Americans are an individualistic people. The earliest European settlers of what would eventually become British colonies were explorers seeking wealth and adventure and Christian Puritans seeking a break from the Church of England in order to practice their faith in freedom.
If you paid attention in an American history class, you probably heard the term “rugged individualism” batted around as a sort of distinctively American ideal. It was that pioneer spirit that pushed people westward in the late 18th and early 19th century and ensured that when a person staked their claim on a rugged corner of the American west that they would have the internal will and drive to carve something resembling a life out of the landscape.
This independent spirit seems to be part and parcel of what it means to be an American. But I wonder if our interpretation of that spirit and internalization of individualistic ideals is actually doing us more harm than good? Has the glorification of personal autonomy contributed to our increasing social isolation?
If you stop and think about it for a few seconds, you will begin to realize how quickly that image of individualism you heard in history class falls apart. The Puritan settlers who journeyed across the Atlantic quickly established a community and would not have survived without that support. Undoubtedly it took some level of courage to move away from established communities in the east and push west in the hopes of establishing a new life and enriching yourself and your family on the natural resources of the west (let’s not forget the cost of this impulse to the Native American inhabitants of that land either). But to think that they were able to accomplish this alone is false. Travel typically happened in a community in the form of a wagon train prior to the establishment of the intercontinental railroad. Even the most rugged and independent man would likely want to have a family to share his corner of the west with at some point. Thus he would get married and have children and through the establishment of his family form one of the most basic forms of human community. Even explorers like Lewis and Clark did not set out in isolation, they did it with a band of fellow explorers. The unforgiving landscape of the American west did indeed mean a person had to be strong, capable, and…