Americans are ferocious individualists. We glorify the single, the personal, and the independent. And while there is no “I” in “team,” we don’t seem to care about this. We prefer the pronouns of “me” and “mine” over “us” or “ours.” This has been true of the American psyche from the beginning.
The Founding Fathers were children of the Enlightenment, champions of individual liberty, determined to cast off all traditional forms of hierarchy. Isolated thereafter for a century and a half by massive oceans, America grew up to be more self-centered than other nations, nations forced by geography to interact with multiple neighbors.
For all its benefits, our “rugged individualism” is not without fault. We are motivated by what is best for us personally, not communally. We choose solitude over solidarity. We cling to personal freedom at the expense of the common good. We venerate the single over the social, and would rather compete than cooperate.
This approach to living is completely unheard of outside the West. In Africa and Asia, for example, the individual is only thought to exist inside a larger community. The Nguni Bantu term is “ubuntu,” roughly translated, “I am because WE are.” So foundational is this concept, that in many tribal cultures, a child isn’t considered “alive” until he or she is named and presented to the community.
This turns the Western approach on its head, for we have been arguing about conception and the beginning of life for about five decades. But for five millennia, a greater portion of the world has never questioned it: “You don’t exist until you have a place to belong.” This affirms the obvious fact, that you are not the center of the world, but a small part of it (and if this unsettles you, it says more about your own individualism than the values of another culture).
Opening ourselves to a sort of “community correction,” would be healthy. Humankind (Americans or otherwise) is a relationship-driven species. We thrive, not in isolation, but in affiliation. I’ve often made the anecdotal observation that those with broad, diverse friendships are those with the most welcoming hearts.
It’s not accidental. When you connect with others, especially those who are different than you, it becomes increasingly difficult to hate, marginalize, stigmatize, or besmirch entire groups of people. Stereotypes simply collapse in the face of knowledge and meaningful relationships.
Writing as a person of faith, and as a follower of the Christ who built a longer table instead of higher fences, it is demanded of me to protect human dignity; to reconstruct civility; to work tirelessly to incubate friendships; and to welcome others into healthy, mutually connected community.
As William P. Young says, “Most of our hurts come through relationships – but our healing will come through relationships as well.” As beings made in the image of God, when we help others belong, and we “strengthen the ties that bind” instead of tearing people apart, that’s as Divine an act as is humanly possible.
Photo by Tim Marshall