Sitting in the dentist’s chair getting a root canal, my mind wandered into thoughtwalls. That is what I call it when push and shove as we might, our thoughts cannot move any deeper into an idea – when we cannot discern the root source of something or the why underneath the why.
Here is a common thoughtwall: What makes a value the correct value? Is everything relative or are some values grounded in something more universal and absolute? Are all values and beliefs merely human constructs that change over time, or are some things unchanging? It turns out that many people when pushed to answer that question, fall back on, “well, because it is myvalue.” That answer reveals extreme individualism.
American individualism is a nineteenth century social mutation, one that could even be called a cultural virus that has penetrated the borders of other continents and spread. It has helped to dissolve social cohesion. Radical individualism has also acted as a lubricant to slip us into the twenty-first century social media silos we imagine are “community” but offer only a thin virtual connection instead of actual intimacy and relationship.
For all but the last hundred and fifty years of our fifty centuries of human history (about 3%), the idea that an individual could have his or her own values would have been perceived as a symptom of mental illness. “I believe it because I believe it” would be bizarre and confounding to our ancestors who embraced their values precisely because they were handed down to them, a grand fabric woven from social, familial, and spiritual beliefs. The notion that an individual can create his or her own values and beliefs would have been seen as insane and fanatical.
Likewise, the idea that an individual is capable of anything significant or heroic on his or her own, would have been laughable until recently in human history. But in the myth of the rugged individual, it flutters as a golden truth.
None of us does anything of any significance on our own. The hero, whether in battle or sport or business, only accomplishes their recognized feat as the result of an accumulation of efforts by countless others leading up to the moment or act of consequence. The greatest among us – Abraham Lincoln, Susan B. Anthony, Dorothy Day, Mohandas Gandhi, Cesar Chavez, Martin Luther King, Jr. just to name a few – did what they did as a result of the combined actions and efforts of the families and communities that nurtured and challenged them. That intricate web of relationships and influence is often either invisible or ignored, but it is a steel scaffolding within every one of them – and us.
Such is the nature of a thoughtwall. The most pernicious conundrums arise from what we are not seeing or recognizing. Conversely, they become less and less confusing and difficult as we are able to perceive the influences swirling around them.
All of that from sitting in the dentist’s chair.