Two thoughts on the individual vs. the group.
Dougherty: It’s to do with confidence, and that you only build up over time. But what I’ve found, after I turned fifty—I don’t really care what anyone thinks: if I think it’s the right path, I do it anyway.
Al-Khalili: All of us over fifty feel like that.
Dougherty: It’s great, isn’t it? It’s great! I just wish I could have been like that in my twenties, but what the hell.
We were hunting out at the ice edge, and a storm came up; the wind that had started coming out of the north was coming out of the south. Big transverse cracks in the ice were opening up, so we had to break camp and cross forty miles of ice to get back to land really fast. We came to an open lead and it was a lot of water. We were just on snow machines, we didn’t have anything that would float along with us. The approach these guys took was, everybody stood at the ice edge, and everybody said what they knew about this situation, and then everybody did whatever they wanted. There was no consensus, there was no spokesperson that said, “Here’s what we’re going to do.” Everybody was left to behave autonomously. Which is very much a part of the way traditional societies behave. They’re able to combine community and autonomy in a way we just don’t seem to be able to manage; we end up with these grotesque expressions of personal autonomy and these phony communities. So when I told that story in the group, this woman said, that’s so interesting because we’re trained with this idea of fight or flight. She said there’s a third alternative, and that’s gather . And I thought, right. You get together, and talk it through, but don’t make any joint decisions. Everybody does what they’re going to do.
With the inauguration of President Trump, we’ve reached the apotheosis of don’t-give-a-fuck-what-you-thinkism, and I would never recommend more prayer in that church.
But I’m also well-aware of the paralysis that comes from an unrelenting belief in the primacy of communitarianism, especially when practiced without a supporting framework. Collaboration can be great. But if you don’t know how to do it, it can be dreadful and soul-destroying.
In my own (having turned 50) life, I find myself, more often than not, swimming against conventional currents. Sometimes this is because I’m an idiot, sometimes because I’m a weirdo, and sometimes because I can see a better path leading off from the status quo that others cannot.
This is one reason why I’ve never been able to fit into traditional party-politics: the notion of snapping my thoughts and ideas into a rigid ideological grid—in this we believe—seems like it would drain away the most important parts of what makes me me.
I think the notion of gathering might be a way that avoids the worst of both steel-eyed individualism and doe-eyed consensualism: there’s a way to make decisions that requires neither a dictator nor an advisory council.
We gather at the ice edge, share our ideas, and then head out with whatever ad hoc affinity groups might emerge. Or by ourselves.