Individualism encourages us to stay apart. If we’ve all got to stand firmly on our own two feet, then we stand alone. You can’t care about other people if you aren’t willing to need them, you can’t connect if you aren’t willing to be that vulnerable.
Need is the basis of connection. Humans are social creatures and most of us do need social affirmation and approval from other humans. Most of us want to be respected and thought well of, many of us do better when we feel useful and like we can make a meaningful contribution. If no one is willing to express need, then no one has much room to demonstrate kindness, generosity and compassion, either.
I remember being at primary school as a small child and sitting in Christian assemblies, listening to messages about how we were to help those worse off than ourselves. It struck me then that being a good Christian seemed to require there being people who were worse off than you. I also wondered how you were supposed to tell if you were the one in need of help, because that never came up. As a child, I could not work out how you were supposed to identify the needy or tell if your own needs were serious enough to deserve mentioning.
We all have needs. Existence creates need, from the most basic requirements for food and shelter through to more complex ones for self expression and recognition. What individualism means in practice is that people who have enough privilege to get their needs met are fine, and everyone else suffers. Meeting each other’s needs is how we build community and relationships. We connect with each other most around vulnerability, where trust and understanding are called for. We have the most scope to feel good in ourselves when we take care of each other.
I recall another primary school assembly story. A person was shown Hell, where everyone was hungry and miserable because the spoons were too long and they could not feed themselves. Then the same person saw Heaven, where there was exactly the same set up and people were cheerfully feeding each other. Here I am, decidedly Pagan but very much influenced by the messages in some of the Christian stories I was exposed to as a child.
How do you tell if you are the person in need? It’s not an easy question, but I think it helps if we see need as intrinsic to being human. We all have needs, and when we express them, we can get more done collectively. The need for meaning, respect and social status is not well met by the acquisition of more stuff, though. The need to feel important isn’t answered by having ever more cash. We get to feel powerful when we meet other people’s needs, take care of them and lift them out of suffering.
Focusing too much on individualism has those with privilege trying to meet their social needs through acquisition. Meanwhile those who have too little are unable to meet their own physical needs. We’d be happier individuals in a much more functional society and with a species that might be capable of survival if we stopped thinking of success as money and started thinking of success as being able to take care of each other.