The Mystery and Paradox of Being an Individual in a Social World

The Mystery and Paradox of Being an Individual in a Social World

I had the privilege today to meet up with a friend, one who I’ve known for a while, yet up until today we’d not had the opportunity to meet in person, so we both made the time and effort to catch up.

We shared in a wholesome conversation, one where we wrestled with the tension and paradoxical challenges that we all experience in a life of; ‘being an individual in a social world[1]. More on this theme soon, first though I’d like to share a little about the conversation itself.

It was a mostly unexpected discussion, not planned other than the time and venue. Much emerged as we sat with each other and there were moments that felt like ‘meeting’ (Buber); where it was just the two of us. This, despite being in a place with many other people. There was little in terms of agenda, so the conversation just flowed.

We found ourselves conversing on many personal topics including; addiction, pain and suicide. I accept these are not topics ordinarily discussed amongst friends, as for many, they are taboo. But this didn’t stop us. Our conversation was more meaningful, honest and deeper than most, while also uplifting, stimulating and enriching.

Afterwards as I reflected on how easy the conversation seemed, I pondered on what made it feel easy. It certainly wasn’t the topics; although ironically maybe it was? One thing I did recognise though was that having little agenda, meant that there were also minimal expectations. Maybe that created a greater chance of just ‘being’ with each other?

This caused me to think back to times where I previously thought I was having similar conversations while working in Safety. Although, comparing the type of conversation I shared in today with those while working in Safety isn’t really possible, because those conversations are typically full (even overflowing) with agenda; around control, fixing, and correcting behaviour.

Thankfully, my conversations have changed in recent years; they are now more regularly focused on the other person, especially when they are the ones who seek out the conversation. It has not always been like this though, as ‘telling’ is a hard habit to, firstly acknowledge, and then break. I regularly fall back into the trap of telling, but thankfully not during this conversation.

This point reminds me of something that Carl Rogers, the founder of ‘person centred therapy’, wrote during a reflection of his own practice in his book On Becoming a Person (1961):

“One brief way of describing the change which has taken place in me is to say that in my early professional years I was asking the question: How can I treat, or cure, or change the person? Now I would phrase the question in this way: How can I provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth?” (p. 32)

This resonates strongly with me; how about you?

Perhaps one of our greatest challenges when working within the context of an organisation, particularly in Safety, is to ‘provide relationships’ with people for their personal growth? How can we do this when the focus is on compliance, conformity and correction? Although, we know that we can’t lose focus on these things completely; can we? It’s challenging.

So, back to the chat with my friend and why I described it as one about the tension of ‘being an individual in a social world‘. Our discussion about addiction and suicide is when this theme surfaced.

It’s not unusual these days for me to talk to people about such topics. What I find surprising though is when people suggest, often simply and quickly, that both suicide and addictions are merely choices that people make, as individuals, and that they should simply stop such thoughts and choices.

It’s as-if people are seen as some simplistic machine that can be fixed and easily controlled. How different would life be if it was that simple? It’s as-if we aren’t influenced by our experiences, environment and a range of other social factors that create a ‘whole’ human being.

If our understanding of people on the other hand is mature, compassionate and allows for individual and social ‘being’, maybe we’d accept that people ‘can’t just simply stop it’? Why do we find it so difficult to allow people to ‘wrestle in the mud’ of their own pain, discomfort and tension? Why do we want to stop them from experiencing real living? Why do we feel the need to fix and control others?

So, what does it mean when we consider ‘being an individual in a social world’?

To begin, I firstly acknowledge that we all need to ‘look after ourselves’. Our (individual) physical and mental health are vital in living. However, we also know it’s important to care for our ‘social health’. We’re social beings after all, so connecting and being with others is a central part of our well-being. We can’t it seems, separate from being as an individual to being in a social world; they must co-exist.

In the chat with my friend, we spoke of what it means to take care of ‘self’, and in particular what this means when experiencing the challenges of addiction. We agreed that in order to not submit to the calling of addiction, an individual requires a level of self-regulation and indeed some focus on self. However ironically, a focus too much on self, rather than relationships, can be detrimental to our health and well-being and maybe even lead to addiction. What did we mean by this?

If we think only, or too much, of ourselves (the individual) then the trajectory may be one of selfishness (what about me?) or at the extreme narcissism (it’s all about me), or perhaps even anxiety (it’s never about me). At the same time, if we give too much of ourselves to others, we can feel de-energised, drained and empty. Is there some magic formula to help us get the right balance between self and others? Maybe, although I doubt it. Instead, I suspect this a tension that we must grapple with as part of living?

So, how may can we better understand these challenges and tension?

I found the thoughts of David G. Benner PhD (2016) useful in wrestling with these questions. In his book, Human Being and Becoming, he recognises the Mystery and Paradox of life:

“To be human is to be suspended between the great polarities of our existence. We are dust and breath, matter and spirit, divine DNA and feet of clay, finite and infinite, insignificant and of inestimable significance, body and self, brain and mind, machine and self-consciousness. None of these can ever be reconciled. To be human is to live with the tension of the paradoxes that we are.”

It is common to refer to this as a mystery. But let us pause for a moment to consider the nature of mystery. From the perspective of the natural sciences, mystery is nothing more than a gap in knowledge. However, the mysteries of personhood are not simply things we don’t yet understand. They reflect dimensions of our human existence that should not be expressed to ever fully yield to rational or scientific analysis. Things like consciousness, the self, imagination, intuition, suffering, birth and death are saturated with questions that must be lived, not answered. They invite us to engage in our humanity more deeply so that we may live our lives more fully and passionately.

The mysteries of personhood – and of life itself – involve tensions between seeming contradictions. Given the binary nature of the default operating system of the human mind, we want to believe that one of this contradiction must be true and the other false.”

Maybe there are no answers, instead just mystery and paradox?

I was grateful for the conversation shared with a friend in a special moment. However, I also appreciate that not all conversations can be like this, as life necessitates us being efficient with our time and not all of our conversations can be ‘meetings’. We simply don’t have the time, particularly in the context of an organisation. When they do occur though, perhaps that’s real living? Maybe I lived today?

I also accept that there are times where an agenda is useful, beneficial and effective. However, perhaps that’s a point we ought to be mindful of; what does a constant focus on efficacy, do to us and our relationships?

Maybe these are some good questions worthy of reflection if we are to; ‘provide a relationship which this person may use for his own personal growth’? Maybe also, it would be helpful in our relationships with others to recognise and reflect on the tension that we experience as being an individual in a very social world?



Robert Sams



Book: Social Sensemaking – Click HERE to Order

[1] Milgram wrote a great book on this topic, see –

Rob Sams
Rob Sams
Rob is an experienced safety and people professional, having worked in a broad range of industries and work environments, including manufacturing, professional services (building and facilities maintenance), healthcare, transport, automotive, sales and marketing. He is a passionate leader who enjoys supporting people and organizations through periods of change. Rob specializes in making the challenges of risk and safety more understandable in the workplace. He uses his substantial skills and formal training in leadership, social psychology of risk and coaching to help organizations understand how to better manage people, risk and performance. Rob builds relationships and "scaffolds" people development and change so that organizations can achieve the meaningful goals they set for themselves. While Rob has specialist knowledge in systems, his passion is in making systems useable for people and organizations. In many ways, Rob is a translator; he interprets the complex language of processes, regulations and legislation into meaningful and practical tasks. Rob uses his knowledge of social psychology to help people and organizations filter the many pressures they are made anxious about by regulators and various media. He is able to bring the many complexities of systems demands down to earth to a relevant and practical level.

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