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Right to look out for ourselves?

Are we mistaken, thinking mainly of ourselves? We live in a time of such great individualism and independence – personal experiences, feelings, desires, interests, concerns all vying for attention on our new global stage – but there’s still this collective side to existence, where nobody ever exists in isolation.

And I wasn’t being facetious about personal freedom being “great” as it truly is, in many ways (Notes One). So much good seems able to come from the individualism of the West: possibilities for overcoming limitations and finding new ways, ironing out problems, acknowledging mistakes, then having frank conversations about how best to resolve things and bring these valuable ideals to greater effect in our lives.

But, all that aside, there’s surely a point where thinking of yourself is problematic? Where does it lead if we continue thinking that way? Where will it leave society, its relationships, or the systems we all exist within? It really seems this personal freedom can be a blessing or a curse: we might use it wisely, considerately, constructively; or we might pull against things, creating problems now or storing them up down the line.

It’s as if we’ve really embraced this idea of being an island: each person the ruler of their own domain, free to do as we will, setting our own rules, refusing any notion of guidance, tradition or external constraint. But we still share space. We obviously share physical space – geographically, environmentally – where choices and behaviours have noticeable impacts, but also social space in all those ways our lives intersect.

What does it mean if we’re each insisting on operating independently? Acting, perhaps, out of imperfect understanding or personal woundedness? I honestly doubt anyone truly has a full understanding of everything that’s going on in our world, much as we might confidently act as if we do. Presumably, then, it’s a world filled with flawed but generally well-meaning activities? (Notes Two)

And, as with almost anything, there’s a circularity here that makes answers difficult to find and questions hard to articulate. How should we best manage our independence? What’s the right relationship to form with the various collective systems we also undeniably form part of? What personal choices are we making that might be more problematic than they’re worth? Are we only valuing life now, or also into the future?

Parts of our shared social systems being there to look out for us in that future, acting in ways that’ll create difficulties there might wisely be viewed as problems “now”. Similarly, all the ways our choices feed into or touch upon wider global situations – remote conflicts, socio-economic realities, environmental or climatic concerns – might well be creating imbalances that’ll almost inevitably play out at some future point.

Understanding the complexity of what humans have spun over the planet seems so important if we’re to operate well within it (Notes Three). And we can, of course, choose to focus on our own interests, but I wonder whether people down the line will still have that luxury.

Notes and References:

Note 1: Freedom, what to lean on & who to believe
Note 1: Dystopia as a powerful ideal
Note 2: In the deep end…
Note 2: Living as an open wound
Note 2: Making adjustments
Note 3: Does anything exist in isolation?
Note 3: If society’s straining apart, what do we do?
Note 3: Does it matter if others suffer?
Note 3: We’re all vulnerable
Note 3: Interdependency

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