I Am a Rock, I Am an Island

I love living in America. One of my favorite things about it is the rugged individualism. I love the “go it alone, doing what’s right no matter the cost” type heroes: the Malcolm Reynolds, the John Waynes, the Rosa Parks, Superman, etc. etc. But do you know who my absolute favorite literary character is? Samwise Gamgee, the steadfast, loyal, unwavering support for the main character. Because the idea of the “one man” (or “one person,” for those who are upset with my use of the masculine for neuter and unknown as well) is a myth.

That myth does wonderful things for our culture. It sets up the American Dream. It helps us aspire. On good days, it helps us think and consider all of our options. The idea that “even the smallest person can change the course of the future” takes root and makes us want to be more.

But we live in society. Even those of us who consider ourselves to be reclusive are still part of society. And the idea that you can both live in society with other people, and that your decisions affect only you, is patently false. Now, in most ways, the dissonance between society and individualism are small. Yes, obviously you can make your own decisions about what you want to eat, and what you want to wear, and what you want to read without affecting others. (Although, even those small decisions can affect society, but that’s another post for another day.)

The problem comes when that myth takes root and gets into our morality, because once something is in our moral code, we no longer think about it, we only protect and react. We rail against anything that affects our “free” choice, as though we make choices in a vacuum and are not influenced already by our friends, nation, society, education, background, current mood, what we just ate, and who knows what else. Let’s take the rather benign example of car insurance and the “click it or ticket” laws.

It’s my decision if I want to drive without a seat belt isn’t it? If I want to run the risk of being in a collision without a seat belt or insurance, that’s no one’s fault but mine, right? Who is the government to infringe on my right to be stupid if I want, why are they trying to force me into this? If I get into a wreck in that situation, I’m the only one paying the consequences, so it should be my choice.

Am I right?

Except, that’s not true at all.

Let’s take the “best-case” scenario—best case in that seemingly only the driver would pay for his mistake: a single-car collision. He’s not wearing his seat belt, he’s not insured.

Case one: He dies. Well, there’s the end of it. He paid for his decision. Case closed. Except he’s not going to pay for his decision. His family is. His family will have to pay for the funeral, to have the car towed, possibly the property damage he caused. His family will now also have to spend the rest of their lives without his support, whether “he” was a working father, or a stay-at-home mom. If he (or she) wasn’t a parent, then his parents (siblings, cousins, friends—whoever he or she has left) will bear the cost of the emotional grief for the rest of their days. If he was working, the workplace will need to bear the cost of training a replacement.

Case two: He’s hospitalized. He has no insurance, so he ratchets up medical debt that will slowly crush him for the rest of his life, or he’ll never pay it back and those costs will be transferred to everyone else in the system via higher insurance premiums and deductibles. If he’s injured in such a way that he can no longer work, you have many of the fiscal costs associated with death plus the added drain on systems to help those with disabilities, etc.

Now, this is not an attack on those with individualistic morality. As I said, I love it. I point out its flaws in the same way you can point out the flaws in a sibling, but heaven help the outsider who does it. I just pray that, when you see an infringement on “personal” rights and feel your blood boiling, that you stop for one minute. Take 60 seconds, and think. Think about what’s upset you, and think about whether that personal right is so personal after all. And if you can understand the “other” side even a little bit, but still think you’re right, then open up a dialogue, not a diatribe.

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