Being Unique in Community
One of the most common themes of children’s literature is the idea that your deformity, the quality that isolates you from the group and makes you a subject of mockery, is not a deformity but a blessing in disguise. Rudolph saves Christmas with his red nose. The Ugly Duckling is ugly because he is bursting with the genes of graceful swanhood. Harry Potter may be a freak when he lives with the Dursleys, but he’s a hero extraordinare in the wizarding world.
This is the message all of us crave (especially us bookworms, who are reading Harry Potter instead of going out drinking with the popular kids.) We may be persecuted & misunderstood right now, but sooner or later we are going to light up, join the swans, & go to Hogwarts. Then everyone will recognize our true talents and most importantly, we will be part of a community of people like us. It’s the dream of every lonely kid. And, I would argue, the dream of any number of lonely adults as well.
To some extent, feeling lonely & out of place is part of being human. But it’s also a problem we’ve created for ourselves. We don’t live in a planned world. Nobody sat down and decided, “We’re going to build a world of strip malls, highways, tacky billboards, concrete, cubicles and impersonal bureaucracy. People will commute long distances to do jobs they hate because it’s the only way to support their families. Or they will live on welfare & be unemployed.” I mean, if that had been anyone’s campaign platform, they would have been voted down like a shot. But somehow, it happened all the same.
If we were to really reach out for the world we want, what would it look like? I’m sure everyone’s answer would be different, but there would definitely be some common themes. Safety & peace. Food that makes us feel good when we eat it, as well as tasting good. A support network of friends & family nearby. Enough free time for us to relax with the people we care about & pursue private hobbies. But enough paid work to give us a sense of mission & purpose. Working on something that is bigger than us. A sense of being valued & recognized for the qualities that make us special. Chances to develop our talents & get better at doing the things we love. Excellence at caring for others, & the security of being cared for. Beautiful possessions which give us the chance to be generous. Respect & freedom. Fun. Laughter.
Now I’m not saying we live in Orwell’s 1984 here. Many of us have at least a fair portion of some of these things. But what I’m saying is, most people have to struggle more than is necessary to get their portion, and many people don’t have nearly enough. That’s because most people, even (or perhaps especially) the rich & affluent, wake up each morning and ask themselves the question, “How can I survive?” instead of asking more ambitious questions, such as, “How can I create a beautiful world for the people I love?” All the things I complained about earlier; the concrete, the cubicles, the strip malls; those are a product of a civilization that is FIXATED on making money because it is fixated on trying to survive.
The environmental pundits who deplore consumerism & greed really get on my nerves. That’s because they don’t understand greed. Greed is not driven by avarice, it’s driven by fear. Greed is Scarlett O’Hara scrabbling through the burned remains of her family homestead, wondering if she and her sisters will starve to death, then standing up and vowing with much fist-shaking to the sky, “I will never be hungry again.” And you know as she lies, cheats, and steals her way through the rest of the book Gone With the Wind, her crass materialism & abuse of low-income workers is driven by fear of returning to that moment where she was at her lowest. Even when she is fabulously wealthy, she still wakes up every day driven by a frantic fear of losing & loss– which drives her to make still more money.
Because we have this deeply-seated fear of loss, of losing, of failing in the race for survival, we tend to see everything through the lens of hard choices. It’s the environment or the economy. It’s having time for your family, or it’s making money. It’s going where you need to go, or it’s saving money on gas. It’s eating healthy or it’s eating tasty. Not, I have the right to both. Not, I DEMAND both. We can & should create a world that bypasses these hard choices. When confronted with a rock & a hard place, we need to make that leap of vision that finds the creative third way to go. But fear so often holds us back from even looking at that choice.
Americans especially are afraid of losing their freedom. Given our history, it makes sense. As immigrants, we fled shores where kings & tyrants were telling us what to believe & how to live our lives. Now we have a pluralistic society with a lot of diversity, and it’s important to protect those diverse groups from the tyranny of the majority. Our mistake lies in thinking that excessive individualism is the only way to protect that freedom. It’s another of those hard choices we get hypnotized by. The choice between freedom & community. Between nonconformity & cooperation. Why can’t we have both? Why can’t we demand both?
Rudolph doesn’t need to have plastic surgery to correct his nose defect. He doesn’t need to live a lonely, miserable existence cut off from all his reindeer friends, either. He needs to fly forth & save Christmas. And so do we all.