The Myth of the Individual

Adapted from Cultural Maturity: A Guidebook for the Future

While the needed new kind of systemic picture is in the end about nothing more than seeing in ways that are more complete, it holds in store some significant surprises. A big one has dramatic implications for how we think about individual identity, and provides some of the best evidence that a further chapter in culture’s story is needed and possible.

It turns out that the way we have tended to think about identity is far from complete. The Modern Age concept of individuality is based on an ultimately partial way of thinking about who we are. Creative Systems Theory calls this misconception the modern Myth of the Individual. The Myth of the Individual has three parts. Each part in different ways adds to our systemic picture of understanding and further ties it to a needed next chapter in our human story.

First is the assumption that in modern times we have in fact been individuals. We have before thought of both modern leadership and romantic love as expressions of individual choice. Indeed we’ve thought of a new freedom for the individual in each instance as what most defined what was different from what we had known. With the beginnings of history’s Modern Age, a world in which love’s determinations were made by family or matchmaker and more authoritarian forms of leadership gave way to a reality in which we experienced, indeed celebrated, choice as laying increasingly in our hands. But with both love and leadership, this realization of the individual was illusionary, or at least partial and preliminary. In each case, what we saw was two-halves-make-a-whole relationship. Being half of a systemic whole is not yet about being an individual, certainly not in any complete sense.

The second part of the modern myth of the individual concerns how the assumption that individuality as we have thought of it represents an ideal and endpoint breaks down. In fact it represents neither an ideal or an end point. Being that such “individuality”—the kind we saw with romantic love and heroic leadership—leaves us short of the kind of relating we need for the future, it can’t be an ideal. And being that further realities are very much possible, it can’t be an endpoint. Being an individual takes on a fundamentally different meaning with Cultural Maturity’s changes. Individual identity becomes about more consciously holding the whole of our human complexity.

The third part of the modern myth of the individual concerns a more specific way that how we have thought about individuality ultimately falls short. It would be reasonable to assume that individuality, when fully realized, would be about finally becoming wholly distinct. Culturally mature identity presents a more fully systemic picture. A capacity for greater distinction is indeed very much part of what culturally mature identity gives us. Culturally mature love and leadership each involve the ability to stand more wholly separate. But this capacity for great distinction is only half of what we find. More consciously engaging the whole of our multifaceted complexity also alters identity in the sense that it deepens our capacity for connectedness. Whole Person love offers the possibility of more complete and enduring love. And Whole Person/Whole System leadership in a similar way offers the possibility of deeper and more authentic engagement between leaders and those the leader represents.

The deeper connectedness that comes with Cultural Maturity’s changes is in part a product of the fact that we bring ourselves more wholly to the task of relating—and are thus capable of engaging in fuller ways. But there is a further factor that follows from just what human complexity includes. Along with heightening our capacity for difference, Cultural Maturity’s cognitive changes offer that we might draw more consciously on parts of ourselves that appreciate that to live is to be connected—to others we care about, in community, with nature, and with existence more generally. This deeper capacity for connectedness cannot happen without first recognizing our fundamental distinctness. But this additional contribution is essential to fully realized Whole Person identity and relationship.

The myth of the individual has pertinence not just to how we think about relationships and individual identity, but also to how we conceive of human institutions—and of all sorts. Common assumptions about government as we know it make a good point of reference. We’ve tended to think of modern representative government—as with Modern Age institutions of all sorts—as an ideal and endpoint. Part of the argument for this conclusion (if we need an argument—people at every cultural stage assume their particular reality is complete and culminating) is that modern institutional democracy is  “government by the people.” By this we mean government as an expression of individual choice.

But while certainly it is the case that Modern Age democracy involves greater choice than the governmental forms of any earlier cultural stage, the Myth of the Individual suggests that what we have seen thus far is individual determination only of a limited sort. We have not yet witnessed government-by-the-people, at least not in the mature systemic sense the concept of Cultural Maturity proposes is now becoming necessary and possible.

Democracy in the sense of whole people taking full responsibility for their choices requires a further step in our evolution as choice-making beings. In other writings I’ve observed several different Cultural Maturity-related changes that could contribute to next chapter in government. I think specifically of stepping beyond seeing nation states (and their institutions) as mythic parents, setting aside ideological polarization and partisan pettiness, and leaving behind mythologized concepts of leadership. We can now add one more that in an import way brings all the others together: Culturally mature governance becomes more authentically government by the people, government as an expression of human identity in its fully mature manifestation.