My wife and I recently made a trip to Wisconsin to watch our daughter graduate from college. The college decided this year to divide the class into three groups with separate ceremonies at different times of the day. My daughter drew the morning ceremony.
This abbreviated the commencement considerably. We enjoyed two speakers, a student speaker and an alumnus. Both speakers were engaging and they shared some insights valuable to the graduates – if they were listening.
Following the speakers, the Chancellor spoke briefly. He, too, imparted some words of wisdom to inspire these aspiring new degree holders. Although he spoke only 3 minutes and 33 seconds, something grabbed my attention.
“As Pioneers [school mascot], you have the knowledge, skills and expertise you need to excel in whatever endeavor you pursue, to blaze your own path in life. Have confidence that most of what you need already lies within you, your knowledge, your hard work ethic, your dedication, your desire to make a difference in the world. If there are things you do not know, seek out the answers. In times of struggles, find inner strength to forge ahead. And if you need to, ask for help.”
This exhortation would normally not have sounded any DEFCOM alerts, but in recent years, I have noticed that one of my values is grossly overweight. I take some blame for its obesity, because I have adjusted my diet in its favor. But American culture bears a large portion of blame for stuffing this value with empty carbohydrates.
The Chancellor’s words sound very familiar. The condensed version goes like this: “You are more than adequate, having everything you need to achieve your own success. What you don’t have, you are capable of getting for yourself. The power is within you. But if, by some chance, you get into trouble and maybe, perhaps, by an unusual set of events, you cannot get yourself out of that jam, then, and only then, is it acceptable to ask for help.”
When are we going to figure out that this message grossly slants the odds for success toward the individual? Now, success is built on many qualities and skills that the individual must bring to the table, such as responsibility, initiative, reliability, integrity and others. But who of us would ever claim sole ownership of any achievement we have obtained?
I have never heard an Academy Award winner step to the microphone and say, “I am not going to acknowledge anyone for helping me, because I achieved this all on my own effort.”
The value of individualism dominates American society. It is like the elephant that fills the room so that all other animals must remain outside or risk being crushed by its unruly weight. We all know that interdependence and community are also values, but they are fed the leftovers from the unhealthy meal of individualism – “only when you really, really, really need help.”
Really? I don’t know about you, but I always need help. I was not created to be alone. The Creator did not declare the creation very good until he created a companion for the man. I am an interdependent being, not an independent, self-sufficient solo act. I am designed to contribute to the success of others while they contribute to mine. I have many inadequacies for which others will compensate, if I acknowledge my needs and allow myself to depend on others.
People talk about community, but many of us are deficient in understanding what this value really looks or feels like. If I am honest, I think it mostly describes a social need. We practice community when we get together socially. Nearly everyone recognizes the need for relationship. Even the introvert, who carefully protects her alone time, seeks social connections.
But community runs much deeper and richer than mere social interaction. Community refers to the dependency needs of each person and the complex network of people who meet that array of needs. Each person in that network also relies on the gifts and strengths of a community of people to compensate for his and her deficiencies. The interconnections are exponential.
This precedes the point that most people identify as “really needing help.” Needing help implies injury, calamity, crisis, desperation. These are the times when we look for community. And when we experience interdependence in those times, we discover a vibrant beauty to relationship that brings a new sense of joy and satisfaction. This fullness of life can be enjoyed at all times when community is practiced.
Community, one of those animals outside the room occupied by the elephant, will become a habit only when we learn to quit feeding the elephant. We need to quit listening to the mantra of the culture. We need to acknowledge our needs and deficiencies without shame. We need to find people who provide what we cannot provide for ourselves. We need to find people who have needs that we can meet in them. We must reapportion our value system and admit that we always have and always will need help.
The individual must shrink if the community is to grow.