By Roselyn Kelada-Sedra
Westerners have developed a twitch. We change locations so often, it’s become a compulsion. People move to pursue education, to go after jobs, to follow lovers. When lovers become exes, they move again. And there’s a special breed that moves on when a place just loses its appeal. They’re the drifters, the cool types who wander the world, never belonging anywhere. They’ve got that mystique, like James Dean; and part of it is that they’ll never be pinned down. In a society of commitment-phobes, the drifter has gone from fringe icon to mainstream idol.
In North America, the suburban communities that encapsulated an ideal back in the day have lost their charm. Now, globetrotters think of them as quaint homes for stagnation. Even the word “community” has become a joke. Dr. Meic Pearse, international scholar and author of Why the Rest Hates the West and The Gods of War, says the term signifies a people committed for the long haul to life together. “It may be—historically has been—for the sake of necessity. They may be stuck with each other despite their most furious wishes, but they’re tethered together for good,” says Pearse. “That’s the point.” In an age of infinite options, no one is bound to anything, and real communities have died out. Necessity has changed its tune, and now people have to move, whether they want to or not. North Americans often find their personal attachments and professional prospects somewhere across the continent. Either they lower their expectations and develop some patience – fast; or they pack up and go.
So, what’s the problem? Westerners relish their independence. It started with Ralph Waldo Emerson’s “great resounding yawp,” and since it echoed across our rooftops, nothing has rivalled individualism among Western values. As far back as Huck Finn, the heroes of pop culture are the ones who light out of the clutches of “sivilization” for freedom, as Mark Twain wrote. In a study on “Individualism and Its Discontents,” Wilfred McClay ascertains our fixation. He says we never lose interest in the “thwarted soul yearning to breathe free.”
Besides, there are practical matters to consider. Ambition is not just valued in our culture; it’s indoctrinated. And if you’re ambitious, you’re going to have to change locales. Why not? Ayn Rand’s heroes thrive on autonomy. Nowadays, a parochial few spend their lives in one place, surrounded by people who know and care about their lives. And the rest of the continent looks down its cultured nose at the so-called “townies.”
The problem is this: when no one’s ever tied to anything, no one’s ever tied to anything. Serial Marriages, fractured custody deals, virtual interaction instead of personal… these things mark our society, too. Communities have been replaced by what Barry Wellman tags “networked society.” In “The Rise (and Possible Fall) of Networked Individualism,” he says that people now find support in “far-flung networks” wherein the individual outweighs the intangible group. It’s only natural for you to become more important than anyone else in your life when you are the only constant. Unfortunately, people don’t function very well like this.
The Enneagram Institute identifies nine personality types. The peacemaker, the achiever, the individualist… each has its own way of meeting human needs for self-awareness and affirmation. The trouble is that without person-to-person relationships, long-term ties or tangible support networks, everyone becomes an individualist. This type tends to get absorbed in questions of identity; they can get lost in the quest for self. “They become so acutely self-conscious that their subjective emotional states become the dominant reality for them.” Fear, guilt, self-doubt and even loathing take over. And desperate for validation, individualists clutch at hope in human form as one person after another appears to fulfill them… and disappoints.
Anxiety, hostility, depression – these things run rife in our society, and all of them stem from a dominating sense of individualism. Yet, how can we escape that self-absorption when we are all we have for keeps? When real friends are far away and hard to find, when lovers are only for a while, when even parents are transitional, what else is there but the self? Western culture has followed its ambition so far from what is vital that we have lost sight of our own needs. Townies may be dull, but they don’t spend their whole lives missing the people they love.