own small universes, full of things that we convince ourselves are fully under our dominion. But we ought to remind ourselves that the laws of nature are not governed by the laws of man.
Consider this: Our bodies, if abused and continually neglected, will break down faster than if we give them what they need and maintain them as well as possible. We know that subjecting our muscles to stress and exercising our brains increases their strength and longevity. We also know that, regardless of what we do, our cells will eventually wear out, and our bodies will cease to function. If we cannot decide to keep on living for ever, if we cannot do whatever we want to our bodies without incurring penalties, then we cannot truly say that we own our bodies.
The same holds true with our environment. Deny global warming if you want, but you cannot say that pollution doesn’t do damage to the environment. We cannot do whatever we want with this planet and not expect to incur negative consequences.
We are not the masters of our own universe.
We have not eliminated space and time, nor the law of gravity, nor any other natural laws.
Whether we like it or not, we are tenants in these bodies. When this life is over, we may perhaps return in other forms; but while we are here, we bear the responsibility of being the animals with the greatest capability to do both harm and good to our world. We are thus both empowered and burdened with responsibility for taking care of the totality of our existence, including our internal and external environments. But our current paradigm revolves around serving only a small part of who we are: our self-concept, which is constantly shifting, easily influenced, and subject to all that is petty and mercurial in the human temperament.
It is time to break free and construct a new paradigm of the Self, one that recognizes our belonging to the world, one that charges us to treat the world as if it were our own body and to love our neighbors as ourselves.
The work that I am suggesting can be done on an individual level. Re-envisioning one’s role in the world doesn’t necessitate joining an organization, changing a job, moving to a new place, or changing one’s friends. It could mean any or all of these things depending on what path your life takes, but at its root practicing good stewardship is a matter of changing your habits of thinking and living a more intentional life, one directed toward answering the important question: “what are you doing to help?” every day of your life.
The other great news is that being a good steward also leads to self-gratification, in ways that I argue last much longer than the gratification we seek through the pursuit of things and doings. By being a good steward of the world, you become invested in it, and the returns can feed, clothe, shelter, and inspire billions.
If you can define yourself as a steward of the world rather than accepting the paradigm of being served, then you can open up opportunities to make the world a better place and yourself a happier person. If you can question the premise that happiness is a commodity, you can discover for yourself that money is only a means to an end, that you don’t need money as much as you have been told you did, and instead of working solely for the money, you can do work that makes you feel fulfilled and utilizes your natural abilities. If you can learn to see every person as an extension of yourself instead of as a member either of “us” or “them”, then the slogan “all people matter” becomes real, and you become part of a vast, interconnected web of life aimed at healing the world.