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The Myth of Individual Survival

By Ek Ong Kaar Kaur

I was talking to a friend of mine, a woman in her 50s, from New York City. “It’s too much living alone,” she confided. “You have to pay for the rent, pay for the car, pay for clothes, food—everything by yourself. You work so hard just to cover it all on your own. I’m tired of living this way.”

My friend is not alone in her frustration. Americans work longer hours than ever. For some, it’s the salaried position that requires 80 hours a week. For others, it’s working two or three low-wage jobs just to make ends meet. But for everyone the commandment is the same: “You must be self-sufficient.” That's the nature of the American spirit, after all. The Lone Ranger, the pioneer, out there pitting his or her wits and skills against nature for survival. We are a fiercely independent people and value our sovereignty above all else. Yet with the increased pace of life in the 21st century, spurred on by ever faster technology, is it reasonable for us to keep "going it alone"? Is "every man for himself" going to keep us happy?

Some Interesting Statistics

In the last 50 years, the United States has seen an erosion in community living. Whereas living in an environment with extended family was common in the 1950's, today very few Americans have the support of anything more than the nuclear family. And even the nuclear family has become an endangered species.

As community consciousness has shrunk in the U.S., our country has also seen an increase in depression and suicide. According to the National Alliance on Mental Health, each year, approximately 2 million adolescents attempt suicide. According to the National Institute of Mental Health, suicide is now the 10th leading cause of death in the United States. Approximately 6.9% of people in the U.S. age 18 or older suffer from depression in any given year.

All of this begs the question: Is there a link among community, feelings of security, and mental health? In our passion to be independent, in our honorable vision that every person has the right to create his or her own destiny, have we gone too far in demanding that we each have to do it alone?

Some Interesting Observations

In the novel The Story of B, author Daniel Quinn talks about tribes and about how humans evolved in tight-knit communities whose survival depended upon the individuals of the tribe working together with a group consciousness. He doesn’t idealize people who lived in tribes, rather, he illustrates how tribes developed their own set of rules to deal with very real human failings. One of the more fascinating points is his observation that among certain tribes that still exist in their traditional environment, the concepts of suicide and depression don't even exist. There is no cultural equivalent between the mental disorders we face in our civilized, modern societies and among people who live with each other and with the Earth in relative peace.

There is a fundamental truth here. Humans existed long before money or jobs were invented. We survived by working together, in common and relatively equitable communities. The agricultural revolution, which slowly took place between 5,000 and 10,000 years ago, created "wealth" in the form of excess food, and we have been wrestling with this experience of wealth ever since.

Whatever else wealth did, it allowed humans to reorganize themselves into different social structures in which security was viewed not as a dependence on the community, per se, but on the accumulation of wealth. This mind­set has reached a new zenith here at the start of the 21st century. Wealth inequality continues to grow in the West. Our society has invented thousands of gadgets that allow one person to do a job it took several people to do 100 years ago. Our cultural psyche believes that all a person needs to survive is enough money to buy these gadgets. We don't equate security with each other anymore.

Yet, as we have become more independent of each other through technology, we've paid a price. Money may take care of our physical needs, but human connection and contact provide a different, perhaps more essential, sense of security. While people can turn to God easily in their own private prayers, they go to the churches, temples, and meditation halls to connect with each other in deeper more meaningful ways.

Community Resurgence?

May we be watching a resurgence in community living now and in the future? Whether it is old-fashioned hippie communes, revamped ashrams, or just plain roommate situations. Living intentionally in a community can ease many of the stresses and pressures that individuals would normally face out there on their own, and community creates new support for individuals:

  1. It's not up to one person to figure out all the answers. In community, everyone's views, experiences, and skills work hand in hand so that success is mutual.
  2. The act of working together provides a tremendous sense of connection, and it's the sense of connection that provides the deepest emotional experience of security.
  3. Community produces more resilience. Individual failure can be devastating. When something doesn't work in a community endeavor, it is much easier to bounce back. In a group, the ability to assess, reorganize, and respond is stronger because there's a larger pool of knowledge, skills, and ideas from which to draw.

While the jury is still out on whether community living can turn society around, it's good to know—at the very least—that we don't have to go it alone.

Ek Ong Kaar Kaur has been a student of Kundalini Yoga for over 20 years. Under the guidance of Yogi Bhajan, she translated Guru Naanak's Japji Sahib. She continues to translate the writings of the Sikh Masters; she writes for different websites, and has one of her own (ekongkaark.com). She loves sharing the wisdom of Sikh Dharma and teaching Kundalini Yoga. Currently she works with Sikhnet.