you held me underwater and asked me why I could not breathe


“You held me underwater and asked me why I could not breathe.”

In the United States the concepts of personal responsibility with regard to one’s fate, or destiny, and individualism can be quite toxic. What I mean by that is there is a strong narrative that your success, or failure, is solely in your hands. The consequence of this is all, and I mean all, ‘failures’ or disappointments are placed upon the shoulders of the individual – no matter the circumstance or context conditions. Sure. The backlash to this is “victim mentality,’ but I do wish we would ponder why a victim mentality even exists (because it doesn’t have anything to do with ‘weak’ pandered everyone-gets-a-trophy childhoods). Toxic individualism makes society ignore some really important systemic things.

Which leads me to the title of this piece.

The system, more often than not, is shoving your head underwater. That doesn’t mean it doesn’t let you up for some air on occasion, just that more often than not it holds you underwater and then, uhm, toxic individualism asks you why you can’t breathe. Yeah. That’s the metaphor for the day. So, the system holds you underwater, but you begin thinking not being able to breathe is your fault, your responsibility, and you are accountable for the situations you continuously find yourself in. And before people begin thinking I am suggesting it is always some nefarious existential threat to our survival, what I am going to suggest is that the system itself – society as well as in business – tends to not be set up to offer you pathways to most easily optimize your potential. That is a subtler version of holding you underwater. All that said my guess is (I have no research) that the system and its conditions hold someone underwater far more often than anything an individual does, or doesn’t, do.

Which leads me to how society can hold you underwater.

Let me end with some context – society within which we live. What I mean by this is individualism comes at the expense of collectivism, or let’s say, ‘community awareness.’ While it isn’t always zero sum, there is always a tinge of ‘me’ versus ‘we’ and the tinge becomes a full-on washout when it is toxic individualism. I would also argue that individualism makes us societally, well, stupider. Okay. That was harsh. How about maybe we are not getting stupider, it’s just that our social intellect isn’t optimized, in fact, our intellect gets reduced by individualism. Yeah. Circling back to social intellect, this isn’t just about us, individually, this is about us, collectively. Societies, systems (political & economic), thrive when the social intellect is robust and expansive, not small minded and reductionist. Therefore, any intellectual bargain society’s participants make impacts the effectiveness of not only society, but the systems. And, yeah, individualism demands, on some level, a bargain with the larger collective and community.

Look. I clearly believe in personal responsibility and personal accountability, but I also clearly see how the universe tends to be indifferent to you and the system is often not the fairest of fair. All of those things can be simultaneously true. But maybe most importantly for today is take a minute and wonder why you feel like you are underwater because, well, it may not be you. Someone or something may be holding your head underwater. Ponder.

Written by Bruce