In February, a Pew Research survey revealed that, “about two-thirds of Americans (66%) feel worn out by the amount of news there is.” Seven months later and it still feels this way. Between police killings and protests, wildfires and climate change, pandemic deaths and progress, the death of a Supreme Court Justice, and political tensions preluding the 2020 presidential election, only so much emotional energy can be spent. We are finite beings. The question, then, is how do we determine what is a worthy cause to turn our attention to amid such tension, political and otherwise?
This dilemma may be a question that only you can answer. However, one incontrovertible truth we are discovering as a nation, especially during the pandemic, is the limit of our individualism: To what extent should we do what is right for ourselves and only ourselves when we, every day, have to interact with others in a greater community?
This is a question we have wrestled with since the conception of our country.
For example, many American intellectuals who sought to define what it meant to be an American had conflicting ideas of what it meant to be an individual.
Walt Whitman exclaimed in “Song for Myself” that, “I celebrate myself, and sing myself, And what I assume you shall assume”, emphasizing that the individual should be glamorized.
Ralph Waldo Emerson declared in “Self-Reliance” that, “[the importance] to believe your own thought, to believe what is true for you in your private heart”, emphasizing that individuality produces genius.
Henry David Thoreau in Civil Disobedience proclaimed “I think that we should be men first, and subjects afterward…The only obligation which I have a right to assume, is to do at any time what I think right”, emphasizing that we are individuals first in a political system, not arbitrary subjects.
America, as we see, was surely a nation founded upon independence—self. Without the Stamp Act, the burning of the Gaspee, and/or the Boston Tea Party, America would never have been able to establish and distinguish itself, “I”, from Britain, “you”. However, there are limits to how far we can take this mindset. What is a family, if you never speak with family members? What is a class, if you don’t interact with students or the professor? What is a community, if you do not engage with community members?
The common denominator is that to be part of the greater whole, the community, you have to shift your perspective from “self” to “us,” “I” to “we.” There many ways we can practically and individually do this, especially as students. We can be prepared for our classes so that when our professors ask us a question, we can answer. We can actively talk with other students during our breakout groups, addressing each other by name so we know who’s around us. We can even look for extracurricular activities which will not only build our resumes and develop our skills, but allow us to feel part of the greater campus community. Outside of campus, too, we can say hi to our neighbors. Or attend virtual town hall meetings. Or go to church. Or connect with other social forums.
Without consciously changing our perspective from self to us, I to we, we will continue to remain fixated on a self-driven society. While we may feel entertained with the individual expression on Tiktok, or the individual recognition on Facebook, or the individual interaction on Snapchat, we will never fill the hole of what it means to be a greater member of the community. Unless it is actively pursued.