The Tribune presents a new community column by Ben Gotchel, 'et al.'
Hello, I’m Ben! Welcome to my new column, et al.
I thought it would be best to open this column with a post I’ve written on the ideas surrounding my concept of “et al.” These ideas will help frame the column and give you an idea of what’s ahead. I hope every piece brings something a little different to the table – but what really matters is you.
A large part of et al., you’ll soon find out, is community engagement. It’s easy to wax eloquent about this kind of thing, but I’d like this column to be a healthy mix of investigation and application.
I would love to engage with you in the comments section on the topics I write on. Want me to expound on a point? Disagree with me? Have some thoughts of your own? I would love – emphatic repetition: LOVE – if you took a moment to post a comment. I’ll reply to anyone who does.
I don’t want to use this column as a platform to preach. I don’t take myself seriously enough to imagine that anything I say here is entirely novel or mind-blowing. But I think a lot can be accomplished when dialogue is encouraged and people join me in this exciting exploration.
Everyone’s got something to say – so let’s talk. Welcome to et al. I hope you enjoy it!
“No man is an island, entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main. If a clod be washed away by the sea, Europe is the less: any man’s death diminishes me, because I am involved in mankind, and therefore never send to know for whom the bells tolls; it tolls for thee.” ― John Donne, No Man Is An Island
Et al. is an abbreviation of the Latin loanphrase et alii, meaning and others. It is similar to etc. (meaning and the rest), but whereas etc. applies to things, et al. applies to people. It can be used in citations or bylines, and thus is primarily found in academic papers (for example, ‘written by Benjamin Gotchel, et al.’)
So why should you care? In a sense, every person resembles an academic paper. (Bear with me here.) We’re all, naturally, the main authors of our identities. But no paper is a completely original work. Each is an amalgamation of personal words fleshed out by the studies, statistics, perspectives, and input from other sources. That’s et al.
No matter how much work we invest in ourselves, we all draw from the people we choose to surround ourselves with. I think coming to terms with this can be a powerful thing. Whether it be your friend’s obsession with Scrubs, your teacher’s fascination with Biblical hermeneutics, your mother’s funny laugh, or one of a million other things, we are a conglomerate of contributions coming from every corner of our life experience – human jigsaw puzzles.
How does that change how we see things? Should it? I think so, beginning with the simple acknowledgement that people do influence us. This understanding places a great importance on the company we keep. As much as every teenager hates to admit it, our friends do help define us – the friends we choose should reflect the kind of person we want to be.
More broadly speaking, it should affect the information we choose to consume. The others in our life are not just friends and family, but teachers as well. The books and articles we read, the counsel we seek, and the discussions we join cumulatively affect us to our core.
We all have control over our own intellectual stimulus. Even in grade school and college, where our education is dictated by a structured curriculum, we still have the ability (especially in today’s Information Age, read: internet age) to curate our own experience. It could even be as simple as choosing a good book over your favorite Netflix show, or as thoughtful as being the only one in your friend group who opts for the Intro to Philosophy elective instead of History of Chocolate next semester – though I wouldn’t blame you for choosing the latter.
Acknowledging the significance of these others leads to a greater, richer sense of appreciation. When we realize how much others affect us and also put more thought into who we strive to keep close, we begin to cultivate a greater and deeper appreciation for those people. The manifestation of this appreciation enriches our relationships further and, I believe, we’re better off because of it.
Finally, this understanding should convict us to give more to the relationships we currently have. As the wise J.R.R. Tolkien once said, “All have their worth and each contributes to the worth of the others.” If I am the product of those who surround me, they are in part a product of my own contributions to them. In light of that, I should evaluate the quality of those contributions. A true friendship involves two people who want the best for each other. If I want the best for my friend, I certainly want my contributions to be of a beneficial quality.
I think one of the best examples of human interdependence can be found in the words of Chris McCandless. After escaping a world of shallow materialism and waste, he adopts the traveling moniker ‘Alexander Supertramp’ and gallivants about the country, seeking true fulfillment. His travels bring him to the remote Alaskan wild, where he ultimately passes away. His final diary entry reads: “HAPPINESS ONLY REAL WHEN SHARED.” Perhaps a true understanding of our interdependence not only helps us cultivate our relationships, but also guides us further along the path to a more fulfilling, genuine, and satisfying happiness.
I don’t pretend to have perfected this approach to life. In fact, I probably struggle with it more than the average fella. I’m constantly fighting to keep my introversion and solitary longings from taking too much control (some control is healthy, of course). I’m constantly balancing my inner Supertramp with what makes me human: my dependence on others to thrive. The spirit of et al. is not one that inhabits me with ease or comfort. But I think it’s a worthy investment.
Questions for further pondering:
1. Is it possible to have friends without being influenced by them? Is the phrase "Show me your friends and I'll show you your future" really true?
2. Is community essential to shaping any given individual for the better? What about monasticism, particularly monks who pursue hermitage?
3. Is community befitting of some people more than others (e.g. extroverts vs. introverts)?