by Holly Mohr
Individualism gets a bad rap, though our entire society is organized around it. And I get it.
In an increasingly isolated world, where those experiencing poverty are feared or forgotten, both by individuals and systems, our nation, our world, is a demonstrably frightening place. The day-to-day fallout of the pandemic brought basic human needs to the fore that are arguably even more immediate than economics: for many, even touching another human was off limits for (literally) years. Even the introverts among us have longed for human connection with some desperation.
I want to affirm all of that unequivocally. Not only do I want to remember the poor, I want to find and root out the systems that perpetuate poverty. And while I definitely lean toward the “let me go hide in another room and read during this party” kind of person, I too crave human contact, especially the meaningful, intimate, soul-baring kind.
But let’s be honest. I get a little antsy when I start hearing words like “tribe” spoken wistfully. Now, again, I get it. I do love the idea (and the experience!) of a group of people committing to one another, sharing life together, understanding each other, and bearing one another’s burdens (and joys!).
But “tribe” is also closely related to that other word, “tribalism.” Tribalism, the thinking that pits “my people” against “your people” and vows to fight “your people” to the death. The pressure that tells you to stop thinking about whether the fight is right, whether there might be some right on the “other side” too, because “these are your people.”
I’m attracted to books on community, but yeah, I read them alone.
I’m attracted to books about community in the way I was attracted to books on philosophy of the body in grad school, even as having a body at all surprised me at every turn. (When I was in labor with my first child, shortly after that “philosophy of the body” semester, I had a vivid image of my mind crouching in the corner of the room, pleading, promising my body I would never underestimate it again).
And while childbirth, nursing, yoga, running, and beautiful food have all taught me how to really live in my body, I still largely do it as a person who loves to think and feels most natural in her head. I’ve decided I don’t think that’s so bad.
While marriage, motherhood, friendship, and faith have all taught me the necessity, the responsibility, yes, the joy of living in community, I do it, still, as an individual.
I’m not unbiased here. Maybe I’m the wrong one to write about community. The phrase “strength in numbers” was derided in my home of origin as much as blasphemy. And yes, that hurt our family in a lot of ways. We were absolutely an island, with many of the pathologies you might imagine.
Going to college in the countercultural, community-based places I went felt like foreign countries to me. Maybe even different planets. But I think it may be fair to say that college, living in something like intentional communities, is where I learned to love. That’s the pearl of great price, for sure, and something I’ll treasure forever.
But honestly, there’s a lot about the bizarre, ruggedly individual way I was raised that I also treasure. I was raised to think it was normal and right to question, even and especially those in authority. I never learned there was a “right way” to dress, or to be a woman. (This is why I didn’t realize I was being shocking showing up to my tightly-knit Catholic colleges wearing bright red lipstick and saying “fuck” along with my prayers—I didn’t know there were rules on who I was “supposed” to be). I learned to celebrate my gifts and hopes. I was encouraged to seek what was true and spend my energies on what was meaningful. It never occurred to me to follow a leader because someone told me to.
I’ve changed a lot in the ways I relate to people. I was raised to withhold respect from someone until they had “earned it.” I don’t believe in that. But I also don’t believe in respect for certain groups of people over others. I want to respect everyone, literally everyone—part of the ethos of Christianity that I never want to let go of is the conviction that every single person is created in the image of the all-loving Creator, manifester of all Truth and Beauty. Yeah, we can do a shitty job of showing it, yes, it can be hard to treat everyone with respect, especially when you’ve got the streak of snark in you that I do, but yes, that is what I strive for, and that is what I believe.
That’s part of why I lead Montessori-based religious ed programs—I believe in egalitarian spaces where children and adults learn together, subversively respecting one another as equally filled with dignity. I’m into that.
I don’t want to hold people at arm’s length, waiting to see if they’re “worthy” of my love or respect. I want to include everyone, as many as possible, constantly challenging myself to see the beauty they offer that I wouldn’t have access to without them.
But that’s exactly the thing, right? Because the individual does matter. In order to participate in a community that really honors the person, I have to see and honor the individual. Each individual brings something unrepeatable, irreplaceable, to the community.
I’ve thrown off the fetters of “rugged” individualism, but man, I want to celebrate the individual. I believe in agency, in voice, in choosing healthy relationships over the ones someone tells me I’m “supposed” to have. I don’t want my “tribe” battling yours. I am me and I want you to be you.
And yeah, I’d like to think we could be that in community. But seriously, I’m gonna need some alone time to do that well.