We are living in the age of the individual. The overriding “me first” culture of this era, which has now spread to most corners of our globally-interconnected world, glorifies individualism and self-fulfilment above all else as the guiding principles of our time. We are conditioned to believe that we must all compete with one another to reach the top of the tree and those that “make it” are worshipped as super-human gods. Greed, division and injustice are all accepted as part of the natural order in this life of “winners” and “losers.”

But how has this culture developed and is it really the natural way for humans to behave? Various books, such as Will Storr’s Selfie and Jeremy Lent’s The Patterning Instinct, have explored the development of the present culture and the underlying values that have created it. Individual analyses differ somewhat in their precise explanations but the general consensus, at least in terms of Western culture, seems to be as follows:

We can trace the individualist mindset back at least several thousand years, and certainly to the time of the ancient Greeks, who also created a split between the spiritual and the physical which then became the fundamental principle behind many of the world’s major religions, including Christianity. By the middle ages this had developed into profound theological introspection but the Renaissance revived ancient Greek philosophical thinking, leading to the Age of Reason, conquest of nature, rise of capitalism and ultimately to our current culture of extreme individualism, rampant consumerism and neoliberal politics and economics.
“individualism is deeply ingrained in our culture, going back many, many generations”
So individualism is deeply ingrained in our culture, going back many, many generations. Even from a very young age, the stories that we are told are all of individual heroes overcoming monsters or successfully completing the journey from rags to riches. These stories and ideas are then reinforced by competitive education systems; social hierarchies and expectations that encourage everyone to be a “winner”; and highly sophisticated media and marketing systems that manipulate us all to believe in the cultural narrative.

Even those of us that are campaigning for a change in culture are not immune from these deep individualist roots. From a personal perspective, I would like to see a cultural shift away from a society founded on competition, individualism and division towards one based on balance, respect, cooperation and hope. But at the same time, there is part of me that wants to be the one who makes that happen - the hero of the story, if you like. This is a paradox that I live with and I’m sure it must be the case with others if they’re honest.
“we all end up chasing an impossible fantasy that can lead to stress, overwork & severe mental health issues if we fail to live up to our expectations”
So where does this leave the individual in this highly individualist culture? Will Storr comes to the conclusion that it encourages us to strive for our culture’s image of the perfect self, and this can be extremely dangerous as we all end up chasing an impossible fantasy that can lead to stress, overwork and severe mental health issues if we fail to live up to our expectations. On top of this, the very ideal that we’re all striving for is based on a myth that has no foundation in reality, so even those who supposedly achieve success often seem at best unfulfilled and at worst can spiral into self-destruction.

There are, however, new world views emerging that challenge the prevailing cultural assumptions. Many people are reconnecting with spirituality, nature and each other and in this era of climate crisis, there has been a significant upsurge of interest in the cultures of indigenous peoples across the globe which are far more ancient than modern Western culture and do not assert that human behaviour is naturally governed by competition and greed.

In their excellent recent book on commoning, Free, Fair And Alive, David Bollier and Silke Helfrich state that the current culture is based on a particular window through which we see the world that is reinforced to make it look like the only possible reality. This view of reality is encouraged wherever you look and even within our own beliefs, assumptions and behaviours, but Bollier and Helfrich insist that “we cannot just look at the world through a window - as if it were the only self-evident way of perceiving. We need to pause and start to look at the window.”

So, what can we do if this “me first” culture is so ingrained that we don’t even realise the extent to which it governs the way we live our lives? Well, we can start by looking at the window and questioning whether we’re happy to see the world in the way that we’re being encouraged to. If you’re happy with the way things are, then fine - at least you’re aware of how and why you’re living your life in the way that you are - but if there are elements that you're not happy with then start to make some changes. I’ve been surprised how starting down this road leads to further doors opening and it also gives you a feeling of “doing something about the situation” and a sense of purpose.

You don’t have to change everything - there are many wonderful aspects of modern life - but you also don’t have to accept the status quo.

Let’s all check our windows.


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