I love crowds. Massive groups of individuals who have never seen one another and maybe never will again, but are nonetheless here in this place together. Maybe they’re waiting for the next show at a music festival, or watching a street performer in the city, or packing into a cozy coffee shop, or even protesting a cause. The occasion doesn’t matter. In a crowd, I am small. I am another face. I am part of something more than me.
Dr. Suess told us, “There is no one alive who is Youer than You,” and we held tight to this notion. Unique individuals, irreplicable snowflakes. Wide-eyed, we basked in sunlight, mistaken for spotlight. And we were told to rise, to climb to the ladder’s top rung, to achieve success. Surely we are not puzzle pieces designed to fit with others. We must be pyramid blocks, stacking on top of our neighbor, moving towards continual elevation. Love your neighbor, for he is your asset.
This past summer I was a counselor at a youth camp.
“Mia, we are not leaving this table until you eat something.” Even with charcoal black hair covering most of her face, the defiance in her bright eyes was unmistakable. Mia stared at me silently. I can fix this. I can make her eat. I unwrapped the granola bar and held it up to her face. Nothing. Fifteen, she was too old for this. I tossed the granola bar aside and threw up my hands.
“Do you want me to call your parents? Do they know how to get you to eat? Mia, I don’t know what to do.”
She broke her silence long enough to say, “You want to threaten to call my mom? I won’t be blackmailed into eating.”
Exasperation set in. I asked her why she wouldn’t eat, if she wanted something specific from the kitchen, if she wanted me to spoon-feed her. I told her I only asked because I cared. She told me I was getting paid to care.
The only route I knew for problem-solving was the direct, nail-on-the-head kind of route. The relentless, head-on kind of route. Mia absolutely rejected this route. By the time my co-counselor walked into the now deserted ranch house, we were worked up and on the road to nowhere productive.
Hannah approached Mia from an entirely different angle—she asked about her home life, her friends, school. Not one thing about food. Hannah took a winding, gentle road and little by little, Mia began to crack open, spilling out body image anxieties and a long history of abuse.
I was convinced that I could make Mia eat, that I could fix the surface issue at hand all by myself. But I only saw the iceberg tip, not the foundation. I was not enough to help Mia by myself. Maybe I stirred up Mia and pushed her towards the breaking point, but I needed Hannah. Her insight and wisdom broke through my pride and allowed for real progress to be made.
Individuality means nothing in isolation. Company gives the unique its meaning and purpose. The American Dream tells us to move vertically, but what if we spread horizontally, like paint on a canvas, running into and mixing with the next color? There are infinite images and clichés revolving around teamwork—ants moving a pebble together, worker bees in the hive, members of a choir, and the list continues. And yet, these are muted and overrun by the desire for spotlight recognition and lone progression. Why is it abnormal to admit our need for one another, our inability to be autonomous?
Every time I tell my dad that I am going anywhere unfamiliar, he responds with his incessant instruction to “stick with the crowd”. Maybe there’s more to this advice than safety. Perhaps the notion of the venerated king of the hill ought to be replaced with a crowd of individuals, moving with power and direction.