Individuals, in the Tide of Culture

I just saw a tagline from someone’s personal profile on a social media site. This person is a social and political conservative, and an active commentator on the current state of social unrest. His tagline reads, in part, “I will NEVER apologize for things I didn’t do!”

That’s just heartbreaking. As David Foster Wallace once wrote, in his remarkable talk later published as This Is Water, we all have “the freedom to be lords of our own tiny skull-sized kingdoms, alone at the center of all creation.” This is the heart of contemporary masculinity, this notion that we are responsible only for the things we do as individuals. We take no responsibility for the things we do collectively as a culture or a society; we also take no responsibility for the things we did NOT do, those sins of omission where we COULD HAVE stepped up but chose not to.

That kind of voluntary isolation, that emotional self-quarantine, leaves us hard and cold and bitter and angry and defensive. Like a dog left alone and chained to its coop, we bark and lunge and snap at everyone who passes by.

Our role is not self-aggrandizement, or personal accumulation. We know those people; they are hollow, and thus must constantly build a thicker and harder shell to prevent collapse. No, our role is to belong. To sit with the hard conversations and the difficult histories that have brought us to be a member of our community and our culture, and to learn ways to enhance the lives of all around us. To fail, and to be okay with failure if it was in the service of trying to do better. To forgive, over and over and over, and to ask for forgiveness for the things we haven’t done but should have. To rebuild the things that our ancestors had broken.

Individual snowflakes will melt. But together, we can form a blizzard that will transform our landscape, and lead toward the healing of spring.