“I was raised up believing I was somehow unique, like a snowflake distinct among snowflakes, unique in each way you can see. And now after some thinking, I’d say I’d rather be a functioning cog in some great machinery, serving something beyond me.”
People have often told me I am “independent.” I like that. I’ve worn it as a badge of honor, really. I link that word with people who go after and do the things they love, whether or not other people join them. Marching to the beat of your own drummer, as they say. I equate it with freedom, individuality, ambition. Independence has always been something to strive for and celebrate, in my mind, and when anyone has attributed the adjective to me, I’ve never hesitated to say thank you. While I don’t have a tremendous amount to show for my young life thus far, I have always assumed a streak of self-reliance would eventually make that so. To a gangly girl who grew up in a small town with her nose in a book, “independent” was better than “nerdy” and sounded much more likely to take me where I wanted to go.
But as life’s milestones glide on by, I’m beginning to wonder if I’ve placed being unique and independent on an undeserved pedestal. What if seeking to “be my own woman” nurtures an inability to care for, connect, and collaborate with other people? Perhaps the individuality our culture so encourages us to cultivate leaves us powerless to experience an even greater strength and freedom—that of community.
I recently read a commencement speech that Robert Krulwich, host of Radiolab, gave to Berkeley Journalism School’s class of 2011. Like all commencement speakers, he was expected to give advice on how to “make it” in your desired field, how to leave your mark on the world as a journalist (or doctor, or artist, or teacher, or entrepreneur, or whatever it is one would like to be). But his advice was less than expected. Rather than glorify stories of self-made successes, Krulwich espoused “horizontal loyalty”—knowing, valuing, and working with those who share this life with you.
“Think about turning to people you already know, who are your friends, or friends of their friends and making something that makes sense to you together, that is as beautiful or as true as you can make it,” Krulwich said. “The ones you meet now, who will notice you, challenge you, work with you, and watch your back. Maybe they will be your strength.”
Certainly, there is joy to be had in being an individual—in listening to, wearing, pursuing, watching, learning, creating, and standing for what you love and believe in. Conformity that compromises an honest, full life is never worth the security of fitting in. But autonomy can be deceptive; on one extreme, an escape from the complexities of vulnerability, on the other, a path toward selfish gain and promotion. The power of the individual—no matter how strong or creative or intelligent he or she may be—is fruitless if not at some point applied within the power of the collective.
You’re not alone. But more than that, you’re not meant to be alone. We are each bettered by the people around us—our friends, family, spouses, teachers, coaches, coworkers, neighbors, strangers, morning baristas… The list goes on. Let their questions challenge you. Let their answers inspire you. Let their shoulders share the cares that drag you down during the day and wake you up at night. Let them refine and encourage the individual you’ve fought so hard to become. And let them count on you for the same.
This song of the week, “Helplessness Blues”, closes with the refrain “If I had an orchard, I’d work till I’m sore.” I love that image. An orchard has to be tended by a group—by several members content with a shared purpose and committed to the kind of meaningful work that, over time, is rewarding and far-reaching.
Yes, you should be your own person. But then, let’s try being people.
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