Trapped in the Fetters of Society: Our individualism should trump obligations

Our intrinsic worth as individuals shouldn’t be forgotten.

First-year journalism major Kate Farr poses in the photojournalism studio in the Art and Journalism Building on campus Jan. 24. Jacy Bradley, DN
First-year journalism major Kate Farr poses in the photojournalism studio in the Art and Journalism Building on campus Jan. 24. Jacy Bradley, DN

Based on my own experience, it isn’t uncommon that through perception, we become a direct reflection of everything before us and around us. Whether it be through generational origins or conditions, we aren't viewed as an individualistic self but instead a notion generated by others — possibly before our own lives have even begun. 

Kate Farr is a first-year journalism major and writes “Face to Face” for the Daily News. Her views do not necessarily reflect those of the newspaper. 

I wasn’t born or married into my town’s inner circle of affluency.

A last name was typically a defining factor on whether one was important or not. I didn’t bear a name that propelled me up the social hierarchy. I wasn’t a teacher’s child, I didn’t live in suburbia and I didn’t have a parent that made it to state for high school football in the ‘80s. 

As strange as it sounds, those were part of the criteria that kept you from starting out on the lower rung of the ladder.

Those of us on the lower rungs were perceived quite differently. We were viewed a bit stranger, scrutinized more for the things we liked or left to sit on the outskirts of the playground when we weren’t invited to play kickball at recess.

When you aren’t immediately accepted, it can be a little harder to find yourself when the time comes. It’s not uncommon to crave that acceptance when you didn’t fit the earliest of criteria.

Fair warning, I’m going to be a bit philosophical here, so stay with me.

Based on my own experience, it isn’t uncommon that through perception, we become a direct reflection of everything before us and around us. Whether it be through generational origins or conditions, we aren't viewed as an individualistic self but instead a notion generated by others — possibly before our own lives have even begun. 

Michael Tomasello, an American psychologist and professor at Duke University, delved into extensive research on humans’ sense of moral obligation and how it affects our day-to-day lives.

In one of his 2020 studies, he focused on how humans can be willingly devoted to cooperation, shared goals for a common interest and acting out of obligation for others. Since the beginning of recorded societies and structured communities, these actions have been integral parts of human psychology and the human condition.

There’s something very human in wanting to be a part of and accepted into the group.

Consequently, our conditions come with an expected commitment. Since birth, one acquires a feeling of obligation — this feeling that one must do this and not that. There’s an obligation to people and fundamental doctrines. 

The institutions we are born into, our environment’s natal schools of politics and religion as well as other various social entities are typically the influential molds of our clay and the basis of our so-called “individualism.”

In my case, along with many others around me, popular religion often shaped morals or specified the rights and wrongs ingrained within us. However, there tends to be a schism between church and inner wisdom. Institutions such as these turn us away from natural desire and instead pull us toward offering up our individualism for the common good.

I was baptized, confirmed and born into the Methodist church. I spent many Wednesday evenings, Sunday mornings and devastatingly hot summer days running through pews, listening to sermons while annotating my children’s version of the Bible and chewing on after-church cookies passed out to antsy children while adults conversed.

There were three simple rules within the Methodist church: do not harm, do good and stay in love with God.

That was until the church divided. The churches of the denomination either stuck with the “conservative” teachings of the Bible or changed with the times — that change being that the Methodist church should allow for the union of non-heterosexual couples.

Then, it no longer was about preventing the infliction of harm or doing good or staying true to God. From my perspective, it was about pitting ourselves against those who disagreed with the conservative teachings of the Bible.

Some in the congregation couldn’t adhere to that. I knew I couldn’t.

I still wonder if my religious roots haunt me today, creeping up on me at the most unexpected moments. Am I more judgmental because of it? Is personal spirituality ever going to correct the wrongs a pastor taught? Will I ever fully accept myself as an adult who grew up with a pastor who so adamantly preached against my existence?

But then, we are to muse upon the question: Do these roots, whether geographical or ancestral, truly constitute an individual? 

While our origins may add to character and be formative factors, such origins can be equally burdensome when intuition is jeopardized. 

An individual who assimilates with a popular, conventional and traditional establishment could be considered a person formed in more obedient nature — willingly or of necessity.

The Irish — seen as aliens and foreigners some 100 years ago — fought against the categorization of being unclean, disease-ridden. In the Library of Congress’ records on Irish immigration in the 19th-century, prejudice and hostility towards the Irish stemmed from misconceptions due to rampant disease during this period in American history, which was mostly from unclean living conditions. Religious discrimination and falsified stereotypes hounded early immigrants in both everyday life and in political representation.

At the peak of immigration from Europe, Italians were viewed as inferior and uncivilized for not being white enough. Southern Europeans were faced with a different struggle than the Irish, for they didn’t have the same “light complexion” that granted them an escape from colorism.

And present-day America still has a racial hierarchy that places Asian-Americans and Native Americans at the bottom. That can be seen all around us from racially-motivated hate crimes to disproportionate levels of poverty.

Assimilating — both now and then — was and is a survival tactic. An attempt to try to fight for and against something constantly whether that be a better future, your genetics, your community, a sense of place.

If I had ignored the warning signs of what was said behind church doors, I would be completely different. I could have continued to be wanting and willing to put the desires of others before myself. Had I sided with predetermined fate and self-sacrifice, I wouldn’t have come out of the other side the same — if there was ever another side. 

Like the aforementioned motives Tomasello explored in research on psychological identity, I would prioritize the “we” over me if that was the path I chose to take — the path well-traveled.

But these obligations, like burying one’s questions, and labels put upon us by environmental or societal influences should not be our defining factors. I may be the daughter of a mother and father, but I am not a replica of them. And even though their guidance and influence played its own distinct role, their aspirations for me have not always aligned with my own intentions in life. 

I may have been a direct product of a family and raised in a communalist fashion, but it did not mean I must be a product of conformity and like-mindedness. 

With time and maturity, I came to the understanding that external pressure should not bring upon us a foreboding of compliance. The quality of being an individual is only found when one turns away from certain elements that satisfy society before self.

We should be uncomfortable when confronted with conformity and consistency.

To add to this, I wrote down an excerpt years ago from Henry David Thoreau’s “Walden” I feel fits perfectly with this ideology. By committing to self-reliance and individualism, by going against the grain, we finally “follow the bent of [his or her] genius.”

If a person is not willing to evaluate and possibly convict the principles of one’s surroundings, they are turning themselves from both inward and outward exploration. 

While I didn’t spend months as a recluse on Walden Pond like Thoreau, I found other ways to explore myself and form my own ideologies that diverged from what I’d learned.

That simplistic exploration of people’s interpretations on life let me come to my own conclusions. I was able to derive my own meaning.

Individualistic purpose is not something to be found and copied in others’ models, for we are not meant to be imitations, but there are always bits and pieces. In the songs we listen to, the books we read, we can find parts of ourselves there.

We must instead devote ourselves to the searching and finding of this intimate sense of self. 

Without this act of pursuing and discovering meaning within ourselves, we are but walking through life half-asleep. 

The concept of existing with self-certainty and abandoning habitual tradition is achieved when we finally cast aside aspects of surroundings that hinder us. By not conforming to the obligation of others and the commitments of institutionalized oppression, this alertness becomes the beginning of building the foundation of self-realization and differentiation. 

Living with this sense of urgency and distinctive initiative is when one becomes whole and no longer lives as a secondhand being. We should be uncomfortable when confronted with conformity and consistency. 

To act without hesitation and unsureness, but instead with individual spontaneity, and to grasp the fleeting coattails of our short lives, is the benchmark to symbolize our reaching the pedestal of freedom.

Conformity promotes a lack of personal progress, possibly leading to a lack of overall progress in society. There is weakness in an absence of self. A reliability solely on others’ conventional proclamations prevents a formation of identity. Instead, by reclaiming one’s oddities, roughness and imperfections, as well as choosing firsthand deliberateness, makes one a complete entity. 

While it is more of a personal belief for me, not one I know everyone can agree on, there has been evidence pointing to a correlation between innovation and individualism. 

In a 2011 study published by Proceedings of the National Academy of Sciences of the United States of America, countries having a more individualist culture versus collectivism had greater competition, innovation and economic growth. 

The U.S., in its entire existence, has been ranked among the most individualistic-driven countries. This track history, one that dates back to the Revolution, is scattered with catalyst movements, new ideologies and ground-breaking innovations ranging from art to technology advancements.

But the functioning of a society, a community or even a family is not a measure of the most valuable aspects of life, for these institutions do not just place emphasis on the individual. 

It is vital to find meaning and righteousness in ourselves for our own personal gain. Individual worth is not to be dictated by others, and beauty is truly in the eye of the beholder. 

One must not remain trapped in the fetters of society, or contentment with life will never be found. The true satisfaction of creation is gained through a union of selfless and selfish independence — a devotion to one’s self and putting the value of yourself first.

In order to be devoted to the idea of self, I had to break free of the restraints of predetermined beginnings in a community and become separate from hereditary roots. 

I decided to abide by an important piece of advice bestowed upon me: Embrace the ego and be oneself because that is the best one can ever be.


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