I’m currently reading Resident Aliens by Stanley Hauerwas and William Willimon, and I’m intrigued about what they have to say about individuality in Chapter 3:
“Modern people usually seek individuality through the severance of restraints and commitments. I’ve got to be me. I must be true to myself. The more we can be free of parents, children, spouses, duties, the more free we will be to ‘be ourselves,’ …Yet, what if our true selves are made from the materials of our communal life? Where is there some ‘self’ which has not been communally created? By cutting back our attachments and commitments, the self shrinks rather than grows.”
It’s not the conventional modern understanding of individuality and freedom. That conventional idea often angers me when I see it in books or movies (or worse, real life). I’m reminded of Julianne Moore’s portrayal of an apathetic housewife in The Hours: she isn’t in an abusive relationship, but she gets stressed out because she can’t bake a damn cake (a symbol for her repressed frustration), and she decides that the only way to truly be herself and be free is to run away from her husband and child. It manipulates the audience into admiring her for breaking free from traditional female roles or something, but it infuriates me—there is no glory in abandoning your child or breaking your vow to a husband. If she’s that unhappy, her family are obligated to help her.
In contrast is Hauerwas and Willimon’s idea that we fulfill our individual potential by investing ourselves in the lives of others. I immediately think of two movies that illustrate this artfully. In Blue, Juliet Binoche, grieving the deaths of her husband and child, attempts to withdraw from the world and cut off all human contact but ultimately finds it impossible—freedom from her grief is found in others rather than away from them. In one of my favorite movies, About a Boy, Hugh Grant is an utterly boring, selfish, unlikable guy who wants no commitments and claims he is “an island.” An awkward adolescent boy adopts him, and he starts to change against his will. There’s a powerful scene where he meets Rachel Weisz at a dinner party and is fascinated with her, then suddenly he realizes that she is going to realize he’s a useless, vapid person and lose all interest in him. She does momentarily, and you don’t blame her, but he starts talking about the boy and his personality suddenly blossoms for the first time in the story.
At first this seems like an odd concept to me. I’m an introvert, and I feel like my individuality flourishes when I’m spending time alone. But the more I think about it, even in the time I spend alone I am taking others with me—so much of who I am is derived from my parents’ examples, the experiences I share with my husband, and even the books I read. Some folks see books as a method for withdrawing from society, but you’re reading something that someone else has written and that many other people have read and thought about. With books, as with art and music, you are in communion with others, even if those people are dead, far away, or fictional.