Friday, April 30, 2010

Conflict of Individualism with Collective Knowledge

Elizabeth Gilbert - the famous author of 'Eat Pray Love' and 'Committed' sums up her western upbringing as: "You matter". She talks about personal happiness through a very personal, individualistic search for contentment.

Today one can read umpteen similar viewpoints supporting happiness via individualism, freedom to choose one's own destiny towards happiness, opportunity to shape one's own life's ambition and dreams, independence to choose one's own love (life partner), liberation from conservative tradition and promotion of the self.

Elizabeth Gilbert describes this phenomenon beautifully when she writes, "I was raised to believe that I was special. My 'me-ness' was always prized, and was recognised as being different from my sister's 'her-ness', my friends' 'them-ness' and everyone else's 'everyone-else-ness'."

I see nothing wrong with this attitude but fear that it may instigate rebellous-ness. Rebellion in itself too may not be bad but when laced with ignorance can create chaos.

Elizabeth Gilbert had to travel the world at the age of 37 to research and discover 'Marriage' - the stubbornly enduring old institution. That too, after being married earlier for 6 years. Fortunately, she had the money, motivation, intelligence and resources to take the effort. But was it worth it? It is interesting to note that she hardly mentions the role of her family, her upbringing in teaching her notions about marriage.

My contention is that decisions and directions in life is best taken with maximum possible understanding about life. It is the relative wisdom that would ensure relative contentment. My belief is that individual wisdom can never be richer than collective wisdom. My belief is that the family support system is the most self-less of all source of collective wisdom.

The culture of individualism conflicts with this benefit of collective wisdom because an individual has to suspend logic and obvious reasoning to take advantage of collective aged wisdom. There are many aspects of life's wisdom that cannot be understood at a particular point in time. Individual wisdom comes with age, experience, education, circumstances. So it may be prudent to believe in collective wisdom without really understanding the same.

If we take wisdom in terms of the understanding the institution of marriage and the effect of individualism in America, it was as early as 1800s when social conservatives suggested that 'this trend toward expressive individualism in marriage would spell out the very breakdown of society'. What they specifically predicted was that 'allowing couples to make life matches based purely on love and individual whims would promptly lead to astronomical divorce rates and a host of bitterly broken homes'. Dont you think they were kind of correct?

To reiterate, it may not be always possible to understand 'why is it what it is' for whatever our elders advise us, society administers, neighbours gossip etc. We need to open our intuition and instincts to accept views and opinions irrespective of whatever it is termed - 'traditions', 'superstitions', 'customs', 'gossip', jokes etc.

We should not let the collective wisdom of our extended family support system get diluted with fervent individualism. We cannot afford to re-invent our worldly understanding every lifetime. Of course, we can choose to disagree, but with extreme caution.

The western concept of individual choice may sound cool. But beware, its lonely and devoid of worldly time-tested logic. We have to let collective wisdom survive the onslaught of western individualistic culture.

Everyone of us cant be Elizabeth Gilbert.


  1. Well written, but debatable.
    You ought to read 'Eat,Pray,Love', before commenting on what Gilbert means by 'me-ness' in 'Committed'...
    'Committed' is a sequel to 'Eat,Pray,Love'...
    Collective wisdom can often end up suffocating an individual's thoughts, needs and desires, making him/her just another sheep in the herd..

  2. Thanks. I will read EPL too. Also, I have modified my comments a bit.


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