One of the five scales that sociologists use to measure cultural differences is called ‘individuation', which is contrasted with ‘collectivism’. The scale measures where a society falls along the continuum that represents whether the culture is more individual- or group-oriented. In case you haven't heard, the United States is clearly #1 in the world in individuation, followed by Australia, Great Britain, and Canada (rather surprisingly, of all the countries measured, Guatemala sits at the other extreme of the scale). Our position, together with the other Anglo-centric cultures, has some interesting effects . . . and side effects.
Some could argue from the data that (up until very recently, at least) technological and economic progress may be directly related to individual initiative and innovation. In fact, as China's economy becomes ever more market-driven, these are exactly the traits that we're beginning to observe; while, under Chairman Mao, individuality was condemned as shameful. ONe side effect of the economic success won by a culture of individuality would be the rise of competitiveness: the ‘dog eat dog’ world of the aggressive entrepreneur, where success seems to depend on withholding information, not openly committing to courses of action, and avoiding aliances. Competitiveness, rather than cooperation, also seems to be related more to the testosterone set, rather than to the estrogen community.
In contrast to the technological and economic strengths of an individualistic culture, we find corresponding weaknesses in the way these kinds of cultures provide personal and familial support. In many (if not most) cases, family identity is irrelevant, individuals are expected to fend for themselves as much and as soon as possible. A family ‘culture’ (with loyalties, special celebrations and rituals) is either entirely absent or irrelevant. Privacy is critically important. Lasting relationships are difficult to achieve and maintain. Conflict is expected. Divorce is frequent. Does all this sound at all familiar to you?
From your youngest years, the underlying presuppositions of an individualistic culture such as ours molds your expectations of what ‘adult’ life should look like: what's ‘normal', what's ‘unusual', and, most especially, what's ‘abnormal. ’ This means that your North American culture expects that women will express their emotions more easily and readily than men; and, even then, emotional expressions of happiness are considered to be OK, whereas expressions of sadness are discouraged. Again, it's very telling that admissions of vulnerability, particularly among males, are definitely not OK, as is seeking help for personal problems. Boys, after all, don't cry. The cultural assumptions of individuality that so strongly influence your attitudes and behaviors go a long way toward reinforcing gender stereotypes of all kinds.
As a result, on top of the cultural pressure to ‘go it alone', you're also being subjected to peer judgments that see behaviors that may be interpreted as collectivist or cooperative as being not only weak, but ‘unmanly’. Short of having yourself publicly proclaimed ‘emasculated', what's a guy struggling with the midlife tradition to do? After all, you're expected to remain a proud and aloof ‘lone wolf, ’ and, if you stray too far from that stereotype, you'll suffer the consequences. Yet, take a closer look at those consequences, and you'll see that there are even more and possibly worse consequences awaiting you behind a failed midlife transition (what people call the ‘midlife crisis').
Some of the emotions that come with the midlife transition are: sadness, discontent, bitterness, lonliness, isolation, brokenness, discouragement, frustration, exhaustion, self-doubt and even hopelessness. What tools are left to the ‘lone wolf’ to get him out of his emotional rut and into a new perspective on your life? Admittedly, there are few. You could read about it; but few people are writing anything helpful about it (even if you thought reading about it would be a good idea). You could ask your doctor for a prescription for antidepressant to help you with your anxiety and moodiness. Or, you could bury yourself in your work, get irritable and angry at home with your family, play (or watch) a lot of sports, drink too much or do drugs. That's about it for a ‘lone wolf’. Midlife doesn't ‘make’ you into a ‘lone wolf', but being a ‘lone wolf’ at midlife can certainly turn your life into a midlife crisis.
H. Les Brown, MA, CFCC
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Copyright © 2008 H. Les Brown