Rugged individualism — it’s the Great American Ethos. It drove explorers across mountains and prairies. It’s why Frank Sinatra sang “My Way.” The Marlboro Man never offers a cigarette to a companion. He’s out there all by himself getting hypertension, emphysema and lung cancer.
Autonomy. Self-reliance. Self-determination. We eat this stuff for breakfast.
And rugged individualism is part of a healthy breakfast. There can be no doubt that this ethos is the driving force behind much of America’s genius for discovery, technology and human advance. Rugged individualism indicates a healthy ego strength that, when necessary, can sacrifice belonging and honor the voice within.
But does rugged individualism deserve to be the highest-ranking ethos, the trump card of values by which all other values are measured?
A too-tight, too-blind, unwavering grip on individualism must ultimately thwart the human need for community. That’s not a good trade.
I tell myself that rugged individualism finds both its zenith and its ultimate distortion out West, perhaps especially in Nevada. Our motto is “Swim any way you want, just don’t swim into me.” Las Vegas is the new all-American city because we’re free … to be unattached and not obligated. The goal of distorted individualism is to have no need we cannot provide for ourselves. That’s how we know we’re really cool.
I was noticing rugged individualism in the architecture of my new house. Inside, it lives big and roomy. Great for entertaining. In the fall, my living room often is packed with Green Bay Packers fans, whooping and hollering. A community of Cheeseheads.
But from the street, the architecture conveys a different message. Seen from my driveway, it’s pretty much a bunker. Two closed garage doors. No front porch. No visible windows. To the left is a block wall and a gate. My front door is architectural irony, because to knock on my front door you are obliged to trespass boldly into my backyard and come around to the side of the house into an alcove.
The design shouts “Go away and leave me alone!” And I think it’s deliberate.
In the South and parts of the Midwest, homes still have functional front porches where people gather and relax in full view of their neighbors. They wave at those neighbors. They call them by name. Here it’s common to live next door to people for years without ever seeing them, let alone making their acquaintance.
And it doesn’t matter anyway, because, in the West, “dropping by” is now a social faux pax. Bad manners. You call first.
The social phenomenon we called “Suburban Flight” was proposed as an escape from the noisy, stressful, perhaps even dangerous urban setting into an oasis of peace and sublime serenity. We call what we found there “privacy.” But it seems more like mere aloneness. The suburbs can be isolated and isolating, a place where people ceremonially ignore one another. For years at a time. Unless your dog barks a lot. Then you’ll meet your neighbor. That’s him at the door now.
Our fierce pursuit of individualism, independence and privacy is, in the end, more the maintenance of image than possession of fact. We are not merely individuals; rather, we are designed for relationship. We are not independent; we are built for dynamic interdependence. We value privacy, yes, but instinctively reject isolation (even as we chase cultural “values” that isolate us).
In a surprising pendulum swing, more and more Americans — young and old — are fleeing the banal, monotonous sterility of the suburbs. They don’t merely work and play downtown; they live there, too. High-rise condos reach for the skies up and down the Strip like asparagus stalks in a happy garden. Somebody’s buying ’em, or they wouldn’t be building ’em.
In my admittedly romanticized imagination, I often fantasize about an urban lifestyle. Perhaps walking or biking to and from work. Driving less. Stopping off at an outdoor vegetable stand and picking out fresh veggies for dinner. Knowing the hot dog vendor by name. So different from my lawn-mowing, neighbor-ignoring, drivedrivedriving-all-the-time suburban lifestyle.
If I were retired, or rich and childless, or single, hip and childless, I’d do it in a heartbeat. But I have kids and an Aussie shepherd. Truth be told, I like yardwork. It’s peaceful and satisfying. For now, I’ll continue to hang my hat at the bunker.
Call before you stop by.
Steven Kalas is a behavioral health consultant and counselor at Clear View Counseling and Wellness Center in Las Vegas. His columns appear on Tuesdays and Sundays. Questions for the Asking Human Matters column or comments can be e-mailed to firstname.lastname@example.org.STEVEN