Something someone said to me last week has been bothering me. At first it was just a prick at the back of my mind, but every day since then something else has occurred to deepen its impact until it has become a gash in my thoughts. I’m officially losing sleep over it.
“No, individualism is the only way. I can go it alone. And so can you. We can be at complete odds but both be right, because it’s all about what’s right for ‘me.’”
“But what about ‘you,’” I asked.
“There is no more ‘you.’ Only ‘me.’”
Now, Gentle Penguin, I may have whined about feeling lonely before, but there are no words to describe how utterly and completely destitute that conversation made me feel.
I understand the point. And I know there are lots of merits to individualism. I myself have always been a fan of individualism—we each have value and should strive to bring it to full fruition. But could it be that we’ve taken it a bit too far?
A few days passed, and among those days a commercial airplane was lost—shot down over a power and land battle. I heard the word “evil” creep back into the vernacular. Somehow, I was uncomfortable with the word.
“Are we allowed to say ‘evil’ anymore?” I asked.
“Why not? Don’t you think the murdering of hundreds of innocent lives—lives in no way connected to the pursuit of the power and land greed that caused it—is an evil act?”
I have to admit that I do.
I trace my illogical discomfort with the word “evil” to a growing suspicion that in our individualities we have lost sight of the fact that we actually aren’t alone. Yes, I said “we.”
Gentle Penguin, have you ever lived with someone else? Shared a room with a sibling or a roommate? Were you ever married or had children? Do you take care of an aging parent or grandparent? Do you have a dog?
Maybe you commute on a train or work in an office or live in a city. Maybe you’ve shopped at a store or driven on a road or voted. Maybe you’ve eaten at a restaurant or gone to the doctor or played a sport.
All these situations involve other people. They make a “we.”
Have you ever noticed that you sometimes adjust your behavior slightly around someone else? Maybe lower your speaking volume or move your oversized purse sitting on the only empty seat at the bar. Maybe you adjust your schedule, or your walking pace, or your path. Maybe you put down the toilet seat or fix several servings of food instead of just one. Maybe you spend an hour playing Fetch or helping with homework.
There are times (especially lately with both my daughters home ALL the time) when I think it would be easier to just let the mess go, to decide I don’t feel like driving my youngest to soccer practice every night, to fix sushi instead of cooking something that suits the three of us, to bypass the daily dog walk in favor of an hour of TV.
But my core is care for the collective good. And I value peace in my home more than my need for individual gratification. I realize I’m odd. But I don’t think I’m that odd.
The need for individual importance (autonomy) is only one of the five core social needs in humanity. Belonging (acceptance or affiliation) is another. Maslow ranks it just above safety. (Incidentally, the other three also have to do with societal structures: appreciation, status and role.)
But to achieve these things, there has to be a “you” in addition to your “me.”
That means there have to be rules. Scientists call them constructs. You might also know them as manners or etiquette.
Now, I know our distrust of governments, corporations, religions, rules and regulations is at an all-time high. And God knows I too find myself questioning and defying all those things from time to time. But as Thomas Jefferson taught us shortly after the birth of our nation, ignoring or defying manners will only tear us apart.
Because no one will understand. And when people don’t understand why you behave the way you do, they usually end up hurt, angry, frustrated, annoyed, irritated…and another link in the chain of humanity is lost.
When you know what to expect and what’s expected of you, you will succeed. Everything else leads to…evil.
So how do we fix this? I doubt I’m going to be selected to share this insight with Putin…or those in the Palestine/Israeli dispute…or to drug lords in Central America…or militants in Iraq…or ivory poachers in Africa…or anywhere else there is great need. I doubt they’d even listen so great is their greed, their anger, and perhaps their need for more basic things (like safety and food, health and protection).
And etiquette sounds so “establishment,” so “snobby.” Not at all like a life-saving, world-changing idea.
But it is.
Thee isn’t a day that goes by in the past few months when I haven’t found evidence for the power of etiquette to bring about hope, peace and joy.
Try it. Perhaps you could hold the door open for some walking with their hands full today. Or say “thank you” when someone does so for you. Perhaps you could look your barista in the eye when you purchase your cup of coffee…and smile. Or understand that the Muslim woman who seems to be sneering at you at the bus stop is really just tired and hungry after a month of Ramadan (it ends in Monday. And if you don’t know what it is, find out from a reputable source—ps. if it sounds hateful and evil, it’s not a reputable source.).
Perhaps you could make an effort to groom a little more carefully knowing that how you appear is a natural way for people to decide how to interact with you. Perhaps you could avoid talking with food in your mouth so that people will listen to you rather than silently ponder the grossness of seeing your mastication.
Perhaps you could let a car merge in front of you as you queue at the light or wait in traffic after work. Perhaps you could take a moment to check your timing so you don’t keep someone else waiting and wondering. Perhaps you could be more aware of how much space you and your cart are taking up in the grocery aisle when someone is trying to pass by. Or ensure you park between the lines in the parking lot so everyone can find a space.
Perhaps you could write a quick note thanking someone for something that made you feel important, and send it in the mail. Or bring a bottle of wine (or flowers) with you when someone invites you to dinner. Or answer the RSVP they sent for an upcoming event and make sure you attend. Or turn your phone on vibrate or silent when in a meeting, at a movie, out to dinner or in the bathroom.
There are a hundred other suggestions I could offer that will—when accumulated—turn the tide toward peace and save the world.
I ask you, please, could we could all try just one or two for the next week? Do it for the families of the lost. You just might find you feeling a bit more hopeful and peaceful too.