The American motto is: respect life and right. At the same time, however, a necessary individualism is the groundwork for our society. First and foremost comes the individual, second the family, third the communities-at-large. I don’t decry this structure as a political and governmental necessity in our country, but I do decry it as a methodology of living for human beings.
It occurred to me today as I was speaking with a friend about beliefs, politics, alcohol, etc., that we are trained from birth to respect others. A noble goal, indeed, and yet, not enough. Some might say that it is difficult enough for our society to maintain basic respect (N.B.: civil rights, affirmative action, immigration, etc.). Why try to reach for the ideal when we can barely maintain the decent? There’s truth to this. At the same time, it’s worth saying that those who settle for respect have lost the point of our humanity.
If we are innately social creatures–which I have noted many times–then we are innately guided by a desire for community with others. Respect for the interests/beliefs/opinions of others gets us halfway to our goal of community. Have we ever stepped back to realize that what coheres American society is law, governance, and a Constitution? Most of us have a hard time defining our nationality and our nation, except to say there is freedom in this country. Freedom, ironically, to remain distinct beings. Truly, humans are not merely clones of each other, and cannot pretend to be, but neither can we assume that we function equally well alone as we do in community. Our innate human sense, which grounds our existence long before government does, propels us toward each other.
Respect, taking us halfway to relationship with others, is really a false positive. It recognizes difference, agrees that difference can and should occur, and goes back to its origin–the individual. If we wanted, our government would allow us to live with limited human involvement. It may be our right, but is it our grounding human nature?
Instead of respect, we should attempt a deep understanding. Community and cohesion happens when we can simultaneously acknowledge and love our unique person, while at the same time challenging ourselves to live with and through the lives of others. Can true empathy be found without this? Or is empathy merely mandated by law? Which would we prefer? I know there isn’t one person who would choose law above nature.
Our first response to this deep effort at understanding might be: what’s the advantage for us? If you ask this question, then you haven’t recognized the interrelationality of creation, of its inner-dependence, and of its communal functioning. Do we progress as individuals? Are we happy because of only ourselves? Do we achieve good alone? Even with the great minds of humanity, it took the recognition and practice of others to apply great thoughts, dreams, and beliefs. We are one, if we are many.
I am always guilty of narcissism. It’s not wanton, and it’s not egotistical, but it is a constant and unfailing concern for me. How will I survive? What jobs will I get? Who will my friends my be? Who will be my boyfriend? Will he love me? It’s part human nature to care for oneself. When, however, “I” is placed at the top of our list of important people, our priorities have been scrambled. “I” should not be at the top of any list, and frankly, there shouldn’t be a list to begin with. Creation is innately community; community has no hierarchy.
I know this reiterates much of what I’ve written already, either indirectly or directly. Still, it strikes me in new and different ways everyday. And, I feel, it must be continually addressed, or else we risk idolizing law, debasing nature, and turning our existence upside down. Why on earth would we deny ourselves our social nature? What benefit does it offer?
I know no satisfying answer.