Sunday, February 20, 2011

Surrender, Surrender (But Don't Give Yourself Away)

"Surrender, surrender, but don't give yourself away". - "Surrender", by Cheap Trick, © 1978

I have already affirmed the contest between change and stability as the greatest conflict in human life. Many other essential conflicts of human existence spring from this: the contest between the individual and society, between individuals and a relationship, between individuals and their religion, between individuals and morality, between individuals and ideology.

What does it mean to exist in such confusion? What does it mean to be an individual when one's very existence can only be defined in terms of its attachment to other, larger groups? What does it mean to live as one person in a world dominated by forces greater and more complex than any single human being?

It's fun to pretend that individuals can live only for themselves. We're all rational human beings, with perfect information at our disposal, considering all our options carefully, and then making the best decision for us. Our thoughts, our beliefs, our actions, our language, and the very words we use to express our innermost sensations, belong primarily to us first and foremost: they're not products of our environment, the groups to which we belong, or any long and tedious processes over which we have little to no control. We individuals like to imagine that we are more powerful than we are, but we are wrong.

What is the price of this knowledge? Have we sold our uniqueness and worth as individuals? Have we given away the sanctity of a precious human life?

No. We surrender, and surrender, but we do not give ourselves away.

I surrender to those groups in which I belong, to all those groups which make my life possible and meaningful. My parents, my family, my peers, everyone I've ever met: you gave me norms, values, ideas, words, and symbols -- you equipped me and gave me my power, gave me my ability to interpret this world and to shape it in my own image. And yet, this image toward which I shape the world is not just my own, but it also belongs to all of you, because you have given me the image of the world which I hold now.

I surrender some of my desires and goals, my resources, my aims and ends, because I have agreed to participate in a project which is greater than myself. When it is late at night and there are no cars in the streets, I stop at traffic lights until I receive the proper signal. I register for the Selective Service, which means I am eligible to be drafted into the military should my country ever decide again to mandate citizens to fight its wars. This summer, I worked a minimum wage job in the fast food industry to help pay for college, and some of my earnings went to pay taxes which support an entire system of government.

But I do not give myself away. Because who am I anyway? After all, I am society; I am a relationship; I am a religion; I am a morality; and I am an ideology. I express my individuality through the collective character I share with others. I accomplish my individual goals and ambitions because I am motivated by values which are instilled in me by other people, that I share with other people, and which serve common ends and common interests. A true individual must always, when acting in his or her own interest, strive to remember how this interest is inseparably and inextricably linked with the interests of others.

Yes, I am in one sense a self-made man. But I'm not the only self that's made it.

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