The rain came down in sheets, unrelenting and somewhat obscure.
Normally, I enjoyed the occasional drizzly day, and in May of 2010 the downpour seemed no different. But this rain continued, rarely pausing during the day or night. The end of the school year quickly approached, and the usual busyness — mostly studying for AP exams — seemed impenetrable, even by the rain. Yet the rain continued, and the weather report predicted something we'd already begun to see; the rivers were rising, and the water kept coming. My neighborhood rests on a floodplain; our basement had to be cleared of all furniture as the waters rose.
Prior to the Nashville flood, I'd never experienced a true natural disaster. As I watched my own community threatened in ways utterly beyond our control, another force — no less powerful, but still unfamiliar to me — came forward with an equal strength.
The rain finally subsided, and the water stopped its steady advance; my family ventured into the streets to survey the damage. Our neighbors also trickled out of their houses; I met people I'd lived next to for years but never spoken with before. House facades became paired with faces; the sense of cooperation, empathy and communication increased exponentially in an instant.
As we mingled with new acquaintances and walked the streets, giving and receiving aid for water damage, I couldn't help but feel startled at the sudden surge of support.
The sense felt strange, but the unusual situation demanded a cohesion that has perhaps become increasingly foreign to the culture and tone of the United States.
The prevailing psychology driving behind Western culture centers on individualism: the idea that each person must fully self-actualize and harness his or her inner strength and gifts.
Countless psychological studies center on the individualistic mentality; the force compels one to be the best individual possible at any cost. The effects of such a mindset can be somewhat difficult to quantify due to the ambiguity of social trends and thought; however, the breadth of research and observation have pointed out some distinct differences between the normal life of a typical western nation versus the collectivist mentality of an eastern country.
Americans from a young age learn to identify with one's emotions, dreams and other personal goals in life. Working harmoniously in a group has its merits, but we are often expected to place our goals above the group. Subjective morality and relativism allow each person to determine one's own version of reality regardless of its impact or implication for others; explanations for one's actions can be easily explained through euphemisms like "following your heart" or "being true to yourself."
The Nashville flood made me profoundly aware of my own obsession with my personal agenda. My routine consisted mostly of self-preparation; my biggest responsibility to society, it seemed, was through my own personal empowerment, which to a degree may be true. However, as I watched the new interactions and wave of volunteerism rising all around me, I couldn't help but wonder if our own commitment to individualism has somehow alienated us from the power found in community.
Eastern cultures contrast sharply with the west in this regard; individualism and collectivism come with unique sets of benefits and deficiencies. In a broad social comparison, however, since the 1960s the United States has experienced "a 560 percent increase in violent crimes, a 419 percent increase in illegitimate births, a 400 percent increase in divorce rates, a 300 percent increase in children living in single parent homes." (Reid, "Confucious Lives Next Door" 219) The social implications of this are still long-debated by politicians, but it's very likely that the shift has occurred internally with increases in individualism.
Some of our greatest strengths can be found internally, but as commitment to traditional group values — such as the family unit, friendship or community — continue to change, the implications will not go unchecked.
Valuing individual strengths has largely attributed to the creative opportunistic aura of the U.S.; yet statistics indicate that civic engagement, family units and community involvement have begun to decay.
A natural disaster or tragedy should not alone teach the importance of the group; sacrificing for greater good does not diffuse the spirit of individualism, but rather empowers it to create cohesion and cooperation in powerful ways.
Sarah Hagaman is a sophomore in English. She can be reached at email@example.com.