Traditionally, the word individualism was associated with a philosophy that contends that individuals are free, therefore granted with the ability to choose their goals and the path they shall take to meet these goals. Man, by nature, is one. Being coerced into acting according to what a group of men see as a fitting goal goes against the traditional notion of individualism. Social norms under these circumstances are mere suggestions as the individual, and only he is the owner of his destiny. But because men act with their goals in mind, they often discover that living in society while pursuing one’s own goals means cooperating with other individuals who are also pursuing their own agendas. In societies where individualism is king, individuals are more likely to cooperate freely and peacefully, often refusing the coercive hand of a power figure.
Over time, the idea of individualism became infamous, as the capitalism versus communism battle put the ideas of individualism in direct opposition to collectivism.
With the demonization and government-sponsored crackdown on communism after World War II in Western countries like the United States, the privileged intellectual elite became sympathetic to those who, in the words of modern supporters, “stood bravely against” what the United States government often represents to many. This very action, which helped to grow the communist movement, has also created another polarity in American politics, one that pits diluted forms of communism against each other. After all, it’s impossible to contend capitalism as a free market system exists in America today.
In the arts, the individual is sometimes able to break away from these restraints by allowing the artist to seek within one’s self for inspiration. Sometimes, looking within means saying no to coercive elements in one’s own life. Anne Sexton, the American poet and Pulitzer Prize winner, was able to break away from the collective in her work, going as far as refusing to buy into the notion that she owed her family her endurance in the face of excruciating pain.
Seven years before Sexton took her own life, the poet published Live of Die, a collection of poetry written between 1962 and 1966. In the poem “Live,” Sexton begins with the menacing and yet refreshingly honest line:
“Live or die, but don’t poison everything…”
The book, which deals with Sexton’s troubled relationships and her struggle with depression, expresses her views on how life changed — even if subtly — as she was exposed to different circumstances. With a touch of disregard for what was considered fitting for a woman to speak of at the time, Sexton seemed to stand bravely before death, nursing the idea that the person she had become had nothing to do with what others planned for her.
“Even so,” she writes in “Live,” she “kept right on going on, a sort of human statement, lugging myself as if I were a sawed-off body in the trunk.”
Ultimately, Sexton writes, this life might be “something you play” while “wanting to get rid of it.” And yet, “People don’t like to be told that you’re sick,” only to be later “forced to watch you come down with the hammer.” Despite it all, Sexton continues, she’s also a mother who learned that her children make an empress out of her. The gift of life, she continues, is enough to put the poison away and not let any of it stain who she is.
Unlike her ultimate decision to put an end to her life, the poem asks her to live.”Live because of the sun, the dream, the excitable gift,” but only once she’s able to deny the poison.
Only after telling herself she wouldn’t “hang around in my hospital shift, repeating The Black Mass and all of it,” is when she chooses to live. Why? Because you either live or die, but do not poison everything.
Outside of the world of her literature, however, she ultimately decided to put an end to the poison by taking her own life. But only after leaving a message of extreme importance to individualists out there: Your life is yours to shape. Your goals are yours, and the path you take is yours. Do it or don’t, but don’t poison the lives of others in the process.