Individualism, Empathy, and Love

November 20, 2013
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I sit, in a mall in Jersey, watching three generations of women sharing in fundamental love and human experience. Grandma holds the bottle while baby drinks, and mom prepares the stroller. Dad is reading from an iPad. Surrounding us is Loft, Lord & Taylor, Macy’s, video kiosks, and wafting smells from the coffee bar just behind; I can’t help but think of the question posed by my religions teacher in college: What’s at stake here?

The overwhelming baseline is a pressure to stand out, to become the beheld, mark’d individual; and while this may define the undertone of American culture, beneath that is the deeper social urge to fit in, conform, and belong.

It’s this crossover that becomes most striking, as the little baby in the stroller starts tugging and playing with grandma’s Louis Vaton bag, toying with glee over the golden zipper chain, which then enters her mouth. There is a bridge there, between the desire to stand out, and the need to fit in: love.

When it comes down to it, love is likely the basis for most of our actions in general, and not necessarily a love of others, but of the self. Why else work for our food but to care for this physical body? Why else exercise and goto the doctor and “watch ourselves”? Rhetorical questions, debunked by the observation that life’s true meaning comes from our relationships with others, with what we contribute to, at least after the tender teen years of self-inflation and self-interested development we all must face. We care for ourselves and love ourselves so that we might find true fulfillment by loving others, and opening to receiving that love.

This perspective can be psychologically analyzed and neutered, or viewed in the most poetic of ways. George Orwell, in 1984 identified the Party’s suppression of overt love and signs of interpersonal emotion as a form of thought control with a political goal: to redirect that underlying dissatisfaction towards an energy for war and work. “Of course” he writes, if people were satisfied with needs of food and companionship they would not need anything else, and not have the drive to always fight and suffer under imposed restrictions, which keep them knowing, from the gut, that there is something better to work towards.

It comes though to this question: Is “it” all about us, or the others around us? One possible answer is that it’s one and the same. Individualism is fundamentally a reflection (or counter-reflection) of the people and society around us. Without a doubt, true individuals stand out because of their willingness to take risks outside the box of culture; and, a third person perspective will hold the standout up to the crowd, and make relative the contrast.

We all know, in one way or another, what’s expected of us by our mother culture, and depending on our awareness, what’s expected of us in each and every shifting situation or context we’re in. This, is at it’s core, a kind of empathy. In closing, I offer the question: can acts of true individualism and true empathy, therefore be, one and the same?

Bound by love, I think so; do you?

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Lee Frankel-Goldwater is a professional environmental educator, writer, and social good project developer as well as a recent graduate of NYU's Environmental Conservation Education masters program. Lee has also studied at the Center for Creative Ecology on Kibbutz Lotan, Israel and at the Arava Institute for Environmental Studies. Currently he has been leading development of the Global Action Classroom, an Earth Child Institute initiative focused on global youth environmental cooperation and helping to create the Global Sustainability Fellows, a program of The Sustainability Laboratory seeking to design a new and innovative, international sustainability masters program. Other projects include: developing mobile applications for encouraging social action, mixed media video design, leading peace and environmental education workshops, and doing his best to live a life in connection with the Earth while helping others to do the same. At heart Lee is a poet, traveler, musician, and philosopher with a deep curiosity for new experiences, unfamiliar cultures, learning languages, and often dancing to the beat of a different drummer. As student of yoga, meditation, and spiritual arts, Lee aims to connect the inner journey with the outer one, hoping, as he can, to share what is learned along the way, enjoying the journey.

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