Book III. Individuality
1. It’s likely that you’re an individual. Most people are born conventional and prize conformity. But some people prize their individuality. Kirists know to prize theirs. They know that individuality and freedom are linked and even identical.
2. You may have been stubbornly prizing your individuality since birth. That can’t have been easy. From the first moments, you were coerced by society to fit in and to look like somebody’s idea of normal. You were different; they said, “Be the same!”
3. Even if she trains herself to hold her tongue, an individual will already know as a young child that she can’t conform and that she wasn’t built to conform. But the pressure applied on her! That pressure is enormous, even back-breaking, even killing.
4. Looking around you, mistrusting the rule-makers, feeling alienated and like a “stranger in a strange land,” you find yourself burdened right from the beginning by this pulsating energy that invites retaliation: the energy of individuality.
5. This fierce need produces lifelong consequences. You find yourself presented with some odd-sounding rule—say, that God will be offended if you don’t wear a hat. You find yourself obliged to ask, “Why?” And they will certainly tell you why!
6. The whole world will tell you why. But their answers will not make sense to you. So, you’ll get your ears boxed or worse. You’ll fall silent or cry, “No, I can’t believe this nonsense!” You’ll unwillingly acquiesce or grow oppositional.
7. If you take the oppositional route, you’ll adamantly reject humbug and try to make personal sense of the world. What will this feel like? Like sorrow, anger, anxiety, alienation, rootlessness, and fierceness, all balled up together.
8. This oppositional attitude, maybe suppressed in childhood, begins to announce itself and assert itself in adolescence and to grow as an individual’s interactions with the conventional world increase. A battle begins with all sorts of skirmishes.
9. This oppositional energy grows as his ability to “do his thing” is directly or indirectly restricted by the machinery of society. He finds himself in an odd kind of fight, not necessarily with any particular person or group but with just about everyone.
10. He is in a battle with everything meant to constrain him and reduce him to a cipher. His sees a falsehood there—skirmish! He sees a restriction there— skirmish! He sees a nonsensical rule there—skirmish! He is marginalized there— skirmish!
11. We repeatedly see this dynamic in the lives of our heroes. Where the dominant ideology challenges reason, they feel obliged to speak out, to do what they believe is right, and to pursue their own goals, even though they may be punished.
12. Popping out of the womb individual, needing to experiment and to risk as part of their individuality, and feeling thwarted and frustrated by the oh-so- conventional universe into which they have been plopped at birth, they wriggle like fish bait.
13. They rush headlong, like a ski jumper down a steep ramp, toward reckless ways of dealing with their feelings of alienation and frustration. Driven to be individual, they race through life, not wisely but fiercely and obsessively.
14. Born individual, you likely have more energy, more charisma, bigger appetites, stronger needs, greater passion, more aliveness, and more avidity than the next person. Individuals often do. Nature saw to this, blindly of course.
15. Nature can’t joke or bestow blessings. But this may be nature’s way of fueling the individual so that he can be individual. And this extra energy and greater appetite will incline an individual toward addiction, mania and insatiability.
16. How could this supercharging not lead there? How can you have a ton of energy and not court mania? How can you have extra adrenaline and not drive a hundred miles an hour? Nature inadvertently created a fiery, insatiable
17. Nature does not joke but it does produce unintended consequences. One of the major unintended consequences of this extra drive and bigger appetite is that an individual is hard-pressed, and often completely unable, to feel satisfied.
18. You eat a hundred peanuts—not satisfying enough. You write a good book— not satisfying enough. You win the Nobel Prize—not satisfying enough. This inability to get satisfied produces constant background agitation and unhappiness.
19. When nature provides extra energy, it adds susceptibility to mania. When it provides extra ambition, it adds susceptibility to grandiosity. When it provides extra appetite, it adds susceptibility to compulsion. How charming of nature!
20. So, nature, which doesn’t joke, nevertheless has its little joke. It creates an individual who must know for himself, follow his own path, and be himself, then heightens his anxiety and makes sure that nothing will satisfy him. Good one, nature!
21. Then there is a second scenario, the scenario of suppressed individuality. This is the more usual path. A person is born individual but succumbs to conformity. Life then feels not quite right or worse. Maybe much, much worse.
22. What does this look like? Here’s one version. When I was young I was a thrill-seeker, which led to risky behavior. Things quieted down when I got married and had kids, but that transition was painful and I felt really constricted and limited.
23. We moved to a small farm town where I was surrounded by religious people who had very strong notions about how you comport yourself, how you raise your kids, what you believe in, and your place in the family and the community.
24. I felt stifled, under-valued and invisible. I wore the mask of a pleasant smile as I served coffee or did the dishes at church functions. I was depressed, I gained a lot of weight, and alcohol became an easy crutch.
25. I’ve always intuitively mistrusted the status quo but I haven’t resisted it enough. I’m a caretaker and people-pleaser and I have a huge desire to fit in and be approved of, all to the detriment of my mental health. I’ve always cared about survival.
26. Does a third path exist, where a born individual manages to fit beautifully into society? Not on this earth. Either you take the path of individuality and absurd rebellion or you take the demoralizing path of conformity and suppressed individuality.
27. Opt, then, for individuality. You will not fit beautifully into society. You will be begging for skirmishes and battles. Too often you will feel like you are jousting windmills. But this is just another way of saying that you are obliged to do right.
28. Kirists prize their individuality. They also recognize the attendant challenges. There are challenges that come with suppressing their individuality and challenges that come with expressing their individuality. Two very rough roads to travel!
29. We choose the rough road of self-obligation, self-authorship, and self-expression. We need to know for ourselves, do for ourselves, expose humbug, and stand up to oppressors. We choose the rough road of radical independence.
30. Even if you choose what looks like a conventional goal, say, to be an elementary school teacher, you will still need to pursue that profession as a radically independent individual. Who else but a dedicated individual can stand up for the children?
31. You must stand up because you know that you must. And the results? Much less gorgeous that you might have hoped for. You can’t control your principal’s temper, the smallness of your curriculum, or the financial straits of your school district.
32. You can’t change the fact that your work pays a thousandth of what a fund manager earns. You can’t control the fact that your students come in sick and that you get the flu. You can’t change the fact that your summer vacation keeps shrinking.
33. And when you stand up as an individual, arguing that religion has crept into the curriculum, that energetic children shouldn’t be labeled as disordered, or that a popular teacher is doing too much touching, what’s most likely to happen?
34. You’ll likely get reprimanded or rebuffed. Sick in bed with the flu, tired of the battles, decades from retirement, and no longer certain that your choice is tenable or makes sense, there you are, living ethically but not at all happy.
35. In a hundred smaller and larger ways, your investment in classroom teaching will likely be threatened. Can you still extract enough satisfaction and coax enough meaning from your choice? That may prove a lifelong challenge.
36. Your hunger for individuality is no blessing. But it is a moral and psychological imperative. You can’t both do right and be quiet. You can’t both unleash your imagination and conform. Kirists accept that they must be the individual they must be.
37. We make our value-based decisions and then we try to live up to them and live with them, simultaneously feeling proud and blue. We’re careful not to inadvertently call this state of sadness, agitation and insufficient satisfaction “depression.”
38. Our malaise is no “mental disorder” but rather the natural consequence of dropping a passionate, energetic, creative, moral, and lively creature into this tiny little world, a world full of roadblocks, tyrants, disappointments and ordinariness.
39. So, the results we get do not match our hopes. Ideally, we would get excellent results from choosing righteous work like teaching and tackling that work as an engaged individual. Ideally, we would find ourselves smiling a lot and even happy.
40. In reality, we’re likely to get very mixed results and do a lot of frowning. This is why the life a kirist leads will not look like arithmetic. When we do math, we get a satisfying answer like “Four.” When we do life, our answers look very different.
41. Instead of four, we get: “I intend to write my poetry, even though it will never pay, live in love, even though I’m only mediocre relationship material, and raise children in love, even though I’m terribly scared of my critical nature.”
42. Or: “I see that I’m responsible for the whole world, which is ridiculous, and that I must call out every injustice, which is a fool’s errand, and that I’m obliged to do great work, even though my first efforts have been completely awful.”
43. Or: “I need to live in this community, because my loved ones reside here and won’t leave, but this community is tyrannical, dogmatic, and anti-rational. So, I’ll stay here but resist, even though that is bound to threaten me and my loved ones.”
44. None of this sounds like fun. Nor is it. Individuality is not a cheerful game or a stroll through the park. It is a tight-fitting suit that nature has fitted you with, making every step of the way half-uncomfortable. No need to thank nature for this!
45. This mandate to individuality is a lifelong albatross. Nature fitted you with this albatross and now you ratify its presence on your shoulder. You say, “I didn’t ask for this pressure but I accept it, since I refuse to live small or to shut my eyes.”
46. Can we meet these challenges? Not at the 90% level. Not at the 80% level. The challenges presented by our fierce need to be individual reduce us to accepting a very modest success rate, above insignificant but well below satisfactory.
47. Your individuality demands that you write an excellent novel. It is great in spots and ordinary in spots and terrible in spots. Was that an insignificant effort? No. Do you feel satisfied? No. Challenge bravely tackled, leading to a 20% victory.
48. Your individuality demands that you denounce the immoral practices in your profession. Your peers mock you and make sure that you get no business. But the outside world listens a little. Challenge bravely tackled, leading to a 9% victory.
49. Your individuality demands that you see for yourself what’s beyond the horizon. This leads to some excellent adventures and some terrible misadventures. You come home wiser and battered. Challenge bravely tackled, leading to a 12% victory.
50. Even if we do manage to persevere—to write our poems, to battle our windmills, to right some wrongs—it is not without a thousand ups and downs, countless frustrations and disappointments, and every manner of rage and dirge.
51. A kirist accepts this reality, learns from experience, and creates her marching orders. She may spend her days in a kitchen or an office but that doesn’t mean that she isn’t marching. She is continuously choosing to be her authentic self.
52. Individuality demands choosing. Maybe you wonder if you ought to continue at your current job. Maybe you wonder if you should embark on a screenplay. Maybe you wonder if you should point out a wrong. How will you choose?
53. Not by attending a workshop. Not by visiting an astrologer. Not by seeking out a pastor. Not by reading a self-help book. Not by calling a psychic. Not by consulting a psychiatrist. You take that kirist step to one side, face the matter, and decide.
54. You look to your own answers. Maybe you are not in a position to diagnose your prickly rash or to know if you’ve written an effective contract. Maybe those are questions for experts. But for life questions, you are your own expert.
55. You decide which are the worthy actions and which are the unworthy actions. You decide what to value and how to make sense of your many often-contradictory values, values that awkwardly tumble together in real-life situations.
56. And you remember to serve the good. Kirists serve the good. You do not take your mandate to individuality as license to grandiosity, narcissism or naked self- interest. This isn’t so easy to accomplish, as all that greed wants to keep bubbling up.
57. Isn’t the pull to individuality going to incline you toward a demanding personality where you feel entitled to interrupt, out-shout, ignore, trample, dismiss, sulk and strive arrogantly for what you want? Kirists know this narcissism is in them.
58. The more you proudly invoke your individuality, the more you may find yourself in conflict between kirist modesty and native grandiosity, between kirist goodness and genetic self-interest, between kirist individuality and simple narcissism.
59. To handle this conflict may require that you encourage a personality upgrade. Who would you like to be ideally? A kirist asks that bold question and invites up an answer. Are you already your best you? That’s highly unlikely.
60. Maybe you repeatedly behave in a cruel way, because you were humiliated as a child and find it viscerally satisfying to destroy others. As the universe does not arbitrate meaning, you have that option available to you. But a kirist refuses.
61. Maybe you like to storm about because you thrive on drama. Maybe you’ve gotten into the habit of blaming and hating. Maybe you’ve left the battlefield and gone into hiding. You’ve ended up somewhere—but that mustn’t be the end point.
62. Maybe out of anxiety you leave things undone and avoid living your life purposes. The universe has no way to reduce your anxiety and, by virtue of its starkness and relentlessness, only increases it. Kirists must create their own calmness.
63. Maybe your edge isn’t grandiosity or arrogance but meekness and passivity. Then your personality upgrade would look very different from a narcissist’s. Yours might look like a fierce warrior butterfly finally emerging from its cocoon of safety.
64. Just as we accept the burdens of individuality, self-obligation, self-authorship, absurd rebellion, and goodness, we accept the burden of transforming ourselves into a more ideal version of ourselves, into the kirist version of ourselves.
65. We use our freedom to step to one side, to gaze into the full-length mirror hanging there, and to make conscious decisions about who we intend to be. We come into the world already somebody, our personality forms, and then we upgrade it.
66. This is the kirist journey from personality to personhood. You look at life and you look at yourself and you say, “To honor my individuality and to meet my obligations to myself, I must transform myself into someone much better equipped.”
67. But even then, you will only be better equipped, not perfectly equipped. You’ll improve your navigation skills as you author your story but you can’t guarantee sailing to the right country or avoiding a shipwreck when you try to land there.
68. Where will your individuality take you? To some highly uncomfortable places. Maybe you’ll embark on some quest you can’t explain or name. There you are, wandering about, announcing that you are on a quest but getting nowhere.
69. Maybe you’ll find yourself pondering the biggest questions and refusing to accept too-simple answers, only to discover that the biggest questions have no satisfactory answers. You were hungry for resolution but all you got was confusion.
70. Maybe your mandate to do some good got all mixed up with your desire to make a splash and live well. Now you find yourself in a comfortable position in a corner office, doing much less good than you know that you ought to be doing.
71. That is, challenges will remain. You can feel smug when you do math, since two plus two will equal four forever. But life does not permit you to feel smug about it. We face that and say, “A lone individual has always mattered and always will.”
72. A lone individual can stand up to a row of tanks, with the whole world watching. The tanks will win but that image of freedom will be seared into the brains of children and may prove pivotal fifty years later, as other tanks are gathering.
73. A lone individual, sitting on a city council, can prove the tie-breaking vote that keeps the thieves from further thievery or the polluters from making further misery. Or she can sit on a higher bench and save democracy.
74. A lone individual can tell a quiet story, maybe about a rabbit disappearing down a rabbit hole and the little girl who follows him into Wonderland, that is read by a lot of children, or maybe just a few, and that encourages their individuality.
75. A lone individual can find a cure, help a child in need, or start a rights’ movement. She may need to be a medical researcher in order to find that cure but she can be a complete amateur and still aid that child or launch that movement.
76. Lone individuals can also work together. Each, being an individual, may well prove testy, opinionated and difficult. But testy, opinionated and difficult individuals, as long as they are not inflexible, can change hearts and move mountains.
77. Gatherings of individuals, as for instance at a Continental Congress, can prove momentous. Each will have his or her own agenda, but if they happen to be a gathering of kirists you might get a wall torn down or new rights for everyone.
78. The world is better off in each of these instances. It is not changed; it is not transformed; it is not saved. But it is better off than if that lone individual had not existed. That “better off” is the epitome of kirist modesty and kirist excellence.
79. The world is better off in each of these instances and kirists know it. They might wish that a lone individual could do more and they might wish that they themselves could do more. But they do not characterize what they can do as nothing.
80. On a given day, you may find yourself with no particular chance to assert your individuality and no particular reason to assert your individuality. There may be many quiet days of sharing, joining, fitting in, helping and accommodating.
81. But on another day, maybe even the very next day, you may be called on. On that day, you shake your head a little and murmur, “Here we go again.” Self-obligation and self-authorship demand that murmur and the action that follows.
82. Fighting to retain your individuality may have made you cranky and morose. As a new kirist, feel reinvigorated. You have been reminded that individuality is not fruitless, quixotic stubbornness but rather exactly what is required of you.
83. Suppressing your individuality may have made you ill and despairing. As a new kirist, open the window, lean out, and say a little something. You don’t have to shout, not at first. Just hum a tune of freedom and feel the sun on your face.
84. It would be lovely if our efforts produced the results we craved. But life is not a romance. We opt for value, not rewards, we stand up, we assert our individuality, and we serve the good. If we’re also rewarded, we smile wryly.
85. Be the individual that you are. You could certainly choose safety instead; and on some days, you likely ought to choose safety. But on those many other days, venturing out alone, say what needs saying and do what needs doing.