The classic question every person will come to ask – who am I, what am I doing here, and how do I fit into the broader fabric of society and the world? I would posit that this question has developed increased relevance in a world of instant access to global communication, multiculturalism, unfettered materialism and a constant effort to sprint forward, leaving those who choose to remain stationary left behind in the dust. With so many toys with which to distract us, questioning our identities and our place in this world hardly ever comes up. Our world is too focused on doing, not being. As our modern world continuously strives to advance and innovate, it behooves us to take a step back and observe some of the unforeseen effects of this advancement. The way we self-identify (or lack thereof) has been one of these side effects and it has caused a fundamental shift in our society and the world.
I grew up in New York City on the island of Manhattan. The majority of my life has been a constant arrow moving upward – always moving towards the next chapter, the next event or the next job. My life had little emphasis on tradition or heritage, little care for identity or meaning. My brother and I went through our childhood enjoying each other’s company and playing games together while experiencing the classic American childhood sheltered from any particularly difficult circumstance. We never seemed to care about who we were or where we came from, our parents never told us much about it anyway. So we focused on our hobbies that defined ourselves and satisfied our cravings for pleasure and fulfillment. We were baseball players, musicians, video game fans, karate fighters, etc. We were surrounded by large, diverse groups of people who were living very similar lives. My brother and I were perfect examples of the new, technologically savvy Millennial urbanite.
Urban environments epitomize the materialist, global, constantly doing nature previously described, and it has increasingly become the norm. Urban dwellers dominate mainstream culture through the Internet and television. They are the ones creating new apps, new technologies and new ways of doing business. However, there is one critical component of city dwelling that is often ignored – living in a big city is lonely. Living in such a densely packed, diverse environment with thousands of people surrounding you makes it extremely difficult to create the social structure that had dominated mainstream lifestyle for centuries before our technological era – the intimate community. Humans crave community, to be part of something larger than themselves. A lack of community creates a feeling of loneliness, and in its place a strong sense of individualism. As I started school at New York University in downtown Manhattan, this described my experience almost exactly. NYU is filled with thousands of individuals doing their own thing, with a big lack of that communal feeling most other campus-based Universities have. I hung out in small friend groups like most people and rarely got involved with school-wide events or programs. There was a constant pressure to achieve and to succeed and to be better and smarter than everyone else. You were deemed as lazy if you weren’t interning during the school year. This created the all-too-familiar feeling of many New Yorkers of being surrounded by millions of people while paradoxically feeling so alone and isolated from everyone else. It is as if you are in your own little world where no one understands you or your problems, where no one is there to catch you when you’re falling down, no support to lean on when you feel the most vulnerable. Strangely enough, sharing these feelings of loneliness and lack of community would be a very common way I would bond with my friends.
Urban environments promote individualism and subsequently loneliness, but what is individualism exactly? It is the foundational idea of seeing oneself as an individual, completely independent from others and attached to no particular group or ideology. Individualists answer to no one, and are responsible for no one, they just wish for everyone to have equal opportunities for life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness. They feel little attachment to any particular nation or group of people. They are human beings first and foremost, and for a distant second, they are American/French/British/Christian/Jewish/White/Black, etc. They would generally define themselves by their interests or hobbies, not by any particularly foundational identity. Their experience in multicultural environments has blinded them to differences based on race, religion, nation or ethnicity, rather viewing the large swaths of people in their city as just a sea of human beings, of individuals going about their private business. Everyone at their core is the same. Superficially, this seems to create beautiful tolerant environments of many different kinds of people from all walks of life coexisting in a seeming utopia. A look beneath the surface allows you to see a glaring weakness in this utopia.
Up until my last year of University before I traveled to Israel for the first time, the concept of individualism as I described above precisely described myself. I picture individualism as an empty vessel. There is an empty vessel and that vessel is a human being. You can fill this vessel with external things that derive from the physical world – hobbies, accomplishments, foods you like, places you’ve traveled, experiences you’ve had, etc. This filled vessel becomes the way you identify yourself, and can seemingly change fluidly based on your interests at the time. Contrast this with group identity or collectivism, which I picture as the foundational root of a tree implanted in the ground. The root doesn’t budge, doesn’t change, it is firmly implanted. From the root grows a complete person, with unique life experiences, hobbies, interests and accomplishments that differentiates him/herself from other roots. Instead of filling an empty vessel, the person grows out of an ingrained identity. This is how I felt myself change before and after I found my foundational root. Before that trip to Israel, I was just filling myself up with all of these external things, that in the end didn’t really matter that much. It felt just a little superfluous, meaningless and stagnant. The trip helped me see the importance of who I really was as a Jew and the importance of our heritage and tradition, and I didn’t want it to be lost into the melting pot of America. This experience became a platform that propelled me into an exploration of the foundational values of my tradition and gave me a permanent sense of who I was. I felt reinvigorated and excited, and if a bit cliché, born again.
I would like to discuss several effects of these two ways of viewing life. The empty vessel, while creating a tolerant society, paradoxically destroys the diversity it seemingly values and tolerates so much. We see this in America, where so many different cultures and people’s from all over the world have settled, only to have their unique traditions and identities scrapped and replaced with a broader American one. English, Spanish, German, Scandinavian, Polish, Italian and many more have come and settled in America, only to have their original cultures all but disappear within a few generations. The empty vessel craves externalities, which causes people to lose value in their heritage and foundational identity. It promotes a sense of sameness, because at our core, we’re all just empty vessels, no different from anyone else! Filling yourself with external things and being obsessed with doing and constantly moving forward distracts you to not care about things that are truly important and permanent – you and your family’s identity and foundational bedrock. A couple generations of this and your children will care even less than you and eventually you see diversity destroyed, and cultures distinguished. In my personal experience as a child of a first generation immigrant, my family has already chosen to forget about their heritage and has assimilated almost completely into America. None of my cousins in my generation speak Farsi or Aramaic at all (we are from a part of Kurdish Iran that speaks Aramaic and Farsi), have little attachment to their tradition and heritage separate from being American, and most likely will not pass down any of those distinct traditions to their children. Suddenly, within 2 generations, our rich heritage is all but a distant memory. In addition, with the empty vessel, I believe it makes people not joyful and fulfilled in life. There is an existential emptiness that arises from solely being an individual – you are not part of anything bigger than yourself and your desires. There is a complete lack of deeper meaning, as everything is done for your short-term happiness, not long-term fulfillment. In our modern age, people are the most depressed, unconfident and unsatisfied than they ever have been in history, even when our lives are by far much safer, leisurely and efficient. I don’t believe the rise of individualism and these measured social trends are by accident.
On the other hand, collectivism and group identity has a major flaw as well. Practically all of human history minus the past 100 or so years has seen communities and nations that are deeply homogenous and deeply tribal. Group identity plays with human nature’s tendency for tribalism and “other-ing” – labeling those outside of your group as different and scary. This creates intolerant societies with an obsession with fighting over resources, conflict and bloodshed. The rise of individualism has allowed us to experience the overwhelmingly safest part of human history.
So on one side, you have the slow dismantling of diversity, and on the other you have diversity causing conflict and war. The key is to balance both sides, and I believe this is the precise reason I felt I needed to come to Israel and be a peace builder – to attempt to strike this balance where I felt it needed it the most. The balance involves holding true to your identity and why it is important for you to be a distinct person that is different from others and who has useful, unique talents and perspectives others don’t have. This gives you the motivation, purpose and fulfillment of the collectivist side. At the same time, you need to use your own passion for your identity to realize that others have the exact same passion for their identity as you do yours – and it would be a shame and unjust if you ever negatively impacted their expression of themselves in any way. I believe this is the only way to bring in the tolerance and acceptance of the individualist side. I believe the failure of this balance is a root cause for many conflicts and creates people unwilling to see the humanity in others and numbs our natural propensity for empathy towards our fellow human being. After a long journey of self-growth, I came to Israel to do my part in helping people realize this balance of individualism and group identity, and to hopefully create more fulfilled and loving individuals, families, communities, nations and perhaps spread it to the world.