Individualism, The Dream Realized
Let’s just imagine a group of Americans who have chosen to create and follow their own individual paths of self-fulfillment by separating themselves from traditional careers, institutionalized churches, political parties, and the American obsession with consumption.
Continuing on this narrative, imagine this group forming a very viable sub-culture of renters, musicians, writers, part-timers, sweat-lodge devotees, meditators, campers, vegetarians, used-car owners, and consignment-store buyers.
They don’t save. They have no pensions. They don’t have a mortgage. They don’t have cable. They only accept cash for their labor. They hate malls. They keep their shopping moments to a minimum. And they don’t have any health insurance.
Many of us would accuse this group, in the words of one of our Presidential candidates, of not taking “personal responsibility” for their lives. Some of us, on the other hand, might even envy the freedom of this group. Some of us might even yearn to drop out of our own feverish consumption-driven lives, to test the rebel waters of non-conformity just to see if we could survive.
I don’t think I would be wrong in assuming that, at some point in our lives, most of us have had the romantic desire to just drop out of society, to say a final farewell to all of our responsibilities. I have no doubt that there is a significant number of Americans who would just love to “scrap it,” as the saying goes—to sell the house; to take the kids out of school; to quit their jobs; to pack the family up and just “head out,” anywhere.
Or, if we live alone, to give our landlord a month’s notice; to hand in our resignation to our boss; to jump in the car, take a deep breath, and hop on the Interstate to destinations unknown.
On so many levels, I can identify with this fictional group of individualists. After eleven years of feeling trapped by what Kazantzakis’s Zorba called “the whole catastrophe,” I walked out of my marriage.
Up to that point in my life, I did all the “right things”–I went to college. I taught. I married the right woman. I taught English at a Community College. I received tenure after three years.
We had two children. I mowed the lawn, raked the leaves, shoveled the driveway in the winter. I painted. I put the kids to bed. I sometimes cooked. My wife and kids and I took annual summer trips to Atlanta. We went to church every Sunday. We played pinochle with my parents on Friday nights. We did summer barbecues in the back yard. I commuted to work every day.
The ideal life, right?
Now, the honeymoon in Toronto should have been my first clue. I vividly remember being in the hotel bed with my wife thinking that my life was over. I began to get this feeling in the pit of my gut that some fatalistic knife of finality was beginning to gnaw its way into my soul. And then, like the conniving alcoholic I was, I began to console myself that there were expert divorce lawyers out there, that over half the married population gets divorces. Not to worry.
So, I literally stopped worrying. I would just do what I had to do. I naively believed that the feeling of being trapped and the fear of having my soul ripped out of me would just go away.
After all, I loved my wife. We would buy a house. We would have children. The children would grow up and go to college. My wife and I would retire. Everything would work out. And I would forget that horrific night in a Toronto hotel.
Well, something began to stir in me around the fifth year of my marriage. Some hidden voice was telling me that the life I was leading was not me. For the first time in my life, I began to feel what the existentialists call “inauthentic.”
Now, mind you, I have always prided myself on being different. And yet, here I was in a marriage that was the epitome of suburban contentment—a loyal wife, the mortgage, the lawn, the two cars, two loveable kids, a tree-lined street, neighborly neighbors, crossing guards.
Something was not right.
Marriage counseling didn’t fix the relationship. I found myself staying out at bars more after school. I began having sexual relationships with strangers.
And then the moment of truth. I came home drunk one Friday night. I walked into the house. I simply said to my wife, “I’m leaving.” I went upstairs and packed a few things. My wife angrily told me to tell the kids what I was doing.
It is a night that is permanently etched in my memory, my son weeping on the couch, crying “don’t leave,” my daughter rushing upstairs and slamming the door to her bedroom.
It would take me many, many years to make amends to my wife and children. Over time, some of the wounds would heal. Some would not.
But I learned something. I learned that it is very difficult to be an individual, to be completely authentic in this culture. I realized too, that for so much of my life I had trained myself to hide, especially to hide in all the social conventions that I allowed to define me—marriage, a home, children, the classroom.
When I think about that imagined group of rebels and individuals who, in my start-up narrative, chose to be their authentic selves, I think about the pain I had to go through to finally assert myself, to say to the world that I have a right to exist on my own terms.
Social conventions, like marriage, I also discovered, are like clichés for a writer; they are the easiest things to fall into when I really don’t want to think too deeply or to reach out for alternatives. They are the default mode when I’m too afraid to think and to feel outside of the box of convention.
Conforming to any convention, particularly the “happy suburban family” stereotype is such a psychological magnet in this culture. It drives our notion of happiness. It is a calculated meme of advertising—kids hopping into a car outside of a window-shuttered suburban home; a family seat-belted into their vans; two kids around a kitchen table eating breakfast cereal; a father mowing a lawn; a mother cleaning a bathroom.
Many in our culture have willingly and happily chosen to live out their days in a marriage-and-family conventional life. And some of my gay friends have also chosen to be in long-term marriages and relationships. For many within those groups, the conventional relationship model works for them.
I, on the other hand, have chosen my own individual path of the single life. It is not always easy. I sometimes have momentary fantasies of being with someone. And then I realize that I still have things to do, that my life is very, very complete with writing, with friends, and the continued contact with my adult children and their families. I am very, very content.
And I am today, my very, very own person.