Whether self is an illusion or not the end result is the same. We try to set ourselves apart. Even with respect to those we are closest with. It can be a simple thing such as the way we style or hair or the clothes we like to wear. But more often we set ourselves apart from people through bigger traits, such as intelligence, style, athleticism, friendliness, openness, leadership, etc. To do this often we must make judgments. Sometimes those judgments are through evidence, but many times they are not. Our sense of self not only wants us to be unique but often more special as well.
This is all clearly one side of the coin, because on the other side is the part of us that wants to be part of a collective. Here we find a
strong desire for community, a need to fit in, a want to be surrounded by those that are like us. It seems that most people exist on a spectrum between pure individualism and pure collectivism. Some people need community more than others. Some people value their individualism more than others. Many people I know who are religious, while they may talk firmly about their religious convictions, when they talk about what they enjoy most about their faith, it is being with groups of people who share the same beliefs. The sense of community is often strong with them; whether it is fond memories of big family gatherings surrounding religious holidays, or socializing with members from their church. I know at a lot of Sikh temples, the women get dressed to the nines to go to church because it is much more of a social gathering than a simple practice of faith.
What really interests me about a group or a collective are the mechanisms in which they work. Besides the psychological comfort of being surrounded by like-minded people, there is also safety and protection with in a group. A group, singular in purpose, will often be more successful and have higher productivity than an individual. Sometimes that purpose can be positive such as a group of volunteers cleaning up a neighborhood or park. Other times large groups can become a mob and be damaging and irrational.
What I think is fascinating is that despite how singular the purpose the group may have, it seems that the most successful groups are the ones in which there is diversity and a good deal of individualism. A sports team may have an overall purpose of winning a game, but a football team will never win if everybody is only good at throwing the ball. Each player must have their specialty and those individual efforts must be coordinated in achieving a purpose. Most things that require a group of people require diversity as well; whether that is diversity in skills, talents and ideas. Diversity generally benefits the entire group. All people have a chance to grow as they learn from others and appreciate others for the special skills that they bring to the collective.
I am a big fan of the rock band Queen. I remember watching an interview once with Freddie Mercury or Brian May. I can’t quite remember who said the words, but the words themselves have always stuck with me. It was something along the lines of “We are
all very different people and studio sessions are exhausting as all 4 of us fight to get a little of what we want on each album or track. But because of all that fighting we are able to produce something better than what any of us could produce individually”. Dealing with diversity is exhausting. It would be much easier if everybody thought exactly the same way and things didn’t have to turn into arguments, and that you didn’t have to compromise. When the value of diversity is not appreciated that is when groups fall apart. This is true whether it’s a leader who doesn’t listen to others, or a team member who forgets that it is teamwork that wins in the end and not solely an individual effort.
Our desire for individualism and being part of a group or community is a fundamental part of humanity. People say that the U.S. is a very individualistic society and that we are built on a strong sense of individualism. Yet the first words of the Constitution are “We the people…”. I do think our desire for both does often lead to struggle though. If self is a product of knowing others than the group even becomes more important as we try to define ourselves as individuals. As the world gets connected more globally, it is easy to feel more lost and unsure of who we are as individuals and how we can contribute to this large community. Maybe that’s why I’ve always valued learning and education. The more I know about the world, the more I learn about myself.