Thursday, December 15, 2005


Richard Pryor died last Saturday from a long battle with Multiple Sclerosis (MS). On Monday, NPR’s “Fresh Air” replayed a 1995 interview that Terri Gross had with the comedian.

In this interview Pryor said something that caught my attention; he said that he considered MS as a blessing. Like many of her listeners, Gross wondered why Pryor saw his disease in this way. Pryor answered that he finds it difficult to depend on other people and difficult to trust them – now, however he is forced to do both.

This point resonated with me. While I have never had a serious illness, especially on the level of MS, I live alone and I know that even with a flu or a broken limb the hardest part of the experience is not the physical illness or injury itself, but the psychological experience of realizing that I can no longer do everything for myself anymore – I must now depend on others. Thoughts torment my mind: can I depend on others? Can I trust them? Will they be there for me?

At such moments we become more profoundly aware of the importance of our social network of friends and family – or the lack thereof. We also become more aware of our membership – or lack of membership – in faith-based or other supportive communities.

There was a time when the United States was characterized, to a much greater degree, by the strength of its communities and voluntary organizations. This is something that Tocqueville commented on in Democracy in America, back in the early 19th Century. While community life and voluntary organizations are still around, to a certain degree, they have much less of a presence in our day-to-day lives. One of the more popular works of sociology, Bowling Alone, captures this transition in contemporary American society.

Sure, we have created new outlets that resemble communities in many ways; these include coffee shops and virtual communities such as chatrooms, usernets, and blogs – but this is no replacement for traditional communities that were defined by geography or a central meeting place. Moreover, the traditional communities provided, in addition to an area for communication, a safety net. They enabled people to help one another in physical and material ways, and to become involved in each other’s lives at a very intimate level.

There were always those who saw such intimate involvement as “meddling,” but it is questionable as to whether or not our lives are enriched by our “liberation” from such “meddling.” Also, there are those who argue that it is harder to depend on one another because we have become a nation of “strangers,” with greater cultural and ethnic diversity than ever before. But the essence of family life is learning to get along with those with whom one may differ. Within families, it is a matter of living with those who have different personalities from one’s own – in communities, it may also include differences of culture.

Nonetheless, we should carefully consider the implications of living in a society where people are unable to trust one another any more; can people be trustworthy if they are no longer able to trust others? What kinds of experiences in life must people have in order for them to be more trustworthy?

Learning to depend on others and learning to trust people is a most difficult thing. Richard Pryor was correct in pointing out that it is an experience well worth having, and part of what it means to be fully human. A society that embraces the ethos of the “rugged individual” not only leaves individuals and families vulnerable in insecure, it also denies history because no such societies have ever been built or able to survive.

The basis of a strong society is not how many guns are hidden in our closets, how many police are patrolling the streets or how many weapons are available for our military – a strong society is based on trust and the ability to depend on one another in times of crisis. A strong society is rooted in the strength of our primary social networks of family and community. We should closely examine what is happing to ours.

No comments: