By Troy Headrick
In my last blog, “Some Musings on the Concept of ‘Normal,’” I had an interesting exchange, in the comments section, with Danielle Davis, a really talented blogger who writes at The Nurse’s Heart. Danielle wrote:
Thank you for the honest perspective. I am personally enjoying this pause in “normal life” and looking forward with hope that our world will NEVER go back to the “normal” before. This virus has taught us so many lessons I just hope enough people across the globe are listening and aware.
I responded with the following:
I have heard so many people say exactly what you just said. I’ve said it and thought it many times myself. One of the cultural battles going on right now is between those who want to push us really hard to think of human beings as these little units of production versus those of us who see that we can express ourselves in many varied ways—not just economically. The former wants us to remain atomized while the latter sees great potential in collective action that is aimed at achieving a common good…
This conversation prompted today’s blog, a speculative piece on why so many people seem to be oddly at peace or even optimistic during this pandemic.
It is hard to make broad generalizations about an entire nation of people, but many have argued that American culture is greatly influenced by what is often called “rugged individualism,” a sense that one finds self-actualization by forging one’s own way alone, in a kind of metaphorical wilderness—think frontiersmen and women—rather than through some attachment to any sort of collective. Such a value romanticizes the outcast and the rebel. The push toward egocentric self-expression is thought to be the way this individual demonstrates that he or she is “free” from the encumbrances of “civilization.” Such a person loses his or “freedom” to the extent he or she has to compromise or cooperate with others, to take their wishes into consideration. Rugged individualism may also be a kind of national character trait in other places too.
Rugged individualism, when taken to an extreme, makes collective action difficult if not impossible. The rugged individualist must, by definition, always champion his or her own preferences over the preferences expressed by any sort of whole.
I think many of us who feel positive about what’s happening right now are at least partly excited by the idea that we can connect with others by subordinating our selfish interests to the interests of others. We stay at home and isolate because it’s a very tangible way to express our respect (and even love) of others. We socially distance and wear masks because we have the health of others in mind. The fact that doing these things is somewhat inconvenient makes the action that much more powerful. We suffer so that others might not. We inconvenience ourselves so that complete strangers might benefit.
In a country that worships the rugged individualist, it is hard to find the opportunity to connect with others, at the societal level, in any sort of meaningful way. Selfishness and ego are lauded in the land of radical individualism. Those of us who feel a kind of inner joy connecting with others through personal sacrifice are engaged in a celebration of altruism and selflessness.
Of course, this collective action aimed at achieving a larger, common good is upsetting the rugged individualists among us. They think our push to think of others first smacks of something akin to “socialism,” and, in a sense, they are right. This, of course, frightens them because we are demonstrating that another way of living is possible. Plus, while we stay at home, we aren’t consuming and aren’t part of the consumer culture.
Ironically, those of us engaged in collective action toward a common good will ultimately safeguard rugged individualists. So, the true hero is not he or she who stands out, but the they that stand together.
I look forward to your comments.
Troy Headrick’s personal blog can be found here.