From Neighborhood to Brotherhood

The Reverend Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. holding hands with University of Notre Dame President Reverend Theodore M. Hesburgh and others at a civil rights rally in Chicago in 1964.

We all long to belong. There is something deep down in the human spirit that connects every single one of us to everyone else. Our instincts are tribal. Hunters hunt in packs and gatherers gather in groups. And everything we do today, we do in teams, units, and organizations. We are better together. So, why do we still believe in the myth of the rugged individualist? We love to be entertained by a hardscrabble hero’s journey and we have all been indoctrinated in the great man theory of history, one hero-worshipping biography at a time — Washington, Jefferson, Hamilton, Lincoln, Teddy, FDR, Ike, JFK, and MLK.

We especially love cheering for a self-reliant individual underdog in a rags-to-riches story. Have you ever heard an American politician tell their origin story in a way that did not make their childhood sound like they were little orphan Annie or worse? “It’s the hard-knock life for us.” We also love the college drop-out entrepreneur who bootstraps himself to become a multi-billionaire out of his parent’s garage. In America, we are inculcated, from a young age, with the idea, “If it is to be, then it is up to me.” We pride ourselves on self-reliance and self-determination and are warned— accepting help or handouts is for the weak. We’re told it’s un-American.

When someone is super successful, we are quick to give all of the credit to the “front man in the band” — the “lead vocalist” with the single name you remember (Elvis, Jimi, Mick, Prince, Madonna, the Boss, Jay-Z, and Beyoncé). We do not leave room in our reverence for providence or even to acknowledge the “band members,” teachers, coaches, mentors, supporters, fans, friends, partners, and family who all had a hand in creating the success of the “rockstar.”

Most of this lone man of courage narrative is bull shit and misogynistic (let’s all admit that a lot of amazing women and their substantial contributions have been left out of his-story). Everything we do, we do in concert with others, and we build on the advancements of our ancestors who came before us. Or as Sir Isaac Newton wrote, “If I have seen further it is by standing on the shoulders of Giants." Every superhero has a trusty sidekick. Every criminal has a partner in crime. Every real-life hero did not do it alone. There is no Microsoft without Gates AND Allen. No Apple without Both Steves — Jobs and Wozniak. It was not Teddy Roosevelt — the Roughrider. It was the Roughriders — plural. MJ did not win 6 NBA Championships by himself. Even in the Marvel Universe, it is not Tony Stark the Avenger. It’s the Avengers. It’s the Guardians of the Galaxy with an s. And in one of the most epic hero’s journeys of all time, it is not Luke Skywalker who single-handedly defeats the Empire. It is Luke, Leah, Han, Chewy, C3PO, the indispensable R2D2, and many more Rebels who do it together.

As you can see, it is not the rugged part in rugged individualism that bothers me. It’s the individualism that is pure crap. In fact, I am all for the bonding that occurs through shared suffering or overcoming a challenging obstacle together. I love going through a good crucible with friends. Nothing builds team cohesion more than having to trust each other fully as you make it through hell and back. In the Marine Corps, in our small teams, we would learn to “revel in the suckiness.” In other words, it is easier to adopt a positive attitude and enjoy yourself in the most austere and miserable circumstances when you are doing it with people you genuinely like and trust. The flipside is that when you are stuck with some self-important, selfish assholes, who you don’t trust, there is no amount of money, perks, or comfort one can provide that can counteract it.

What bothers me is our obsession with individualism that exalts a handful of people up on marble pedestals like Greek gods and puts everyone else in lower classes, way beneath them. Sebastian Junger in his book Tribe: On Homecoming and Belonging, puts his finger directly on the problem I am talking about:

Humans don’t mind hardship, in fact they thrive on it; what they mind is not feeling necessary. Modern society has perfected the art of making people not feel necessary. It’s time for that to end.

Feeling unnecessary is awful. You feel worthless. You feel irrelevant. You feel unseen. It is worse than being actually unnecessary, it is people making you feel unnecessary. Robin Williams’ character in the movie World’s Greatest Dad nails this sentiment:

“I used to think the worst thing in life was to end up all alone. It’s not. The worst thing in life is ending up with people who make you feel all alone.”

So, what leads some people to go out of their way to make other people feel unnecessary? What makes them treat other human beings like cattle? What makes them feel entitled to do that? Money, power, and intellect tend to be highly correlated with this condescending behavior. Eric Hoffer, in his book The True Believer, writes: “Scratch an intellectual, and you find a would-be aristocrat who loathes the sight, the sound and the smell of common folk.” Junger describes this behavior in action, “…contempt is particularly toxic because it assumes a moral superiority in the speaker. Contempt is often directed at people who have been excluded from a group or declared unworthy of its benefits…People who speak with contempt for one another will probably not remain united for long.”

Who is this contempt for? Who is made to feel unnecessary? Often times it’s the lack of recognition for the executive assistant who is breaking her back for some ungrateful high maintenance boss or it’s the janitor who people fail to look in the eyes and say, “hello” or “thank you” to as he’s cleaning up their mess. It is the IT guy who missed dinner with his family to stick around and fix a problem you created, and you didn’t even have the courtesy to apologize and make it up to him. It’s the customer service representative that you go all “Karen” on because you believe you are entitled to something more than everyone else. The people made to feel unnecessary are usually the behind-the-scenes “backbone of the company” people, in any team or organization, who carry a tremendous load and go mostly unsung. Stepping back, Junger sees this at a societal level in America:

The public is often accused of being disconnected from its military, but frankly it’s disconnected from just about everything. Farming, mineral extraction, gas and oil production, bulk cargo transport, logging, fishing, infrastructure construction — all the industries that keep the nation going are mostly unacknowledged by the people who depend on them most.

This disunity is America right now. It is not simply between the “haves” and the “have nots.” It is not between the vaccinated and the unvaccinated. It is not a divide drawn on racial lines. It is not a split between rural and urban America. The big divide is between those who see every American and every person as worthy and those who only see themselves and their people as worthy. Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr. saw this coming decades ago:

Modern man, through his scientific genius, has been able to dwarf distance and place time in chains. Yes, we’ve been able to carve highways through the stratosphere, and our jet planes have compressed into minutes distances that once took weeks and months. And so this is a small world from a geographical point of view. What we are facing today is the fact that through our scientific and technological genius we’ve made of this world a neighborhood. And now through our moral and ethical commitment we must make of it a brotherhood. We must all learn to live together as brothers — or we will all perish together as fools. This is the great issue facing us today. No individual can live alone; no nation can live alone. We are tied together.

We are not alone. We are tied together. We have a choice. We can start acknowledging that everyone matters. Everyone is necessary. Everyone has something to contribute. Everyone is worthy. Everyone is my brother and sister. Or we can choose to believe the lies we were taught to tell ourselves — “I did it.” “I did it alone.” “Only my people matter”. “Only people like me are worthy.” And if you choose the latter, you should know this: you are embracing a cold, heartless, Scrooge-like existence. Even if things are enjoyable for you in this life, we all find out, soon enough, “in the democracy of the dead,” we are all equal.

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