Individualism Impacted From Literary Studies

by Jamie Budhram, October 28, 2022

As I sit under the trees on a New York City park bench, I am reminded of The Zoo Story, in which two men from different walks of life relate to each other’s struggles that are rooted in their developed society. I feel connected to the idea of the unknown creating loneliness. As I watch people from all different cultures and backgrounds pass by, I realize I know nothing about each person, nor do they know me. Yet, that is the way we begin to understand the unknown: by placing a persona onto others. Based on our ignorance, it’s clear that as citizens we decide who is important to us and who isn’t, which is determined by our actions. 

However, I would argue it is not entirely our ignorance, but rather the shallowness of our individualism. Individualism is defined as a social or cultural tradition or personal outlook that emphasizes the individual and his or her rights, independence, and relationships with other individuals (“APA Dictionary of Psychology”). Emphasizing individual rights can be seen as shallowness, as being shallow means lacking emotion and consideration, even though it ultimately strengthens individual purpose and ambition. Without individualism, a person defines their contributions to society, as well as themselves, from an open-minded perspective. 

To fully answer the question of the factors that impact our individualism, I sit and watch people walk by. Society affects our individualism because it pertains to not only yourself but to unknown people as well. W.E.B. Du Bois argues about the actions of the South where Black Americans were to never be leaders, but should instead work to give to others, and for those who ever strive to be leaders, they should be supported by their communities (Du Bois 62-63). I see those who live for themselves and those who live for others, with everyone having different beliefs, thoughts, and feelings that affect the way they perceive themselves. Watching a white man dressed in a suit and designer jewelry creates a feeling of inferiority that either triggers motivations for success or dispirited thoughts of failure. Now I see a person or similar race and it seems to be an inspiration. Is it not human nature to be utterly selfish? Then why do I feel a sense of empowerment from seeing someone from my background succeeding in something? This phenomenon exists within society, where the feeling of being inspired by someone similar to you leads to believing that the prospect of success is real for those like you. Du Bois discusses the feeling of disempowerment from seeing success in others because it seems that if others have so much success, then there is barely any success “left” for other individuals, and that is why we feel disempowered (Du Bois 101-103). Society lives in a way in which it functions to empower the individual, but it is the way we perceive each other that makes it difficult to wake up the next morning and challenge our abilities, since some people have so much more success than others. 

I get up from the bench and decide to walk in the crowd of people, but it feels fast and uneasy as if I am no longer walking but rather observing. Thich Nhat Hanh, a Buddhist monk, describes such a feeling in his book, How to Walk, making me question how uneasiness affects the way I feel about the places I enter. As I walk into Stephen A. Schwarzman Library with the year of establishment, 1967, in very visible and bright writing, I envision what it looked like for the people who designed and built this place with each step. After viewing all the men, women, and children passing by the library, I start to question how they would describe their experiences here. Ultimately, everything I have written is from a male’s perspective, which Virginia Woolf discusses with her understanding of the way history is taught (Woolf 119-120). Everything I have learned and what I am currently writing creates an image and thought that only I can truly understand. Even by describing the intricate designs on the ceiling or the fine details of the statues, it would still not be enough to fully immerse the reader the way that a firsthand experience would. This is because history, as it is written with every moment in time, tries to replicate the experience, but does so unsuccessfully. It has been said for centuries by figures such as Winston Churchill, George Santayana, and Edmund Burke that those who do not acknowledge history are doomed to repeat it, and thus there is a stigma that history should never be repeated. However, we push people to learn from their mistakes, so why treat history differently? The reason why past experiences are never replicated seems to be that we shun history. This shunning begs the question: is it possible that the truth we shun about history isn’t so true? We all want what we have learned to be the truth, but what if it is not? What if something taught for centuries starts crumbling down when a new “truth” arises? That’s how history wants people stuck; it gives a confirmed answer to everything so others do not question or move away from it. According to the U.S. Historian Henry Glassie, “history is not the past but a map of the past, drawn from a particular point of view, to be useful to the modern traveler.” This attitude affects the way we look at the whole world. For instance, America is known for its dark history, yet there is a strong sense of nationalism that disregards what used to exist. Whether it be for a woman, a Black American, or any group of individuals who have been oppressed by America, there is continuous forgetfulness for those who have suffered. There’s no truth in history, only perspective. In Japan, for example, the government does not acknowledge the Nanjing Massacre and the murder of thousands of Chinese citizens by neglecting to include it in their history textbooks. In this case, their perspective– or their truth– exists differently from what others believe, whether it be just or unjust. No one can truly understand unless they have lived through the Massacre. Now when I walk, I understand that I am in control of history, but some may have different perspectives and versions. 

A person’s ancestry affects their present-day self. Growing up Indo-Guyanese in America caused somewhat of an identity crisis within me. We leave a place that was once called home to live in American society and form new habits that revolve around the new culture. In both countries, I am asked where I am from. Where do I truly belong if no one knows where I belong? What is my community? The suffering of my ancestors, those tears and anger, make me who I am today. Yet, grasping this suffering is difficult when it’s presented in front of others. In some way, shape, or form, generational trauma exists within everyone, but it isn’t necessarily addressed or educated about. It is similar to Virginia Woolf discussing lesbian relationships within literature, a drastic change from older literature because they were not as direct about the former taboo topic (Woolf 88-89). In the “Book of the Dead,” dating back to ancient Egyptian society, two men in a homosexual relationship hid their relationship until death. It’s clear that in Egyptian culture, such relations were deemed wrong. This demonstrates how literature takes on the role of educating about change and that every individual has the choice to learn from the literature.

Being able to accept your current individual self is made difficult when faced with the fact that in the past, others could not accept themselves. This psychological concept follows practices taught from generations ago to this very day. For example, an atrocious father can place those same habits he knows onto his children, hurting their future children. It can detrimentally impact families and loved ones, but with change, generational trauma can heal. Racial trauma, for example, is connected to all of this by making people of our era want to fight for our rights more desperately. By affecting the person, it can cause an intense amount of distress, isolating themselves despite the fact that they did nothing wrong, but simply because something could have triggered them to feel that way. The task of improving or healing generational trauma isn’t easy, especially when culture is involved. Asian culture, for example, is filled with ideals of toxic masculinity and emotionless discussion with loved ones. That is why there is a constant need, especially for American immigrants, for some type of therapeutic experience. Cultural issues like toxic masculinity, social judgment, and lack of self-awareness, seek to impact generational trauma, ultimately playing a role in why an individual thinks and acts a certain way. With this in mind, expectations come in, through which our loved ones impact the individual when it comes to learning about who they are currently and who they will become. 

Within families, the word expectation means fate. Du Bois argued that Black Americans had to decide whether their lifestyles were going to be based on representing the Black American community or if they would be based on their personal beliefs and thoughts (Du Bois 3-4). This seems to be the same case today. When talking to my peers, there is a clear consensus that the struggles of our immigrant families widdle down our options to being either a doctor or lawyers. Judgment and comparisons with others scare families, especially when it comes to status or money. It puts ceaseless pressure on an individual, with some regret if they did not fulfill that expectation. This is why I believe families look at it as fate. When an individual fails to meet what is expected of them, they are shunned, or if they go onto separate routes, they are ridiculed for having their own thoughts. This goes back to the idea of whether an individual truly lives for themselves or if they live for the validation of others. This continuous cycle of questioning every decision made on its properness seems never-ending. With peers, it seems as if it’s a race to see who will succeed the highest rather than who will be the happiest. This concept of having something that should be wanted into something that is needed affects every individual simply because they want to live as others do. 

That is why I observe and watch. This shallowness that exists from generational trauma, society, history’s perspective on truth, and family and peers, disrupts the continuation of unpacking our individualism. Observing the people of the world is like watching the stars at night; there are millions of unique ones that we look at. We focus on the constellations that enhance the night sky’s beauty and we envision how bright it is all across the world, and simply look up at what exists now.

Works Cited

“APA Dictionary of Psychology.” American Psychological Association, American Psychological Association, 

Du Bois, W. E. B. The Souls of Black Folk: Essays and Sketches. New York, Johnson Reprint Corp, 1968.

Woolf, Virginia. Room of One’s Own. Rupa & Co, 2022.