Have you ever felt on the outside of the circle? When I was in third grade, I went to a new school in the middle of the year. It was a Catholic school and when I arrived everyone was in church waiting for morning Mass. I went into the church but I had no clue what to do next. Everyone seemed to be sitting in groups by classes, but I didn’t know where I belonged.
I tentatively edged down into one pew, but the child next to me said, “This is for fifth graders, you don’t belong here.” I tried to move to another spot without being noticed. Again, the child near me looked askance: “You’re not a sixth grader!” I moved to yet another pew, with similar results. I was scared and embarrassed and out of place: I had no way to know where to go. Finally, one of the teachers noticed me, and brought me to where the third graders were supposed to sit.
It was a minor incident, yet a frightening moment of dislocation for a small child. Because my family moved frequently when I was young, that dislocation repeated itself often, and I was left with an unsettled feeling in my heart. I was left with perennial questions: How do we know if we belong or if we do not? What must we do to belong? Perhaps it was those moments of dislocation that made me aware just how important community is.
Activist and writer Mab Segrest wrote about a South African word that describes this essential need for community: ubuntu. “Ubuntu translates as ‘born to belonging.’” Ubuntu expresses the African idea that our human dignity and fulfillment is dependent upon our links to each other in community.
In contrast, our modern American society bases itself on the idea of individualism. John Locke formulated a theory of society as a contractual type of relationship freely entered into by individuals. Locke proposed that in the original state of nature, all humans were free and autonomous individuals, and from that state, they agreed to give up certain aspects of their independence, for mutual benefit and protection.
Today, this individualistic understanding is endemic. But Mab Segrest challenges individualism, and she begins her argument with the experience of motherhood. She writes,
It was after watching Barbara give birth to our daughter, Annie, …that it occurred to me the degree to which this Original Individual was a ridiculously transparent …fiction. None of us start out as individuals, but as fusions of sperm and egg, embedded and growing in the mother’s body for nine months. For months after birth, our consciousness is still merged with its environment, and a sense of the particular and separate self emerges only gradually.2
We start out in relationship, and our unique individuality grows out of that circle of relatedness. Not the other way around. We all need each other in order to flourish and to thrive in life.
To give Locke and others their due—the philosophy of individualism was created in rebellion against the authoritarian structures of an earlier age, the tyranny of church and monarch. To affirm relationship is not to deny the importance of human dignity and freedom. But we must recognize that relatedness comes first, and within that circle of relatedness, we find our inherent worth and dignity.