Shallow Dance

by Matty Sullivan

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Individual vs. Community (America's "Culture of Disrespect")

Remember two things:

1) The United States of America was founded on a disrespect for authority. The Founding Fathers and their supporters resented being subjected to an authority which they saw as arbitrary. For this reason, they invoked the right of the people as a collection of divinely-created Individuals to determine their own destiny and hold sway over the reins of their own government. Their goal was personal representation in the affairs of the state. This is the foundation upon which are built the structures of Democracy, Capitalism, and the American Protestant religions. It is the philosophy which forms the expectations of the nation.

Which leads to:

2) From the moment of birth, a child in America is taught to be a rebel. A rebellious attitude is considered by most of us to be a birthright. It is a vital part of the American culture.

We receive this message from many sources, most notably popular entertainment--television, music, movies, books--but also from friends and even our confused and frustrated parents. The message from all of them is the same: "Don't let anyone tell you what to do."

It's not always stated so boldly, but this is the spirit of our most commonly-used slogans and cliches.

"Do your own thing."

"Follow your dreams. Follow your heart. Do what makes you happy and don't worry about what anyone else thinks."

"Don't change for anyone."

These messages, and those like them, boil down to one essential belief: the Individual is more important than the Community.

This is the philosophy of the West--the Cult of the Individual. It forms our personalities from infancy. It is so pervasive and all-encompassing we consider it a law of nature. It's not. In fact, it is a relatively recent development in human society. In the traditional cultures of the East, parents raised their children in an atmosphere of rigid conformity to the needs and demands of the Community--'respect', as you say. Then, once the children had become adults and were properly serving the Community, they were able to discover themselves as individuals. The symbol for this is the Community as a single organism made up of many parts, with each part's search for the Self seen not as a process of independence but rather as a progression towards more effective service.

In this context, the Ego is a hindrance to the Community.

Here in the West, we do things differently. Backwards, even. Here, the Community is a hindrance to the Ego. We raise our children under the Gospel of the Individual, building up their self-esteem like a stone statue, with little concern for how that Self affects the Community. In fact, fuck the Community. Am I right?

Then, when this creature reaches a certain age, we thrust them upon the Community and watch the feathers fly. At this point, we hope they will begin learning respect for the Community which we taught them to hold in contempt.

It's an ugly thing to watch, and it makes us angry. But where do we point the finger? Which rebel is to blame? Both the police officer with something to prove and the surly teenager who enjoys the thrill of disruption are coming from the same philosophy--and when she treats him like a punk and he throws her around the room, they are both saying the same thing: "How dare you treat me this way?"

They're both right, and they're both wrong. Like us, they have been raised on contempt for the Community and will not come to harmonious terms with until they have butted heads with it so often and to such injury that they are forced to negotiate.

It is interesting that in the East, disdain for authority tends to be a characteristic not of youth but of old age. It is an act of maturity, of true growth, arising naturally and without prompting in the heart and mind of an experienced individual who has worked enough and become wise enough to know exactly what he is rebelling against and why. It is not a birthright; it comes only after years of responsible living.

To be clear, I am not condemning our belief in the sanctity of the Individual. How could I? I am an American, and rebellion is woven into my being as deeply as the red, white, and blue are woven into the flag. Just like you, I believe each of us is a light which must be allowed to shine.

But every light casts a shadow unless it is balanced by another light. And this is where we have failed our children. Our praising of the Individual without any respect for the Community has resulted in a nation of Narcissists, and this shadow will continue to deepen until we collectively illuminate the other half of the Gospel--namely, that if I am an amazing and perfect gem of light no matter what I do, then so are you. And so is everyone around us.

This is where respect starts--not in a blind and degrading obedience to authority, but in the decision to see my fellow citizens the same way as I see myself. As Individuals, deserving of respect. To do unto others as I would have them do unto me.

You may recognize this as the Golden Rule, commonly attributed to another Eastern philosopher who only began to Do HIs Own Thing after he had lived a productive life of conformity and had acquired the necessary wisdom. And if the lesson of the West is that respect must be earned, then the lesson of the East is that so must rebellion. True rebellion--the kind which is actually good for the Community--develops only with time and experience. Even the Founding Fathers (not the Founding Teenagers) knew that true rebellion is not the province of the child, but of the adult. It requires education and wisdom. And it cannot exist without respect for the people around us. Otherwise we are merely troublemakers.

But this respect cannot be taught through violence or the flexing muscles of authority. The concept is ludicrous. A true Individual has no respect for authority, especially when that 'authority' is nothing more than another full-grown child steeped in Narcissism. We will test them, criticize them--and if their only response to our test is violence and intimidation, then they have admitted defeat. They no longer have the right to govern, and have become a target for scorn and ridicule.

No, respect can come only through Love. Forgive the exhausted cliche, but it's the only solution. The Golden Rule, my friends. This is what must be taught to our children--not obedience, but Love. Not just for themselves, but for others. The symbol for this is Indra's Net of Gems--a world-encompassing web comprised of an infinite number of gems, each of which contains the reflection of all others and is itself reflected by them.