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An attack on individualism

I was standing at the train station on a cold morning near my home in the suburbs of Philadelphia. The train to the city was running a few minutes late and I was nervous about the final exam waiting for me in the city at 11 am. The question then came to me, “Are you sure that the exam starts then?” I scrambled to pull out my phone, navigated to my calendar, and saw it. The exam had started at 9am, and it was already 9:20. I began pacing back and forth across the platform. What could I do? Throw myself at the mercy of my professor? Fake an illness? Injure myself so that I could get a doctor’s note?

I was too stressed to think clearly and did the only thing that came naturally. I called my wife, who was at home with our three small children. I cried into the phone that my final exam had already started, that I was an imbecile, and that this was likely the end for us. Rachael listened and then calmly recommended that I go to school and work things out. She assured me that we could bounce back from this.

My train slid up to the platform, and the doors parted. So, I hung up, stepped inside, and braced myself for the half-an-hour ride to my graduate school campus. I raced from the station through the streets of West Philadelphia and through my school building only to stop in front of my classroom door. I caught my breath and slowly opened the door hoping that no one would notice. The only sounds came from 30 pens scrabbling across exams. One of my classmates looked up when I entered and slowly shook her head with her mouth agape.

When I stood before the teacher’s aide at the front of the classroom, he simply handed me an exam booklet, motioned to an empty seat, and said that I had until noon. I sat down, took a deep breath, and opened the exam on matching supply with demand. I still had two of the three hours to finish and decided to get as far into the exam as I could.

Two weeks later, I was surprised to learn that I passed the exam. As I look back on this experience, there is a strong possibility that I would have let that train leave the station without me if my wife had not answered my call. I needed her poise and clear thinking when I could not see a path forward. I needed help.

We live in a culture of radical individualism where people feel uncomfortable asking for assistance. Many of us in western societies are infatuated by the idea of the cowboy, the world-beater who follows his own path, overcomes all obstacles, and answers to no one. We idolize entrepreneurs, inventors, and creators who seem to be self-made and appear to have it all. Then we learn that underneath the carefully manicured image is a flawed individual who is not so different from the rest of us.   

We know that every person on earth has limitations – even the billionaire geniuses with Olympic gold medals and movie star looks (I looked into it and don’t think there is one such person). We all have physical and intellectual limitations. Sometimes, our emotions get the better of us. We often encounter situations for which we are ill-prepared and inadequate. Someday, everyone runs into an unassailable obstacle.

As Nicholas Hault said in the movie About a Boy, “You need backup. If you’re only two people, and someone drops off the edge, then you’re on your own.” The data also suggest that people with families or other strong social ties are happier,1 have better mental and physical health, live longer, and are better able to handle stressful situations.2 Social isolation and loneliness are not associated with strength in the research but with weakness, sickness, and even death.3

At many points in our lives, we will need other people and God when we are not enough ourselves. Isolation is an enemy of personal progress and a major reason why we so often fall short. This is why the fundamental unit of a healthy society is not the sovereign individual. It is the family. It is tight-knit local communities where individuals help each other where they are strong and accept aid where they are weak.

Image of Rachael feeding one of our kids around the time of the train station story.

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