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Seeking the Balance: Individual vs. Community

On a recent trip to the Canadian Maritimes, I was struck by the awareness of “others” that I witnessed. It was not the typical “let me hold the door for you” or general offers of assistance when we were lost. No, it was an awareness of the types of behaviors we need to promote so that we can all live in community as we care for our planet. Recycling is HUGE in Canada. Every place we went had bins and signs of explanation about what is compost, what goes in the paper bin, what goes in the plastics and glass bin, and what very little is put in the trash. Windmills were a frequent sighting across across the Maritime landscape, and the signage and bold blinking yellow lights made it clear that pedestrians and bikers are an integral part of the transportation system. And then there was the slogan on the Prince Edward Island license plate, “the Green Province.”

In contrast, I have to admit that I have a love for the strong individualism I see in my native state of Maine, but I sometimes feel that we literally miss the forest through the trees. We are so adamant that the individual has rights that we may compromise our planet in favor of a short-term individual right. It bears witness to the ethical dilemma pattern so brilliantly stated by Rushworth Kidder of The Institute for Global Ethics – individual versus community. It is a delicate balance between the two that we are always facing.

Lealan Jones Awtt Portrait
Anne Braden Awtt Portrait

And here is where I had the “aha moment” about Robert Shetterly’s Americans Who Tell the Truth. Isn’t that the dilemma that many Truth Tellers face – how to honor the rights of the individual and preserve community at the same time? LeAlan Jones who put a successful career as a journalist on the back burner in order to work with and care for youth in his inner city Chicago neighborhood, Anne Braden who helped a black couple buy a house in her all-white neighborhood, risking her position on the “side of safety” to work for equal rights for all, or, perhaps, most famously, Dwight Eisenhower who in spite of his long and successful military career warned in his 1961 farewell address to the nation the importance of guarding against “unwarranted influence . . . of the military industrial complex.”

So, you may ask, what does this mean for all of us today? We are all Truth Tellers in some form, and we all share the responsibility to honor the individual but with an eye to preserving community, caring for our planet, and working for the common good. We all share the responsibility for teaching our children ways to become engaged and courageous citizens. As Seth Godin says in his book Linchpin, we need to teach our children leadership, not compliance. The individual has a responsibility to think of and care about community. This is no small task and it belongs to all of us – parents, teachers, community members. How will you make this idea come alive in your life?

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