Individualism. Is that something we can feel? How do we know if we’ve arrived?
I’ve known when it wasn’t there. The sound of your our own voice waivers and cracks makes you nervous. At impulse is pleasing others; within reach is the desired posture and facade; and far away, on some distant planet, are your own opinions and dreams.
J.S. Mill, who knew something of a strict upbringing himself, wrote, “…whatever crushes individuality is despotism, by whatever name it may be called, and whether it professes to be enforcing the will of God or the injunctions of men.” On a very small scale, my mother was a despot. The binding of my personality may have happened unintentionally, but it happened still.
I was one of four children–two older, one younger brother–homeschooled, under my mother’s instruction. Public schools were full of evils to be avoided: the bullying, the assessments, the potential for daily failure, the godless textbooks, the culture of peer-pressure and rebellion. At home, everything–what we ate, what we learned, what we watched, who we knew–could be controlled.
That wasn’t so bad. Anyone could see that we were kind, obedient children. Talking back was squelched. Disagreements didn’t last long. We didn’t complain much, spoke when spoken to, and were polite.
But in all our meekness, we were missing something. In all her guidance, my mom missed something. She had missed the importance of friendships with kids our age, mentorship from other adults, opportunities to become. And in unanticipated ways, we began to fail her. We were not what she had pictured. Our limited experience with the world simply wasn’t enough to prepare us to interact with it. Being exposed to her singularity (the supernova that was and is my mother), didn’t prepare us for our plurality; us each being different as individuals; each to form instead of meld. Opposite to that, we weren’t ourselves, we were hers.
As a teen, I started getting more involved in groups (tennis, teen court), but the interactions only made my faults apparent. Talking with people (other than my brothers) was painful. Incomplete sentences would tumble out of my mouth. A party once make me nervous to tears, so I sat in the car. When I tried to please my mother, it felt impossible. I wrongly anticipated her desires, or I felt no confidence in following her. Why was I so weak?
I wasn’t myself. I didn’t know how to be myself. In that area, I was weakened instead of strengthened. Again, from J.S. Mill, “The faculties are called into no exercise by doing a thing because others do it, no more than by believing a thing only because others believe it. If the grounds of an opinion are not conclusive to the person’s own reason, his reason cannot be strengthened, but is likely to be weakened by his adopting it…rendering his feelings and character inert and torpid, instead of active and energetic.”
That’s pretty much how I felt, “inert and torpid,” dreamy, and in need of total silence to to think; in need of the qualities that were not nurtured under the regime of unquestioning obedience. Instead of understanding, my mom yelled louder: “Don’t tell me to be quiet!” “stand up straight,” and “to take some pride in yourself,” or “don’t look so sullen,” or “don’t you cry; you’re embarrassing me!”
Thankfully, my own thoughts, feelings, impressions–if not words to express them–were in there, even if muted. “Even despotism does not produce its worst effects, so long as Individuality exists under it…” wrote Mill. Dreams—of riding a horse, running away, to a new town, to college, or joining the Air Force, anything—formed in my mind, telling me that I had the will to find myself. I could find a thoughtful, intelligent voice and a personality. If only I could live somewhere else, somewhere with different rules, breaking down the rules I’d once known. Then I could begin to feel how temporary her dominance, and begin to live based my own beliefs, my own strengths. I felt that I could become my own person–and there was nothing that I wanted more.
“Nobody denies that people should be so taught and trained in youth, as to know and benefit by the ascertained results of human experience. But it is the privilege and proper condition of a human being, arrived at the maturity of his faculties, to use and interpret experience in his own way. It is for him to find out what part of recorded experience is properly applicable to his own circumstances and character. … The human faculties of perception, judgment, discriminative feeling, mental activity, and even moral preference, are exercised only in making a choice.” -John Stuart Mill (all quotes from “On Liberty,” chapters II and III)