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Rise of the Individual

By Sander Biehn | Nov 23, 2013

It’s 18,000 years ago and a man with tallow torch and leather bags full of ground powders enters a limestone cave on the sweeping cliffs of Northern Spain. No one has  asked him to do this, he just decides to go. His heart beats wildly in the dark. He plunges deep into the abyss alone and away from his tribe. He waves his torch to a rock wall and stares at beautiful curves of worn limestone.  He is inspired.  Using his powders and hands he paints the lines of a bison on the undulating cave wall. No one knows the meaning of these pictures, but we must assume that once the beauty of these images were seen by others, many tribesmen and  tribeswomen gathered their courage and went into the darkness to admire the paintings by torchlight.

Time goes by and now it is 1879.  This is the year  these caves are rediscovered by people.  The press is abuzz at the find. No one can believe it. The artwork of the long dead man is an overnight sensation again. In fact, the art in the caves inspires a return to simple line and undulating form in Spanish art. Two men who must have been inspired by these newly unearthed pictures are the great Spanish masters Pablo Picasso and the architect Antoni Gaudi, born  in the years surrounding the re-discovery.  Think of it. The great masters of painting and architecture in the 20th century touched by a human hand from 18,000 years ago. In a way, this artist from the distant past began a movement in early 20th century Spain.  And this Spanish artistic movement later sweeps across all of western culture.  It inspires much of the simple form we see not only in art, but technology, architecture and fashion in our era.

Remember, this artistic movement all began with the work of one person. A person who wasn’t afraid to enter a cave to express himself and to leave that self-expression as a gift to us all.

Let’s contrast that now with Maude.

Maude is living outside the city of Durham and the year is now 1134. This is one year after the completion of the famous Gothic cathedral of that northern English city. The structure dominates Maude’s view as she walks toward the city with her wares for market day. It fills her with wonder. Once in the city walls  she carefully admires the structure, its simplicity, its form. But she has no time to consider it more. She is obligated to sell her wares. Obligated to her husband to whom she is chattel–little more than property.  Her husband is a serf and therefore their house, possessions, even  the clothes on their back belong to a landlord. Furthermore, she is beholden to the church that built this mighty cathedral and the government that runs the city and controls trade.  Never mind that her brain spins with fantastical new buildings and technologies to gain more height and breadth in the soring spires. She will never share her ideas with anyone, because she can’t. Her ideas simply don’t count in 1134.

It will take another 860 years for an average person like Maude to be truly free. To be the individual she was born to be,  beholden to no one and purely who she is.  Wars and iniquities will be fought against government, a power hungry Catholic church and even within society itself to win this freedom…

…and yet as we look around our society and culture today we constantly seem to be running for the shadows of the dark ages of the individual.  Claiming ourselves to others: US Citizens, Democrats or Republicans, Graduates of this or that university or employees of this or that company.  We toss away what Maude could only dream of. We kick to the side our own potential to affect the world like that cave painter. Why?

Well Ken  Schenck the Dean of Indiana Weselyean summed it up like this:

“The default human sense of identity would thus seem to be group-oriented. That is to say, humans by nature tend to identify themselves more in terms of the groups to which they belong than by some identity they as individuals self-determine…”

And maybe that is ok. Maybe that is just fine. But let’s return to that fellow in Spain 18,000 years ago. Or let’s think about Maude. What would have happened if she had set her ideas on to paper? Don’t these two sound a lot like other people we know by name? Famous people from history: Michaelangelo, Da Vinci, Madam Curie, and Harriet Tubman. These are people who risked everything to be who they were and to bring us all further along. To help us all be more than we thought we could be? These people were heroes!

The world needs more heroes. A lot more, by the look of things. Water, food, and energy shortages; overpopulation and climate change all threaten our very existence on this planet.  Meanwhile, each day people are marginalized, children are ignored and ignorance is tolerated.

In fact, the world demands that we all be heroes. The world needs you. Not just your hands or ability to work a machine or write a report for a comfortable corporate salary. The world needs the entire ‘you’. Your creative thoughts, your courage and your full potential. Ask yourself if you are really giving all you have to everything you do? To your time at work, on the weekends, in the evenings?  Are you exercising all of your creativity and living out your most inner dreams?

The good news is that we are in a unique point in time to take advantage of everyone’s gifts. No other time in civilization have we been so unfettered from group-oriented baggage. We are no longer suppressed because of or by race, sex, religion or government…at least in comparison to our friend Maude!

You were born an  individual and there is a huge responsibility that comes with your individuality. That responsibility is, ironically, sharing who you are with the world. And at no other time has that been so possible.

I consult with companies each day who worry about what will happen if they allow their employees a free and open voice in social media. Sometimes, it seems dangerous to allow people to speak their minds. I reassure them that I have found that when you free an individual’s voice you get better work and more good ideas not less. Companies are literally drying up from lack of innovation these days in America. Yet the key to letting innovation flow like a torrent has never been so available, especially using social media channels.

But, believe it or not, the biggest challenge with opening the floodgates of individuality is convincing people to be themselves and share that self with others. Many feel that individuality is private and something they only share with close friends and on weekend.  Or they feel they only want to present this side of themselves if there is obvious gain, be it financial or otherwise.

Fillipppo Brunellschi was a Florentine jeweler who lived 15th century. He owned a small shop. He wasn’t very important.  Brunelleschi had no experience as an architect, but had an idea on how to build a dome larger than had ever been attempted before.  He had watched the walls of a massive cathedral rise in his city with no technology present in the world to cover it.  It remained uncovered for many years waiting for technology to build the dome. But Brunellschi dreamed of patterns. Brick patterns that would enable masonry to climb higher than it had ever risen in the past. He could not hold his peace and he spent years convincing local officials to let him try.  Eventually, when no other plausible plans had come forward, they relented and let him build his dome.  The final product was magnificent.  He had no way of knowing if his ideas would work and therefore if he would even get paid for the job. But he wasn’t afraid to try.  He wasn’t afraid to lend his ideas and give his entire self to the greatest problems of his day.  He stood before his city, his world, with few credentials, offering all that he was, all that he had.

I am asking a very small thing of you. I am not asking you to be anything more than what you are. But I am suggesting our fear of individuality often leaves far short of the mark of our own potential. Your obligation as an individual and to us all, the rest of your human race, is to not be afraid; to not work solely for financial or personal gain, but to live out the dreams and ideas that fill your brain. I am asking you to release the  fetters of society. You cannot fail.  Most importantly, we need you.

Now, you may not have the  purview to change the course of  human history, but you just never know.

Imagine yourself as part of that Spanish tribe about 18,000 years ago. You are hard at work with your daily duties. The day is nearly over and you just want to go home and be with your family. It has been a difficult day. But something inside you longs to create. You want to paint on the cold hard rocks inside a cave with some new powders you have devised, but you are afraid of what might be in that cave. You are afraid of what others might think.  You go in anyway. As you emerge from the darkness you feel a rush and a satisfaction.

Like that man or woman (we have no way of knowing exactly who painted those walls), we stand prepared and armed to be more than just what is asked of us at work, as a citizen as a husband/wife, father/mother, son/daughter. We stand ready and able to be something far superior and yet simple. We are ready to be ourselves.


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