[Disclaimer: What I write here is really too simple and consists of a lot of shorthand. Truthfully, I’m finding it difficult to translate 45 years of study and research into a few lines in a blog post. If you think it’s not working please let me know. Let me know too how I could better communicate and translate my decades of experience.
Analogy. This post consists of an analogy. It’s not perfect by any means, but it may help put our obsession with individuality into perspective. It seems to be clear that every human is a separate material entity. As Otto Rank puts it in The Trauma of Birth, we are objects to other people and in fact, the process of objectification starts when an infant realizes that it is separate from its mother. My view deviates from Rank’s and follows one proposed by Norbert Elias from his books, The Civilizing Process, What is Sociology? and others. [Elias is the subject of a future blog post] Elias’ view is that we are best considered as processes rather than as things. That said, I want to offer here my own strange take on human life using an analogy that should be fairly easy to understand.
So, for me, a human individual is akin to one cell in a human body. The human body, in this case, is analogous to the sum total of all humans on the planet. Like I said, the analogy, like all analogies, falls short of qualifying as a perfect equivalency yet at its core there is a simple truth to be had, I think.
We each have trillions of individual cells in our bodies. I read somewhere that every cell in our body is replaced every seven years or so. That’s not entirely true, but mot of our cells regularly die and some percentage are replaced on a regular basis. Eventually, of course, the cellular organization we call ourselves is no longer viable and we call that death. Death, however, is a slow process that begins the day we are conceived and goes on some time after the doctor declares us dead (and until cremation). How is this analogous to the species as a whole? Well, millions of people died in wars in the 20th Century but that didn’t prevent the species from carrying on. An individual human death is about as significant to the species as one cell dying in our bodies. That may seem harsh, but it’s real. People come and go. Millions of people die every year while millions are born. The species hardly notices. We do care as individual people. There is no doubt about that. When we have someone close to us die, that affects us, but the billions of other people on this planet take no notice at all.
Our cells work together to keep us alive and functioning, but the loss of any individual cell has little effect on the whole body. I can slap my wrist and kill a few hundred or thousand skin cells, but my body doesn’t really mind too much. It carries on like nothing happened. If I cut off my arm, I can still live. We can lose a lot of cells and still survive.
When I was teaching I used to torment my students with a standard lecture at the beginning of each term. This lecture emphasized the importance of society and the inherent interconnections we have to other people and to social organization. In a society that glorifies the individual, it can be humbling to consider just how dependent we are on others, most of whom we have never met.
In my lecture, I’d start off by saying that an individual human being doesn’t exist, cannot exist. We only exist in relation to others. We are the product of a most basic social act, the sex act. After that, we require the assistance of others to stay alive. We need to be fed, clothed, washed and looked after for many years. I argue in fact that the dependencies never stop. We are social animals in every sense of the term. We depend on others for everything. The language(s) we speak, the values we have, our ‘successes’ and ‘failures’ are a consequence of our social relations. One cannot be successful in a vacuum. Not only that, but in our world, with some exceptions of course, we depend on others to make our clothes, grow our food, provide us with electricity, build our homes, make sure our poop goes away when we flush the toilet and fresh water gets pumped to our faucets. We also depend on people for companionship, for hugs, for approbation. The evidence is strong that if we don’t get hugs and the company of others as babies a quarter of us die before the age of four. Our interdependencies ARE us. We don’t exist as things, but as processes interwoven with many other processes we call organizations be they families, neighbourhoods, restaurants, churches, mosques, synagogues, provinces, countries and workplaces among many others. That’s why we volunteer to die for these organizations, we sacrifice our lives to them, we bow down to them, we feel undying affinity with them.
Of course, very few people think about these things. We are encouraged from a very early age to be independent, self-contained, and capable of making our own decisions. But, unfortunately, we’ve been sold a bill of goods. Individuality is an illusion, just as a single human cell does not and cannot live by itself; it only exists in relationship to other cells and to the whole body.
As humans we tend to consider ourselves special. In fact, some people believe that we are created in the image of a god or other. We aspire to live forever and create elaborate stories to convince ourselves of the veracity of our beliefs in immortality. Sadly, we are truly insignificant as individuals for the survival of the species, as insignificant as an individual cell in my body is to my life. That said, for me, there is a sense of release and comfort that goes along with that realization. My insignificance is my liberation.