Our American society has developed a commitment to the primacy of the individual human actor. We valorize the man who — we imagine — goes it alone, setting out on his own to make his fortune, whether on the Western prairie or in the urban marketplace. Our national mythology celebrates the Founding Father, the cowboy, the genius inventor, the GI, the astronaut — each of them a man or small group of men striding boldly forward: creating something new, standing against a threat, triumphing against all odds.
These are some of our national, mythical American heroes. In truth, these are our white American heroes. Indigenous Americans, Black Americans, Latinx Americans, Asian Americans — all of these groups have different stories, many of which emphasize the power of community. It is white American culture that gives ultimate praise to the individual.
We white Americans imagine that the cowboy lived off of his individual strength and wits, keeping watch over the cattle at night to fend off marauding wolf packs. He rose with the sun, guiding the herd through the wilderness, outsmarting devious cattle rustlers trying to take what did not belong to them. When his honor was offended, he necessarily defended himself through righteous gunfire. Our archetypal fictional Western lawman was even named “The Lone Ranger,” his very essence defined by the fact that he acted alone.
We imagine that the inventor created new machines and processes completely on his own, innovating and tinkering by himself in his lab. He snapped awake in the middle of the night, ready to scribble down his genius ideas, burning to implement his insights. He toiled all day, forgetting food and sleep, completely devoted to his demanding work. He single-handedly invented something new, fueling our capitalist economy and society.
But if we look closely at that individual cowboy, or that individual inventor, we can perceive that the characters we envision are really nothing more than cardboard cutouts, facades for much larger communities. An individual, historical cowboy was embedded in a web of relationships — with a group of other cowboys, with the other farmhands and workers who worked for that same ranch, with the shopkeepers and service providers who worked in the local town. An individual inventor built his designs and innovations upon the insights and work of previous inventors, and often collaborated with other engineers and technicians to produce new designs and products.
And if we pull back further, we can see the more egregious error we make when we focus on the individual hero. We ignore the connection that each human person and each human community has with each other animal and plant creature who inhabits this planet with us. We exist in an ecological community, and each member’s very concrete needs directly affect each other. We have untold examples of every variety of this interdependence, both positive and negative. The respiration and photosynthesis cycles mean that the carbon dioxide exhaled by animals is absorbed by plants, and the oxygen that plants emit is inhaled by animals. Decaying animal and plant bodies and waste provide nutrients for the soil, which are in turn absorbed by plants through their root systems and then eaten by animals. Each human animal, each animal of every kind, each plant, each fungus, each virus, each bacterium, each piece of rock, each grain of sand, each drop of ocean water exists in a state of connectedness with one another, and with the planet-wide biosphere that they comprise.
Unfortunately, because of the United States’ economic and military power, we have exported the disconnection and individualism around the world. Now, people from many nations aspire to the values we have developed and imposed. Now, all of our current planetary and societal crises are rooted in our attempts to disconnect from one another and from our Earth. The climate crisis is a key example, emerging from our manufactured amnesia about the nature of fossil fuels. We have burned and continue to burn millions of years worth of decayed plant and animal matter, and then we act surprised that our actions have an impact on our planet’s systems. This amnesia is only possible because we have fetishized and made a virtue of our disconnection from “nature” — what we label the other animal creatures, plants, and systems of our world in an effort to separate ourselves from them. We have pushed ourselves into the belief that this separation will make us special, rather than acknowledging the reality: that eventually, this separation will make us dead, as individuals and perhaps as a species.
It can feel hopeless to think that we need to rebuild our connections with our planet and all of its inhabitants. In fact, those connections do not need to be rebuilt — our hubris has led us to imagine that we could sever them. We must recognize that as much as we have sought to pull away from them, we continue to entwine with all of the creatures who live on the Earth, and with the Earth itself. Our task, then, is not to rebuild those connections, but to rediscover them. It is to seek them, to recognize them, to cultivate them, to recognize them in one another. To reach out along those connections, to braid them strong, to sing them true, to dance them full. We must infuse our connections with seeing, breathing, hearing, touching, holding. This must be our path.
In some ways, this path may seem insignificant. We might reasonably ask: what difference will it make in the face of so much disconnection, societal inequity, and planetary destruction?
In other ways, taking this path is all we can do…and is the most significant thing we can do to heal ourselves, our human families, our societies, and the community that is this Earth.
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