“No man is an island entire of itself; every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main…” ~ John Donne, Meditation 17, Devotions upon Emergent Occasions
When I lived in Costa Rica, ants were among the most common sight. Tiny sugar-loving ants, big meat-eating ants, and those masters of food transportation, the leaf-cutter ants. All ants are amazing to me but leaf-cutter ants are in a league of their own. On many of our jungle hikes, Prez and I witnessed highways of leaf-cutters that rivaled the I-5 in downtown Los Angeles. One lane would be bumper-to-bumper ants carrying bits of leaves over their heads, the other lane would be comprised of ants returning to the tree to collect more foliage. Unstoppable. A colony of leaf-cutter ants can defoliate a citrus tree in 24 hours.
The secret to their success? Leaf-cutter ants have large, complex societies, second only to humans.
Ants as a group are a force of nature, as anyone who has tried to battle an ant infestation will attest.
A single ant? SQUASH.
This may be the most blatant and blunt metaphor I have ever used and maybe it’s not exactly a compliment to compare humans to insects but I think some bluntness is much-needed in our western society.
I’m not sure specifically where or when the Cult of the Individual started but we in the west have become infected by this idea. The self-made man, the rugged individual, the determined entrepreneur—we have built myth after myth upon humans who go it alone, conquer the odds, and reap enormous rewards.
Dependency has become a dirty word. No one celebrates Dependence Day and yet we are dependent, all of us, on each other. Our cooperation is what has helped us thrive as a species. No one who witnesses the marvel of leaf-cutter ants in the wild clucks their tongue and says, “What a bunch of wussies.”
I didn’t always see this. I fell for the myth as hard as anyone else. I have spent most of my life believing that the goal was independence, the goal was self-reliance, the goal was not to let them see you as weak or needy. I still slip back into that way of thinking now and then; it’s difficult to stand against the juggernaut of culture sometimes.
But I was wrong. I was wrong to think I could thrive on my own, or even as a marital unit of two. And I have never been so happy to learn that I was wrong.
In August 2015, when the Consortium of Ridiculously Kind Persons banded together to send this sad author to Worldcon for some much-needed cheering up, all the thoughts I had been harbouring about the necessity of community solidified.
Sometimes the stars align and drop you into a moment of rare and perfect clarity. In my case, this happened near the end of an otherwise gin-soaked and laughter-filled weekend of stress-relief in Spokane, Washington. I have written about the good time I had at Worldcon, but I have not written about this small yet vital moment within that good time.
Thanks to my friends Griffin and Alistair, I found myself at the Baen Books party, in a very swanky hotel suite. This was the evening of the Hugo Awards and all that related drama, and I found myself flying solo as my friends were off tending to more serious matters. I was fine on my own—hey, free gin!—and soon struck up a conversation with two friendly strangers, John and Gregg.
Our conversation started off on the usual small-talk path but then it took a sharp turn in another direction. I can’t recall exactly when the shift occurred but one moment I was relating the story of how I came to be at Worldcon, the next I was discussing death and grieving in intimate detail with people I had only just met. Not at all my usual party modus operandi.
I am not a religious person, I am not a spiritual person, I do not believe things “happen for a reason” or that there is some mystical power controlling our destinies. And yet, for however long this conversation went on, I felt transported. It was as if the three of us had stepped into a bubble, out of time and space, away from the party and the triviality of everyday life.
We talked about death. We talked about mourning. We talked about our individual pain—we had each lost someone dear. We talked about the necessity of community. We talked about western society’s fear of grief. We talked about all these things with hearts and minds wide open. At one point, Gregg, who is a member of the indigenous Salinan tribe, shared how his people approach death, their philosophies and rituals. As he spoke, I reached out and grasped his hand, a few tears fell. I felt completely connected, safe, relieved.
You are not alone—that’s what I felt.
Eventually, the conversation reached a natural dénouement. We exchanged contact information and then I stepped out of the bubble.
I rejoined my other friends and re-assumed my usual Party Kristene persona. But that time-out-of-time stayed with me. It is with me now. More than the words spoken, it was the sense of connection. With strangers. With members of a much larger community.
You are not alone.
Community is not simply the place where we live. Community is the web of people we connect with in every possible way. We are part of the community and we help shape it.
Since the first day I learned of my sister’s illness, until now, my community has held out their hands to support and carry me. Every act of compassion, no matter how small, combines with the others, multiplies and expands, becomes almost a physical force.
The texts my half-sister LeAnna sent me every day for weeks. “How are you doing?” Four small words. You are not alone.
The notary public who waived her fees after learning I needed notarized copies of my marriage certificate to access my deceased father’s bank account and settle his estate. You are not alone.
The apple pie baked for me by my friend Wendyle in lieu of knowing the right words to say. You are not alone.
The nightly “happy hour” my mother-in-law Nancy put on for me every day I stayed with her after Kelly’s death. You are not alone.
The bank employee who worked an hour into her lunch break to help me sort out the paperwork for my dad’s estate. You are not alone.
The time my friend Griffin spent with me on Facebook the night after my sister died, just “being there” until I could finally fall asleep. You are not alone.
And on and on and on it goes.
Could I have survived this time without my community? Perhaps. But who would I have been when it was all over? How hard my heart? How empty my spirit?
I was wrong about the value of community and I am so glad. I cannot do this alone. I need you. I need all of you.
After the whirlwind of that Worldcon weekend, real life continued, with all its chaos. I thought often about that time-out-of-time with deep gratitude. In an eye of calm I emailed a quick hello to John and Gregg—no expectations, just a desire to have a thread of contact.
Weeks later, I was surprised and humbled by Gregg’s long and thoughtful reply. Surprised because he had been reading these Chronicles and offered some incredible insight on the various gumballs that roll out of my cranium. Humbled because he had made such an effort to get to know me through my words.
About community, Gregg wrote: “The idea of community is the bedrock of the human species…” and “…the fundamental need for connection by the human species can not be suppressed. Perhaps much of the ‘stress’ of modern life is from the (largely unsuccessful, futile, ridiculous) attempts at such suppression.”
(The entire email is worth sharing but this is one of the parts that I’ve chosen to share today, with the author’s permission).
Modern life is a life of separation. Connection is risky business. Even as I sent that first email to Gregg, part of me was thinking, I hope he doesn’t think I’m a stalker or a weirdo or something. I don’t think I’m alone in that way of thinking, either. I think most of us second guess ourselves when we reach out to others. Something that should be natural has become alien and frightening. We have manufactured stress out of thin air.
Gregg also wrote, “So many people (I imagine that includes me) have no idea of the impact we have on those we encounter in life.”
True again. Every day, in every connection, we impact and influence the people around us. We shape our community in a million ways we are not even aware of. When we under-value ourselves we also under-value the importance of community.
There should always be a place for “the individual” and we should always celebrate the things that make us unique. But those leaf-cutter ants are pretty damn amazing too.
To celebrate and embrace community does not diminish us as individuals; community is strength. No matter how self-reliant we think we are, we all need to feel those four words…
You are not alone.