At a family Zoom gathering over the holidays, my brother’s former wife, a nurse, began talking about her work at an overcrowded hospital. COVID-19 patients occupied all the beds—in the rooms, along the corridors, and even in converted storage rooms and gift shops. Heart attacks, gunshot wounds—these were treated in tents outside. She spoke in the matter-of-fact tone of a medical professional—that is, until her voice broke. Family chatter stopped, and in the following moments we were left, each in our separate box, with that mix of outrage, dismay, and grief that these days seem to always hover nearby.
The careless disregard for the health of others on the part of far too many has been staggering throughout the pandemic. In a recent segment on NPR’s All Things Considered, journalist Frank Morris reported that doctors and health officials advocating for commonsense hygiene are being driven from parts of rural America—death threats are not uncommon—leaving local hospitals understaffed with some closing altogether. One Midwestern official, Morris said, laments that “towns . . . are choosing what he calls ‘toxic individualism’ over the common good.”
In the 1980s, as we’re reminded in the Netflix series The Crown, Margaret Thatcher famously stated that “there’s no such thing as society. There are individual men and women and there are families.” Across the Atlantic, this sentiment was a virtual hallmark of what came to be called the Reagan Revolution. Government social programs and regulations on industry were cast not as contributions to the common good but as the very source of our problems, undermining individual initiative and liberties. While it is true that the characteristically high value placed by Western democracies on individual freedom is a great strength, its one-sided promotion, with consequent hostility and suspicion of our collective life and obligations, has over recent decades led us to the disastrous state of affairs confronting us now.
For years up until his death in 2013, Tricycle was fortunate to have as a contributor and mentor the eminent sociologist Robert Bellah. Although his main area was the sociology of religion, early in his career he was drawn to enter “the American conversation” as a sharp critic of the very toxic individualism that we see on such alarming display right now. In an interview with Tricycle (Fall 2004), he put these two areas of concern side by side:
Zen Buddhism began in Japan at a time when strong social structures hemmed in individuals on every side. . . . Buddhism was a way to step outside these constricting structures. Becoming a monk was called shukke, literally, “leaving the family.” We live in an almost completely opposite kind of society, where all institutions are weak and the family is in shambles. You don’t need Buddhism to “leave the family.” To emphasize primarily the individualistic side of Buddhism . . . in America is only to contribute to our pathology, not ameliorate it.
Bellah advocated for “intermediate structures”—religious communities, as an example—to mend the torn social fabric of a society whose institutions have been in decline while we engage in an unpromising “experiment to see if a society can survive in which there are only individuals seeking their own interests.”
Meaningful acts of the individual—our practice included—can take place only in the context and with the support of a strong community. In “The Best Possible Life,” scholar Seth Segall argues that any religion—and more specifically, Buddhism—must find ways to respond to the living concerns in its host society. In our case, that would include creating and sustaining vital communities. That our efforts to do so have often included struggle should come as no surprise. While we yearn for such communities, we are inexpert in how exactly to shape and support them. If 2020 has taught us anything, though, it has shown the urgency of this task. It has also shown that it is a challenge we Buddhists share with all our neighbors of good faith.
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