Tuesday, July 3, 2012

"this is just the way I am"


  [in-duh-vij-oo-al-i-tee]  Show IPA
noun, plural in·di·vid·u·al·i·ties.
the particular character, or aggregate of qualities, thatdistinguishes one person or thing from others; sole andpersonal naturea person of marked individuality.
individualities, individual  characteristics.
a person or thing of individual  or distinctive character.
state or quality of being individual existence as a distinctindividual.
the interests of the individual  as distinguished from theinterests of the community.


  [in-duh-vij-oo-uh-liz-uhm]  Show IPA
a social theory advocating the libertyrights, or independent action of the individual.
the principle or habit of or belief in independent thought oraction.
the pursuit of individual rather than common or collectiveinterests; egoism.
individual character; individuality.
an individual peculiarity.

I have been mulling over the difference between individuality (the fact that each and every one of us is in fact a unique and unrepeatable individual being) and individualism (as a sort of ideology, a belief that the individual must be independent and free and is of paramount importance).  

This came up for me as I sat and listened to the Berry Street Lecture this year at General Assembly, in which the Reverend Fred Muir challenged UUism to move from "iChurch to Beloved Community", and held up what he called "the trinity of errors" within UUism today:

1.  An unhealthy ideology of individualism
2.  A belief in UU exceptionalism
3.  An allergy to authority

All of these insights strike me as true and valid, but as usual for me I see a need to balance things.  While I agree that "iChurch" (like an iPod - customizable just for you!  Do what you want with it!) does not accomplish the transformative work that we are called to do - the work of building authentic Beloved Community, transforming and growing our own selves into people of greater depth and integrity, and of making the world a more just and loving version of itself - at the same time I see a need to preserve our individuality in the process.

What is the difference between individuality and individualism?  Here is my imperfect metaphor:

A young member of a congregation comes to church on Sunday morning with purple hair, multiple facial piercings, and wearing a very short skirt.  She sits next to an older lady wearing much more conservative clothing - and this is all appropriate because we can each express our individuality.


That same young member of the congregation refuses to wear the coffee service apron during her volunteer shift, despite the fact that these aprons are supposed to help newcomers identify who is providing the hospitality, because she is "not an apron person".  That would be individualism.

There are just some things that you do for the good of the community, that really only tread on your ego and your individuality if you've got your ego and your individuality hanging out like a giant sore spot just waiting to be tread on.  My observation of UUism is that there are many many of us who have turned out individuality into an idolatry.  When not being told what to do becomes more important than the community good, than the mission of the organization, or the practical considerations of working with others, than the organization will fail and the individual will be free to be themselves - and stagnate as there is no challenge to be better when individualism lets you off the hook.

This reminds me of something my six year old daughter has been arguing lately whenever I try to direct her toward more cooperative or polite behavior - she says "I can't help it, this is Just the Way I Am!  Don't you Like Me As I Am?"

Of course i like you, I reply.  But this particular behavior still needs to change.  We can all keep our core selves as unique and unrepeatable, and still adapt our behavior to the community good when called to do so.  

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