a friend of mine recently said this:

I think that when constitution says “We the people” it does not mean some collective, but rather a group of individuals. There are costs and benefits to this idea of individuality in governance by the people. One of the costs is that we have to either handle issues on our own OR create our own groups to deal with the issue.

I have to admit that I had never thought the words “we the people” to mean a group of individuals.  “We” to me has always meant many people together in some set of circumstances: we partied all night; we took a wrong turn at Albuquerque; do you remember where we parked?

We are all in this together.

So this newfound interpretation of “we” took me back a few steps.  I’d never assumed it to mean “We were all waiting at the DMV” – together in essence, but only in the sense that we were all in the same physical location.

What took me back is that this is a perfectly legitimate interpretation of “we.”  While my humans-making-humanity-better idealism says that we cannot exist in a vacuum, perhaps in reality we can.

As I thought some more about this individualism a few more pieces started falling into place for me.

Firstly, this individualism that is so highly favored and accepted based on the “we the individuals” is on the other end of a scale from a something that resembles what we’ve popularized as “socialism” – “we the collective.” Socialism itself is actually an economical system – not a political system as seems to be the general understanding.  Instead, the other end of our scale will be collectivism.  In any event, individualism in the broadest sense favors individual rights above the rights of community – my rights are more important to me than yours.  In check, it promotes self-reliance and independance.  Approaching extremes, individualism promotes a “selfishness” mentality, a protect-the-empire-of-self-at-all-costs mentality.

Secondly, this individualism is evident when contrasted against other people groups.  A perfect illustration centers around the H1N1 pandemic.  It has been reported on NBC as well as other networks about how some Asian travelers wear masks when they are sick in order to prevent passing the virus on to others.  In contrast, western travelers wear masks to prevent themselves from becoming infected.  The very stance of how individualists live their lives is quite different from that of collectivists.

Finally, as with much of life, we can’t live approaching either of these extremes.  Approaching “extreme” individualism we cannot “create our own groups to deal with the [issues]” because true individualists would say “That’s not my problem!”  Now as a one-time Psychology graduate, I know that Self-actualization is an important part of life – finding your individual identity is crucial to a mentally-healthy existence.  At the same time, I believe strongly that at the very core of humanity is a need for interconnection.  It is the reason that thousands of years ago humans organized themselves into tribes: not completely out of selfish ambition (though I’m sure that more hunters meant larger kills and bigger returns on investment) but rather to benefit the community (risking your life chasing down an elephant was more dangerous that blowing a dart at a two-toed sloth).

Ultimately, as I’ve said before, we are not enemies here.  It would serve us well – as individuals and as a people at large – to learn just a little from those around us.  While “We are all Individuals!” and “We can think for ourselves!” (Yes, that was a Monty Python reference) we mutually benefit when we are a people and not a group of persons.