Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

When Mr. Lockwood taught me the word “iconoclast” in ninth grade, I thought, “That’s me—I’m a rebel, a questioner, a nonconformist.”

Time has taught me otherwise—I simply resist being included.

I don’t understand pep rallies, celebrations of institutional landmarks like the one-millionth widget or one-billionth customer served.  I don’t understand the devotion of a Chicago Cubs fan.  I cannot drink the kool-aid.

Groucho Marx famously said that he would never be part of any club that would have him as a member, but that’s not my problem. I’m flattered by being wanted and would love to contribute wholeheartedly, devotedly, and unquestionably to some of the greater causes that would have me—that do have me—but something in me fights.

Corinthians, my favorite book of the Bible, says “If one member suffers, all suffer together with it; if one member is honored, all rejoice together with it” (1 Corinthians 12:26).  Intellectually, that sounds nice. Yet, while I can submit to submerge myself for a time, it doesn’t last.

George Bernard Shaw said the true joy in life was

…being used for a purpose recognized by yourself as a mighty one, being a force of nature instead of a feverish, selfish little clod of ailments and grievances complaining that the world will not devote itself to making you happy. I am of the opinion that my life belongs to the whole community and as I live it is my privilege – my privilege to do for it whatever I can.

If he believed that, I envy him.  I try not to be that “clod of ailments and grievances” and don’t resent the world for not making me happy.  That’s unbecoming… and dumb.  However, the portion of my brain that might derive such pleasure from belonging is Teflon. I rarely feel part of institutions’ success or failure.  I’m sure I had little to do with the former and never accept sole responsibility for the latter.

If you are looking for a way to forgive me, you might want to make me a member of the loyal opposition, someone who supports an organization by pointing out its mistakes.  Sometimes I fulfill that role… but only accidentally. Dissent can be an engine for change, but it can also be peevish and petty.  As much as I’d like to think my recognition of flaws has a higher purpose, honesty won’t allow me to say I’m always thinking of others.  I want to be right…

…and resent definition by anything larger than myself… and like being aloof.

Maybe my self-consciousness—being stuck in the “on” position—prevents me from membership. I don’t mean to bite feeding hands but I can’t lick them without knowing I’m doing so either.

Thoreau believed the public never equals it best member and instead sinks to the standards of the lowest, but what could be more defeatist than to believe every collection of souls so doomed to diminishment? I wonder if Thoreau, like me, simply couldn’t convince himself to belong and developed elaborate means to excuse it.

A world of people like me would be a ruin.  At times we must give up our own points of view and collect our efforts.  Sometimes we have to go along.  Why is that so hard for me?  Some crowds shout with open and joyous hearts.  Every cheer sticks in my throat.

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1 Comment

Filed under Essays, Gesellschaft, Laments, life, Sturm und Drang, Thoreau, Work

One response to “Gemeinschaft and Gesellschaft

  1. MCG

    At Vassar, we have a tradition called “Serenading.” The Freshman serenade the seniors with a song of their own concoction and the seniors throw things at them.

    (There used to be no rules but people got hurt. Now you’re only allowed to throw mustard, ketchup, marshmallows, and flour.)

    I didn’t participate as a freshman. I couldn’t bring myself to. Mostly, I think, because I hate looking stupid. And even when everyone else looks stupid too, I still think I look the most stupid.

    But apparently the whole thing was an incredible bonding experience. So much fun! Etc., etc. And I’ve always regretted not being a part of it.

    I didn’t participate as a senior, either. It wouldn’t have been fair.

    I miss you. And, if you’re interested: http://www.thenervousbreakdown.com/author/mgrossman/

    I have some similar memories—though not so… strange. Flour?

    Once things like that pass, you have no other way to remember them than with regret. Sometimes I try to consider my future regret in advance, but I still sometimes stay home. Why?

    I don’t think I’m being perverse—NOT doing what everyone else DOES—it’s more a matter of thinking you know what you can and can’t do. It’s hard to convince yourself you can behave differently. Some people say it’s perfectly simple to change, and if we believed them, maybe it would be. In the absence of that belief though, you just have to act and hope you’re wrong about yourself. My experience is that I often am.

    I miss you too—I’ll check out your link!

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