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Sunday, January 1, 2017

Rule of the Pack


The family dog pack - they know without question where they are happiest

When I was in my 20's and 30's I wanted to remain single forever.  I wanted to ski, travel, and never to be stuck on a fixed schedule.  I wanted to be Peter Pan - an individual forever young and free.  But then the option arose - did I also want the benefits of marriage?  I chose to sacrifice individual freedom to create a family.  And so the pack was born.

Once married I took it seriously.  The family pack was my new identity - 'through sickness, and in health, till death do us part'.  I made individual sacrifices to keep the pack together.

I've been thinking about the role of the individual versus the good of the group a lot lately because in the end the marriage did fail. What is the role of individual the within a group?  Are we like ants in a colony or more like great white sharks roaming the ocean as individuals?

In biology class I learned about biological fitness and that natural selection acts on the individual.  It is the individual who passes on his/her genes through their offspring.  And yet an individual benefits as a member of a group.  He/she is more likely to reproduce as a member of a group. And it is important to add here that my marriage did not fail biologically - I do have 2 wonderful children.

Humans evolved as pack animals.  For millions of years our ancestors wandered across the landscape as a pack in search of food.  In that world an individual human on their own did not stand a chance - he/she would not survive to maturity and pass on their genes.  The individual had to be a member of a pack to survive.  The pack took care of you when you were sick or injured, protected the gravid females and infants, and most importantly acted as a store of knowledge on exactly how to survive in a particular landscape.  Another word for this 'store of knowledge' is culture.

Life as an individual within a pack was not always pretty.  Genetic evidence suggests that incest was rampant in the Pleistocene. Beatings were a fact of life. Yet there was no choice but to remain within the pack.

It is only in the last 10,000 years that humans have begun to have viable choices as individuals.  And really only very recently - in the last 250 years or so, as members of industrial societies, that some humans have begun to view themselves more as an individual than as a member of a group (Vive Liberte, Egalite, Fraternite!).  And even today all around the world the vast majority of humans still view their status within a group or family as more important than their individuality.

Of course in 21rst century America the individual reigns supreme.  Life has become all about personal choices and achieving personal happiness.  We see this as a human right (what ever happened to Fraternite?).  Everybody uses social media to show everybody else what they are up to as individuals. What no one seems to realize is that this is a very weird and completely new concept, and I am not even sure if it is leading individuals to greater personal happiness.  I think that as Americans we have sacrificed the good of the group for that of the individual.

So to get back to where I started in this essay - on marriage.  Is the marital bond even the same as a tribal bond?  There is a difference, but I would argue that there is still the same dynamic between the role of the individual versus the good of the group.  On the one hand what does it mean to be 'selfish', and, on the other what does it mean to sacrifice your individuality to that of the group?  And is there a happy medium? Is there an obligation to support the pack?

I would argue that as a member of a group or family you are forced to make sacrifices that absolutely effect your personal happiness.  And yet, as a member of a group or family you tend to be more happy over the longer haul.  There may not be the individual highs, but neither are there the individual lows.  When times are hard the pack takes care of its own. And just to be a member of a group confers a subtle sense of pride - a sense of 'being' that all on its own brings a feeling of individual satisfaction and, dare I say it, happiness.

So where does happiness lie? Is it better to totally subsume your individuality and live like an ant within a colony?  After all, they do say that ignorance is bliss.  Or are we better off as an individual swimming like a shark through the ocean?

I really do not know the exact answer to this question. I do know that sometimes it is hard to sacrifice some happiness for the good of the pack. But I also know that I am better off making such sacrifices because a happier group means happier individuals within that group, and over the long haul a happier me.

Clearly someone is better off leaving a relationship if they are getting abused, and more freedom can mean a happier individual.  And yet, I believe that we as Americans are not making enough personal sacrifices for the good of our families and communities. Rather than concentrating on short term personal needs perhaps we should be persevering and making longer term sacrifices for the good of the pack.

Patrick

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