We are in a defining moment of history, a rare time when one phenomenon has affected the lives of every person in every country on every continent. In one sense, we’re seeing how similar all humans are, how emotions like fear and love are universal. It will also be an interesting project to assess how different cultures reacted to the Coronavirus pandemic. So far, it seems the mindset and behaviors of collectivist cultures in East Asia have been more effective at containing the spread of the virus than the individualistic cultures in western countries like Britain and the U.S. However, in the long term, I wouldn’t be surprised if a vaccine or treatment for the virus originates from an innovative, individualistic society. We’ll more than likely see both culture styles shine by the end of this.
In her opinion piece, “American innovation challenge: Embracing other cultures’ values to fight Covid-19,” writer Jane Hyun explains the difference in individualism and collectivism:
"[In individualistic societies] it is expected that each individual act for him or herself, make their own choices, and that individual needs take precedence over the group’s. In South Korea, Singapore, Taiwan, and China, where the collectivist orientation is prevalent, preferences are given to the rights of the community, team, or organization and standing out is not encouraged; therefore decisions are made that take into account the best interests of the group.”
It's been interesting to see the responses to the pandemic from people I know on Facebook. One common thread seems to be that the vast majority of people I know are chiefly concerned with how this virus affects them, not society as a whole. Even those of us who are holed up at home, if we’re being honest, are doing so out of fear that we would contract the virus, not out of a benevolent desire to protect others. I know that’s true for me, at least. As much as I want to say I am doing this for the good of my fellow man, I’m not sure if I’d be so careful after six long weeks of isolation if I didn’t have a newborn baby.
Conversely, in collectivist South Korea, hundreds of thousands of citizens have been tested, even if they weren’t showing symptoms, and if positive, voluntarily handed over sensitive location data to build a tracking system that allows public health officials as well as the general public to see the locations of Covid-19 positive individuals so they can stay away from them. I’m not even that passionate about protecting my privacy (obviously), but this idea makes me cringe a little! Americans, regardless of political persuasion, would NEVER consent to such a breach in privacy on behalf of the community.
This concept of collectivism and individualism has been on my mind in relation to Coronavirus, but today I thought about it in the context of my own life, especially during this season of being isolated at home. I think many of you will relate.
I’m solidly a millennial, raised to believe I was intensely special, that my unique talents would “make a difference.” I received these encouraging messages in every arena—from my family, at school and at church. I remember watching movies with strong heroines and fantasizing about saving the world for weeks afterward. I didn’t know exactly what I’d do one day, but I knew it just had to be big and brave and that I would change the world with my uniqueness. This is all a reflection of being raised in an individualistic culture.
Fast-forward to today, as I sat on a swing set coloring splintered wood with chalk. I had just gotten off the phone with a friend after my toddler looked at me and said “Mommy, no talking!” meaning, get off the phone! So I got off the phone, and we colored. There was no plan, no teaching, no agenda. She just wanted me to sit next to her and color. Most of my days look a lot like this, especially since we’ve been isolated. I’m usually nursing or playing or consoling. So many tiny moments strung together make up each day, and most of those days look more or less the same. On the surface, it does not feel incredibly productive, unique or important.
You might also be in the thick of motherhood, or maybe you’re working a dead-end job waiting for the right opportunity to arise. Maybe you’ve worked so hard to build a career and have found it less fulfilling than you imagined. Maybe you’re in ministry or nonprofit work and feeling burned out and jaded. Or you’re in college, terrified of what’s next. Perhaps you’re retired and your days don’t feel as meaningful without work.
I think for individualists like us, the scariest thing we can imagine is that there’s nothing especially unique about my life. After a lifetime of being told we’re special, it’s sobering to think that maybe we just… aren’t. I walk through a cemetery near my house regularly, and as I look at the headstones, I so often think, "In 100 years or so, no one will remember me... realistically probably not even my great-grandkids. How depressing." There are a lot of authors and social media influencers who would not be millionaires today if we weren’t all searching for a way to make ourselves feel like we’re doing something incredible with our lives.
So what can we learn from collectivism? I’m not advocating that one way is better than the other. Just like I think both types of society will be essential in the fight against Coronavirus, I think each can learn from the other in these small ways, too.
One of the hallmarks of collectivism is that everyone has a place in society. Caste systems are an extreme example of this. Instead of “you can be whatever you want to be,” collective societies tend to encourage loyalty to a particular way of life, more of a “you were destined to be ____.” Negatively, this keeps people in a box and discourages individuality. Positively, it means it’s OK to live a simple life, and that simple life is important because it fulfills a needed role for society as a whole—you might not feel like you’re making a difference as a farmer, but what if all the farmers went to college and moved to the city and there were no more farmers?
I think for me, a nice balance between the extreme individualism of my childhood and the collective mindset is the acceptance that I am a special person because every person is special and worthy of love, but that my vocation, hobbies or creative pursuits don’t have to be unique to be important. I don’t have to be an Instagram influencer mommy (or do all the intensely educational activities they suggest) for my motherhood to be important and impactful. I don’t have to write a bestselling book for my writing to be important, even if it’s only important to me. I don’t have to do something insanely radical for Jesus for my faith to matter.
What’s yours? What do you do that isn’t especially special, but that’s incredibly important? Whatever it is, I want to thank you. Thank you for doing your part, for stewarding what’s been given to you, for a job well done even if no one else will ever see it. Just as we can help others during this crazy time by the simple act of staying home, I think we are all doing more for our families and our society than we can imagine just by being here and doing our part. You are important.