Groups and individuals

Getting thatching for a new roof, Ometepe Island

Getting thatching for a new roof, Ometepe Island

There is something odd about me. All my adult life, I have felt considering the group, or community, as a whole is natural, rather than thinking only about myself. I aim to contribute in a way which improves the situation for everyone. I even check my parking to make sure any neighbouring drivers won´t have trouble getting out. I can tell you that this is not a successful strategy in the global North for getting ahead at work!

Not only does it come naturally to me, but I would say thinking about others is normal courtesy. However, I hear and see that this is not what other people do. I have to say I am not claiming some kind of sainthood. In fact, my reason is more like the Golden Rule: it is not logical to be annoyed if someone else does something that blocks me, if I do not ensure I am not somehow blocking others. But our societies generally vaunt the individual clambering over others to get to the top, not taking time to make sure nothing blocks others. Someone recently pushed past me to bound down a path while I was waiting for an older person to negotiate the hill. (Since we were all part of the same visitor group, it brought no advantage to the bounder.)  I had a friend who was a millionare and who would not treat others to even a cup of coffee. But this attitude is part of the capitalist climb: the richest and most successful have not amassed fortunes by letting pennies slip through their fingers!

Of course, I am not the only person I know who sees herself as part of a bigger community with which she stands or falls. Hopefully, as we face challenges of climate change and overuse of natural resources, the fact that the fate of humans depends on our collective action will become more obvious to more people. Humans are, after all, social beings. We form classes, gangs, cultural groups, religions, alumni associations, and professional societies, all mostly because we like to join in larger groups and it is easiest with people with whom we share some values.

Here in Nicaragua, there is frequent mention of family and blood ties. I hear of families taking in nieces and grandchildren to raise, if the parents cannot support them. Communities seem to hang together, especially the intentional collective communities which have survived the past several decades. And people greet each other on the street;  this courtesy extends to all, including white tourists. A man gave his seat on the bus to a grandmother with a grandchild on her lap, and another held my hand to pull me up the stairs of the bus.

Recently, I worried about and supported an older American woman who was slithering across a steep rocky slope in leather slip-ons. However, she felt it was her responsibility to make the choice as to whether she wanted to attempt a rough hill walk with inappropriate shoes. This was an interesting understanding of an activity that was done as part of a group. Her individualism ignored that others had to choose to support her figuratively and literally in going down the hill, and that a few others spent some mental energy planning how to best help should the difficulties in navigating the steep path become something more. To me, it is clear that if she had slipped on this walk, the entire group would have helped – or had their day affected – since there was only one vehicle and we were some distance from the nearest medical assistance. But to her, despite decades of experience in a plethora of different countries, the only responsible person, and the only one imagined to bear any cost of the wrong decision, was herself. This reflects a false sense of independence and individualism.

This false individualism, ignorance of the context of people around, is pervasive in the US and becoming more so in many other countries. I have said that Quakers tend to be able to act in groups (one of the many consequences of a central tenant of ´that of God in everyone´). Decisions are group decisions, ideally following internal leadings. However, an American Quaker told me recently that the heart of Quaker action is individual action, and that even informing other like-minded people was a brake on this individual leading. I would not agree with his perception that the individual alone is the fundmental aspect of  Quakerism: if acting alone were the essence of the religion, people would worship and act only as individuals and there would be no need for people to come together in Meetings. But in fact, people are inherently social; with the focus only on the individual, too many become lonely and isolated. We find it appropriate and pleasurable to share experiences, to check how other people think, and to find companions who share our ideas and values.

In contrast, the life of the artist is often solitary, to be able to create. Creating on one´s own is like feasting on chocolate cake : wonderful but not a healthy diet in the medium or long run. Artists also need to share values, to know what our art is inspiring in others, to learn and be inspired by the social as well as the natural worlds.

Ignoring the social context of one´s life and actions is acting on a unreal perception of separation from others. In fact, if I park too close to another car, there could be inconvenience for others but also possible scratches on both cars when the other driver tries to wiggle into her car. If I pretend that my actions do not affect others, I am living a false reality that leaves me not only isolated but perhaps making decisions which have consequences that I would not intend to inflict on others. Even the artist is a social being, and the sooner the majority of people in the world learn this, the sooner we will be able to take collaborative action that may stop the destruction of the natural world on which our societies rest.

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