Et al. presents: A threefold cord
"A Threefold Cord"
“I have heard of a man lost in the woods and dying of famine and exhaustion at the foot of a tree, whose loneliness was relieved by the grotesque visions with which, owing to bodily weakness, his diseased imagination surrounded him, and which he believed to be real. So also, owing to bodily and mental health and strength, we may be continually cheered by a like but more normal and natural society, and come to know that we are never alone.”
― Henry David Thoreau
Americans revel in their sense of individualism. Depending on oneself is a liberating idea, and it’s a defining element of this country’s culture. And rightly so. There’s nothing wrong with being able to do things on one’s own merit. It’s been empowering to women against the idea that they receive their worth from men. It’s a driving force behind innovative entrepreneurship. It’s the rallying cry of introverts everywhere who would rather do group projects on their own, thank you very much.
Individualism is woven through our country in many valuable ways. In American Individualism, President Herbert Hoover writes that it “is our sort of individualism that has supplied the motivation of America's political, economic, and spiritual institutions in all these years." American culture is inseparable from this spirit.
But have we glorified it at the expense of something else? Individualism is, in a word, the philosophy of "me," and I worry that we've come to believe this is the only philosophy that matters. Society is more than just a collection of individuals in close proximity to each other. Society is a community, a group of people in fellowship with one another.
“Two are better than one,” writes King Solomon in Ecclesiastes, “a threefold cord is not quickly broken.” Paul exhorts us in Galatians to “serve one another” in love. Perhaps most strikingly, in the creation account of Genesis there is only one thing that God finds unsatisfactory: “It is not good that the man should be alone.” Community has been a meaningful part of God’s creation from the very beginning. It’s time to embrace the philosophy of “us.”
Of course, it’s possible to over-adjust. When I first attended public school after ten years of homeschooling, I socialized myself into exhaustion, even requiring the brief services of a counselor to help me sort through my confused emotions. Community is not the only thing that matters.
I think Dietrich Bonhoeffer captures the balance quite well in his book Life Together: “Let him who cannot be alone beware of community... Let him who is not in community beware of being alone... Each by itself has profound perils and pitfalls. One who wants fellowship without solitude plunges into the void of words and feelings, and the one who seeks solitude without fellowship perishes in the abyss of vanity, self-infatuation and despair.”
King's has always been intent on molding entrepreneurs and leaders--poster children of American individualism. This is not a bad thing. In fact, I love the King's mission. But when the focus falls heavily on the duty of leadership, the duty of fellowship can tend towards obscurity. This was made evident by the implications of the recent spiritual life revival at King’s. While it has been a testament to the hard work and full hearts of faculty, staff, and students, it also serves to underline a previous communal deficiency.
I'm glad to write this piece in a time when the King's community is beginning to flourish. However, there's a further step we can take, and it starts with how we understand our mission statement. To shape and lead strategic institutions is a well-crafted and worthwhile task. But there's something that binds all of these strategic institutions together, and I think it's tragically under-emphasized. Human society is the common denominator. Influencing these institutions begins with the way we interact with each other.
It reminds me of a question I often heard during my time as an admissions representative: "So, where are the Houses?" You see, when I told students about our House system, their instinctive understanding was that we all lived together in, well, physical houses. I was careful to explain to these people that our Houses aren't real in the material sense, but instead took shape in a like-minded community of students. The same goes for strategic institutions. These institutions are not housed within four walls; they are communities of like-minded individuals working together, directly or indirectly, for a common purpose or interest. To be effective influencers, we need to be keenly aware of this distinction.
Let me adjust the focus one last time, to make a point about myself. I am not a fount of love and friendship. I’ve pushed away more people than I care to admit, and others I’ve never allowed to get close in the first place. As an introvert, I rarely need a reminder to find time for myself. The real challenge emerges when I try to engage with the people around me. Individuality is straightforward, simple, familiar.
Community, for me, is scary. There are too many moving parts. It’s exhausting, overwhelming, and intimidating. But, in some paradoxical way, it’s also rejuvenating, fulfilling, and appealing. Despite my nature, I know my life would be in severe deficit without the people who surround me. No matter what the scale--national, academic, or personal--community matters. I hope you agree.
Questions for further pondering:
1. Where should the line be drawn between healthy and unhealthy individualism? What about healthy and unhealthy community?
2. What part of American culture fuels the individuality culture? Is there more than one source?
3. Is my characterization of the King’s mission statement accurate, false, or oversimplified?