One of Alexis de Tocqueville’s primary observations of America in the mid-19th century was the primacy of rugged individualism within our culture. He believed this individualism was both our nation’s greatest strength, as well as our greatest weakness. It was his assertion this emphasis on rugged individualism would ultimately be the undoing of our culture and society, as well as our experiment in democratic governance.
In his book, Freedom and Destiny (1981), May states, “It is our destiny to live always in some form of community” (p. 232). May goes on to say, “The fact that we belong to a community as well as being individual persons requires that we acknowledge this destiny and relate to each other with compassion” (p. 233). The definition of community can range from a group of people that share a common language to shared experiences to mutually held spiritual beliefs or practices.
In current American culture, many people recoil at the idea community is necessary for success or wholeness. When Senator Hillary Clinton released her book, It Takes a Village, she became the target of late night comedians, politicians, and pundits ridiculing her perspective. During the 2012 campaign, political candidates such as Elizabeth Warren and Barack Obama asserted there are no self-made businesses or leaders, and they were roundly criticized and accused of demeaning the individualistic nature of American capitalism. As a society, we do not like hearing we need the help and support of others in order to be successful. We want to believe we are capable of acting on our own, and we can solve our own problems without the assistance of others.
Yet, community is an integral part of our life and culture. In The Cry for Myth (1991), Rollo May (p. 30-31) states that we form community around our loyalty to the high school or college we attended or the sports teams we follow. Community is created around political issues, candidates, or social concerns. Spiritual beliefs or faith systems regularly serve as a basis for creating community. We even create community based on the belief in our individualism.
As May pointed out in an earlier quote, community requires compassion. Being part of a community requires an awareness of and placing the needs and concerns of others ahead of our own. Compassion is hard work, demanding sacrifice and surrender of the individual’s wants and needs. The rugged individualism so prevalent in our society runs counter to the compassion needed for community. In addition, rugged individualism serves as a platform for the growing narcissism in our neighborhoods, communities, and society. This narcissistic approach to work, relationships, and lifestyle feeds the growing phenomenon of “us against them,” and increases the sense of isolation many people experience today. Whether the issue is health care, gun ownership, taxes, religious beliefs, military tactics, or changing cultural values, our growing narcissism and rugged individualism is shaking our society like a 9.0 earthquake. In addition, this narcissism feeds an anger and sense of disenfranchisement among many people, and in turn, taints compassion as an act of weakness and being soft.
In Freedom and Destiny (1981), May points out that compassion is the first step in love, and that love is fundamental to the creation of community (p. 233). In a paper presented at the 2013 Conference of the Society for Humanistic Psychology, Brent Dean Robbins shared that he conducted an informal poll of his graduate students and professional humanistic psychologists where he asked: “Do you believe human rights exist? Even if a society decided not to believe in human rights, would they continue to be valid?” Robbins was shocked to discover that two thirds of his students and the majority of the psychologists responded negatively to his question. “This my friends, is a problem, and it is a serious crisis that suggests to me that our culture, and humanistic psychology along with it, has lost its compass.” Furthermore, Robbins asserts, “We are in a crisis because we do not know what the hell dignity means, and our human rights hang in the balance.”
If, indeed, we no longer know the meaning of “dignity” (and I agree with Robbins), then not only do our human rights hang in the balance, but also our ability to create community. Without community, our culture becomes nothing more than an assortment of individual bumper boats in an oversized pool moving haphazardly with no ability to steer or direct our individual boat. Such chaos will only lead to the disintegration of our society.
Our cultural emphasis on rugged individualism significantly contributes to this demise of our sense of human dignity and human rights. Increasingly, our culture emphasizes independence, autonomy, and the rights of the individual. If what I believe to be my rights are being infringed upon, then I must fight to hold on to my perceived rights no matter the cost or impact on others. The current discussion on gun rights and gun control serve as an excellent example of this type of thinking.
In his paper, Robbins proposes that:
A hermeneutics of love can restore the foundations of human rights by disclosing that human beings do possess dignity, and a dignity that cannot be denied … [and] what seems foolish outside the purview of the hermeneutics of loves comes across as foolhardy only because dignity can be seen or appreciated precisely within a hermeneutics of love. Perhaps what seems foolish from the exterior becomes something closer to wisdom when viewed from within the hermeneutic circle that begins with the entry point of love.”
Robbins goes on to say that this love—Agape love as he refers to it—is:
WILLING THE GOOD OF THE OTHER AS THE OTHER. Not willing the good of the other for my benefit, but for the benefit of the other person. Not the other person as I understand them, but the other as radically other than my own egoic concerns. Agape love is WILLING THE GOOD OF THE OTHER AS THE OTHER.
If a hermeneutics of love is the path back to establishing a definition of human dignity and human rights (and again, like Robbins, I believe it is), then compassion is where love starts. This compassion requires of the individual to risk him- or herself by stepping into the shoes of the other, to experience the emotions, perspective, and insights of the other. Compassion means choosing to know and experiencing the condition and status of the other. Compassion means letting go of one’s preconceived notions or old knowledge in order to gain new understanding and knowledge concerning the other.
As existential-humanistic psychologists, we are best situated in our communities and our culture to model compassion and this love of willing the good of the other as the other. We are able to model this with our clients, with our peers, in our families, and our neighborhoods. We can model this in our writing, in our speaking, and in our living. As Robbins states, “I hold that a hermeneutics of love—is central to the identity of humanistic psychology—in other words, a hermeneutics of love is of the very essence and foundation of what it means to think and practice and do research as a humanistic psychologist.”
It is our time, as human beings and humanistic psychologists, to go and do!
May, R. (1981). Freedom and destiny. New York, NY: Norton.
May, R. (1991). The cry for myth. New York, NY: Norton.
Robbins, B. D. (2013). The problem of human dignity at the heart of humanistic psychology: Retrieving existential personalism and a hermeneutic of love with the humanistic tradition. Paper presented at the 2013 Society of Humanistic Psychology/APA Division 32 Annual Conference. Santa Barbara, CA.
— Steve Fehl