I love words.
This is a good thing because, as both an avid reader and a writer, I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking about words, studying them, breaking them down, and finding that perfect word that says exactly what I want to say.
Finding that perfect word isn’t always easy because the meanings of words change. Language is as fluid as a river and meanings can change over time or be forgotten and a word is now used to mean one thing when it was, at one time, used to mean the opposite.
Take the word “individual”. I have always believed this word to mean and have used it in my writing to mean: single, separate, distinguishable from others, unique. This is how the word is used almost exclusively today. And, the definition is not wrong: my Webster’s New World Dictionary does offer up “existing as a single, separate thing or being” as the second definition of Individual. And yet, I was reading a teaching by J. Preston Eby where he wrote that Individual meant “not divisible”. I had to look that up and, sure enough, the first definition of Individual is indeed “not divisible; not separable”.
Which is the correct usage? Does the fact that the second definition is used the majority of the time render void the first?
Everything in me revolts against sameness. What do I mean by this? The best fictional example I can think of is in “A Wrinkle in Time” by Madeleine L’Engle where she shows her readers the planet of Camazotz (which, if you’re interested, is the name of a bat god from Mayan mythology) The people of Ms. L’engle’s Camazotz are ruled by a single mind and are forced to be exactly alike, down the the perfect bouncing of balls during play time. Anyone deviating from what IT has decided is the norm is harshly re-educated. On this world, the first definition of Individual is paramount in every negative sense of the word.
I see this pressure towards sameness in the real world. Why? I get that there is safety in numbers but, historically, it’s the odd man or woman out who makes the discovery, solves the equation, writes the novel, and composes the masterpiece. The Individual is important. While I do not claim brilliance for myself, I am aware that I am unique. There is no one like me. There has never been anyone like me. There will never be anyone like me. I am an Individual and I hold as precious my sense of being a unique being. This being so, do I then believe the second definition is more important than the first?
No. I believe both definitions are equally important because, while I fiercely guard my own individuality, I am aware that every other human being on the face of this earth is also an Individual: as unique as I am. I think J. Preston Eby says it best:
“We speak of ourselves as individuals. Someone says, “I am an individual.” By that he means that he is separate from everyone else. We think, “I’m not like other people. I’m me. I’m something different. I’m special. I’m unique. I’m an individual.” The English word “individual,” however, comes from the Latin word individuus meaning indivisible or not divisible. It’s not that which is separate — it’s that which cannot be separated! It means that if I am an individual I am not separate from the rest of humanity. I am simply a unique expression of everything humanity is! It’s not separation from; it’s identification with!”
Identification with. Not separate from. An Individual yet part of an Individuum. How are these two seemingly opposite definitions reconciled in me? How do I live with my certainty of my own value without feeling threatened by the equal value of my fellow beings?
One of my favorite scriptures is Isaiah 30:15 specifically, “in quiet and confidence shall be your strength.” I have meditated on these words and, while there are many nuances of meaning, I am convinced that these two attributes are essential to my living in peace with myself and with everyone else. When I know that I am an Individual-in the words of J. Preston Eby “a unique expression of the word, of the spirit, of the mind, of the substance, of the totality of the being of our heavenly Father”-I find quietness and confidence. There is no turmoil in my spirit because I know how my heavenly Father sees me and I don’t have to compete with anyone nor assert my individuality. Seeing myself as He sees me gives me a confidence that can’t be shaken by anyone or anything so I don’t have to regard my fellow humans with suspicion.
I guess that, ultimately, the word I’m looking for isn’t Individual after all. It’s Identity.