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We can be true to ourselves even as we thrive in a group

A close reader of this column pointed out to me last week that my recent offerings are displaying a certain pattern. When I asked him to elaborate, he pointed out that there is recurring theme, and it’s all about authenticity.

Rereading my own work, I saw his point. In recent weeks I have highlighted three sentences that I consider to be some of the most profound ever penned: “Start where you are. Use what you have. Do what you can.” Soon after that I have railed against the “fru-fru” pandemic—the tendency to be fooled by superficial frippery rather than respecting actual substance. And I have postulated that there is no need to compete with others; the only competition we should be involved in is against ourselves—we should only strive to be better than we were.

Indeed, authenticity is the thread running through this tapestry.

Last week I asked if any of us have the courage to be disliked—because that will give us the freedom to truly be ourselves. There it is again: authenticity. Another close reader popped up and linked me to an interesting little video by Dr Gabor Maté. It is about the tension between attachment and authenticity, and I will make it the subject of today’s follow-up column.

Attachment is an essential human need. From the time we are born, we need to be connected to others. Initially, simply for survival. Without parental safeguarding and concern, a human child just won’t make it—it is too helpless without protective relationships. Without attachment between baby and parents, there is no protection against the elements, against illness, against attackers.

This need for attachment continues into later life. After our parents, we need to become attached to schools and teachers in order to learn essential skills. We attach ourselves to employers in order to earn our daily bread. Becoming parents ourselves involves a new form of co-operative attachment to our partners. We become attached to social groups, communities, religions in order to find some collective meaning in our otherwise isolated lives.

Running alongside attachment, though, is another fundamental need: the need for authenticity. To know who we are, to express that individuality, to manifest our uniqueness to others, is also a basic evolutionary need, because it allows us to bring out the best in ourselves—the talents we could bring to the world.

Dr Gabor’s question: what happens when these two needs are in conflict?

In other words, what if parents, teachers, employers, partners, religions—those who give us attachment—simultaneously ask us to forgo our authenticity? What if they don’t allow us to be ourselves, but instead withhold attachment unless we become more like them? In such a situation, we will stifle our own difference, and play for sameness. Tragically, we will then lose ourselves. We will no longer be in touch with our own feelings; we will not operate from a platform of personal strength. Having relinquished our own identity in favour of the requirements of the group, we will have negated ourselves.

Sadly, this is truly commonplace. Instead of raising and developing humans of singularity and distinction, we are breeding clones. Certain humans have decided that their way is not just best for them, but best for everyone—and that way must be enforced. You want our love and protection, you say? Then sacrifice your individuality. To be in the group, become like the group—or get out. We are killing talent, killing peculiarity, killing diversity.

It plays out everywhere. In parents who force children into norms and career paths of the parents’ choosing. In teachers who regard knowledge as a doctrine to be forced down the throats of their students. In religions that enforce strict adherence to rigid, orthodox, primeval behaviours in order to be one of the chosen. In workplaces that remain stubbornly stuck to the dogmas of yesteryear. In spouses who have a grotesque template of requirements for their life partners.

Where does it take us, this stifling of uniqueness and this enforcement of orthodoxy? It gives people a sense of belonging and kinship, yes—but at a tragic cost. Unique voices are snuffed out; individual brilliance is covered up. Everyone marching in step and in tune—that might create order, but guess what it doesn’t create? Art. Ideas. Innovation.

Every time a breakthrough variation occurs; every time a mesmerising masterpiece of art is created; every time a new idea captures the zeitgeist; those have come not from conformance, but from individual authenticity, or a team of talents. We reduce our collective potential when we allow these breakthroughs to come only from those who have the courage to be shunned, not just disliked, and from those who can sacrifice the comforts of community in order to pursue their talent, their oddity, their originality. 

Without them, we would all live like faded photocopies of some long-dead authoritarian.

Let’s have groups, by all means—we need to share and connect as humans. But let’s promote and celebrate novelty as well. It’s not binary—we can have meaningful attachments even as we are true to ourselves. Those who lead can develop the wisdom to promote collective spirit even as they respect difference.

(Sunday Nation, 29 October 2023)

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