First off: My husband, three dogs and I have successfully transitioned to life in Wooster, Ohio, so this is my last column. I have enjoyed writing, appreciated the feedback and am grateful for the chance to share my thoughts with you. Thank you all!
On to the topic at hand. What do Star Trek's Mr. Spock, insurance policies in Japan, Swedish residential occupancy statistics and American bowling leagues have in common?
In the movie "The Search for Spock," "The needs of the many outweigh the needs of the few, or the one" is revealed as a dictum by which Vulcans live. Spock is baffled by Captain Kirk's insistence on risking not only his reputation and career, but also those of Bones, McCoy, Sulu and Uhura, to rescue Spock's rejuvenated body and reunite it with a spark of his soul Spock had entrusted to Dr. McCoy before his death. Kirk reverses his friend's dictum: "The needs of the one outweighs the needs of the many."
Which dictum is better? Whichever we favor, how do we decide when and why exceptions should be made? Individualism, like Captain Kirk, emphasizes the needs of the one. Many "communitarian" philosophies favor the needs of the many. How do we balance them?
Sweden is a socialist and communitarian nation. But half of Swedes live alone. Marriage, cohabitation and childbearing are declining, but suicides are rising.
Japan has a long tradition of personal devotion to the Japanese people and nation. Yet an alarming number of elderly Japanese die alone, unmourned and often unnoticed, until neighbors detect the stench of the dead body. Landlords obtain insurance to assist with cleanup should a "loner death" occur on their property.
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And in America and elsewhere, many civic groups, churches, even bowling leagues, are losing members.
Communitarian enterprises have a central purpose, belief or other identifying characteristic to which their members gravitate. They thrive when a "critical mass" of people hold that truth, purpose or interest in common. Those individuals thrive when they willingly assent to and live by those common values, not when they're coerced. It's a delicate balance, addressing the needs (and beliefs) of "the many" and "the one!"
In much of the developed world, community has unraveled. Many people insist there are no overarching truths that command universal allegiance. Hundreds of niche-market cable TV channels exist — yet many people ditch them for Hulu and other individualized options. Religious denominations, identity groups, political parties and news sites splinter into ever-more specialized, polarized micro-sects. Divorce, non-marital breakups, single-parent homes and (as in Sweden) single-person households unravel the community grounded in family life. "Things fall apart; the center cannot hold," the poet Yeats laments; and one reason is that we gouge out even the concept of a center. As Gertrude Stein said, probably unfairly, of Oakland: "There's no there there."
The less "universal glue" holding us together, the harder it is to make personal connections and address individual needs. We may support causes or post hashtags on social media; but what binds us to the solitary old guy down the street from us? We may be commendably zealous for social justice and the rights of oppressed minorities. But what drives us to personally care for one of them by name? What motivates us to care about, much less to care for, someone we disagree with?
What causes us to care for "the needs of the one," I submit, is the belief that together we comprise not simply "the many," but "the whole," or something like it. We acknowledge some basic common truths, values, and purposes. We see one another not as discrete organisms competing for scarce resources, but as diverse organs contributing to the good of a whole body, and finding joy and purpose in doing so. St. Paul famously said, when one member of a body suffers, all suffer; when one rejoices, all rejoice. Ben Franklin famously said, "We must all hang together; else assuredly we will all hang separately." Even the Three Musketeers famously chanted, "All for one, and one for all!"
My goal in these columns has been to help you find points of commonality; to glimpse higher, universal truths; and to see one another as gloriously unique and irreplaceable organs, all contributing to the life and flourishing of the body of a community. I hope you will strive to do all that, and more, in coming years.
Cathy Ammlung is a pastor in the North American Lutheran Church and a resident of Sykesville. You can contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.