Negotiating the Social Contract Between Societies and Individuals
That we must become who we need to be is a message that sounds important and true. But when based on a societal pressure for an individual baseline (the basic human), it can feel suffocating. We may not want to grow into a predetermined outline society sets for us. Who we must become for the sake of others may not feel as necessary to us as it does to the world and perpetuating its status quo. A world in which we were brought into without a choice and now possibly, our purpose chosen for us as well. It hardly seems fair, after all, what do we really owe this world?
The bill can be a tricky thing to tally up. For starters, to even ask “what do we owe?” requires the use of language and concepts of exchange--Our very mode of thought, the inner model we use to make sense of the world; bargaining what’s fair or not, comes from our human world. And that’s not even counting all the other ways you’ve made it this far under the benefits of society. And for all the hangups many of us might have against it, we weren’t thrown into the wild at birth, away from humanity and left to figure out fire, cooking and tool making for ourselves. Instead we tap into a collective knowledge bigger than any one individual. You didn’t ask for the world, this is true. But you gotta admit, the human world of culture, history, and language are impressive gifts at your disposal.
But at the end of the day, you are who you are. Your mind is yours and becoming anything with that mind, should be your own free choice for your own personal reason.
The only issue is, ‘being’ is as much physical as it is mental. We are as we think with our minds and as we do with our bodies. And despite the body locked under the jurisdiction of the mind, how the physical outside world pressures the mind, often dictates how the mind allows the body to respond. Creating occasions in which what the mind would prefer to do and what the body is instructed to do (by the mind) are disjointed; running separate and perhaps even, in conflict.
There comes then, cause for examining why these compromising moments happen. And if they happen often and obstructively enough that Mind and Body can feel estranged from one another, this is where anguish may manifest. When the ‘experiencer’ of your life feels like they can’t reach out and be the ‘participator’ of that life in an honest way. This is when there may be said to be a version of you that is more ‘united experiencer-and-participator’ than you currently are. And to decrease anguish you must become this version.
There’s also the fact you live in a society. So the truth is despite being a lone experiencer and participator, you live among other lone experiencers and participators. The necessity of becoming who we need to be is both selfish and gracious. We have to preserve ourselves from becoming too much of another’s impression but also must contribute or express ourselves to others. To stabilize ourselves in order to accomodate the contribution of other experiencers and participators without fear of losing who we are. In this sense, self development is society development, because societies are made up of ‘selves’ collected among, and interacting with one another. It’s a balancing act; a constant negotiation between what Society needs from us and what we need from Society to be truly ourselves. Therefore this Goldilocks zone in which we aim to live, should be as informed by our necessity as it is, by the necessity of others.
This makes me think of walking. Specifically bipedal walking. Humans stand and walk on two legs and it’s a big part of how we do human things. But not all animals walk this way, it isn’t the only way to walk. It isn’t the fastest way to move and so many animals and insects are fine walking, running or crawling on four or more legs, appendages, etc. (some actually have no legs at all). Us humans though, have freed up our hands. Our increased dexterity is supported by us preserving this bipedal norm--I mean, think of all the tweets we might otherwise not be able to send.
But we aren’t born with this ability. And although our DNA materializes our bodies ‘anticipating’ this bipedal norm, we too must first crawl. Later, as we learn to balance our weight on two legs (usually at the insistence of experienced bipedal adults) and walk with such ease and immediacy that it’s almost like an involuntary movement, we then become who we need to be.
In the case of humans walking, we need to become bipedal adults because so much of what we’ve learned to do as a human society requires the freeing up of our hands. The human world we’ve established for ourselves via culture, largely services bipedal posturing and manual dexterity. Everything from cooking, eating, operating machinery (and we have a lot of machinery), to creating art, the design of clothes, and architecture has been thought out according to this freehand/bipedal norm.
Of course, some of us may lose this ability or were born without the use of our legs or without legs at all--But for those of us born with usable legs that remain so, we seldom learn to walk and then decide ‘nah, babies had it right’ and live out the rest of our lives crawling like infants. And even if you chose this, we could all see how much more difficult it would be to get around this way--Those of us with limited mobility already experience this marginalization of access, because society doesn’t always consider non-bipedal, non-dextrous alternatives.
Society’s current set up for walking on two legs gets you farther. As babies, as soon as we’re introduced to bipedal walking and we get the hang of it, we literally run with it. It’s convenient, faster than crawling and we can grab stuff (and if you’ve ever been around babies you know their two main philosophies are 'grab it' and 'eat it'). Before babies even understand what a choice is, they choose bipedal walking as their preferred mode of self-transit.
Initially, the ‘choice’ isn’t made because it’s who we need to become; as babies we wouldn’t understand that and yet when presented with the option, we explore it. As babies we try it and see where it goes; where this bipedal business takes us, and by doing so, we receive a first lesson: who we can be depends on what we can do. And like walking, anything worth doing or personally worth being, requires steps. Because more often than not, beyond just experience, life also requires participation and transformation. French philosopher Jean Paul Sartre stressed, as a tenet of existentialism, that ‘existence precedes essence’--In other words, essence (identity) is filled in later, first one must exist. One is a blank slate which over time, transforms into a vessel carrying an essence which sets them apart. So sometimes ‘being you’ involves the capacity to become a newer you in order to participate and experience more of the things you can imagine yourself participating and experiencing (the grab and eat philosophy for adults).
There is no uniform answer to what it is you must individually become because there are so many ways of living. Societies change, and more specifically, they change largely due to individuals challenging the established ways of living to make room for more options. This is why Sartre did not believe in a singular objective ‘meaning of life’ and instead posited that we create our own meaning, through the human (often creative) projects we undertake to find our individual purpose.
But I suppose, if there is one constant, it is that if you wish for a way of life, whether it’s a societal option already available or not, then there is a you that you must become in order to live that option. You can refuse it and be dissatisfied. You won’t be any less the experiencer of your life but you will have limited your parameters for participation by declining to transform yourself and by extension, the world around you. Some among us who are, for one reason or another, not bipedal, attempt to influence the world around them in order to further participate within it. To raise awareness of the limitations imposed upon them by bipedal norms. I believe this is their right as members of our collective society who challenge it for inclusion. And outside the analogy, I likewise believe this is the right of us all who are required to transform ourselves to fit society. Because I also believe society must remain open to likewise transform for us, when who we personally need to become in order to participate within it, isn’t already on the menu.
Remember, societies are made up of individuals collected together. It can feel imposing during times when a majority says left and you want to go right, or vice versa but remembering you need things from others just as much as they need things from you, helps you level out the dynamic.
On his debut album, Black on Both Sides, artist Yasiin Bey (previously known as Mos Def) opens the record commenting on the state of Hip-Hop. Joking that people ask him about the state of Hip-Hop as if it were a giant living on the hillside, who sometimes comes down to visit the town people. Yasiin clarifies that Hip-Hop is the town people. What they go through, Hip-Hop goes through--What they need, Hip-Hop needs. Society is no different. You owe society only because you are society, and so conversely society also owes you. It goes both ways.
At its most confident, society knows the value of its individuals who agree to care for one another, hold space for their differences, and embrace their collective multiplicity. When everyone is indeed cared for, few would question what society requires them to become because society would encourage you to become whoever you personally need to be in order to accept the continuation of society. It would say, “figure yourself out my dude, and we’ll learn how to work with that!” Because without individuals, societies would only exist as an idea in the mind, and not for long without culture. In reality, society needs bodies; participators. And if ever society forgets, there’s your bargaining chip.