[Originally in Health Beat, Richmond Register, November 2012]

Mental illness is often defined as “normal” thinking and behavior carried to extremes, to the point of harm.  When you consider it, are we not expected to be anxious before a big event?  Depressed at a funeral?  Confident in ourselves when we do something well?  These examples only become a problem when they show up in the wrong environment or if they hang around long after circumstances have changed.  That’s where we get anxiety disorders, major depression or narcissistic personality traits.

I was thinking recently about ways culture can suffer from the same afflictions.

Consider that we Americans are highly focused on independence and individuality.  We pay lip service to the opportunities afforded by an education, and lampoon shmaltzy celebrities for thanking “my mama” for their achievements.  But you might notice that those celebrities are doing their thanking on special occasions only.  On a day-to-day basis, Americans really more often lionize and idealize “self-made” figures, those who flunked out of school (Edgar Allan Poe, Picasso) or simply had no need for it (William Randolph Hearst, Bill Gates).  Supposedly, these people pulled themselves up by their proverbial bootstraps, took on the world with little but ideas or dreams, and achieved “success” all on their own.  Disney cartoon character Scrooge McDuck said it best, when he established that making money required him to be “smarter than the smarties and tougher than the toughies.”

Oh, come on.

Such exemplars make good anecdotes, ways to illustrate how hard work, perseverance and “good old common sense” can pay dividends better than stuffy “book learning” and educational dogma.  But like mental illness, too much focus on individualism and self-determination becomes a problem.  It plays down outside relationship inputs and interdependence.  At its extreme, it fosters ingratitude.  One doesn’t have to look far to find examples of supposedly “self-made” business people, politicians or even peers, who show little consideration for humbler people, be it in employment practices or public policy decisions.  Yet, are they really so independent?  Even Bill Gates came from an educated and wealthy family, one with the resources to send him to Harvard in the first place, even if he chose not to graduate from there.  The most savvy capitalist needs public roads and clean drinking water to even open a business, let alone to begin seeing profits.

Let me use myself to further illustrate the other side.  I will soon complete my second advanced degree.  I’ll likely never be a doctor, but I have the equivalent number of academic credits and years for one.  These endeavors required thousands of hours of study, research, writing papers and giving presentations.  Those were solely my responsibilities, and ultimately, my achievements.  Sure, I’m proud.  But did I really do it alone?  Nope.  First, twenty years ago, there were my parents, who helped me get to and from classes.  Tutors and study groups aided me with difficult material.  Circles of friends gave me venues to sharpen my critical thinking.  And in the end, my wife’s emotional and financial support is all that makes this upcoming graduation possible.  Every achievement like this is a communal one.

I think each of our accomplishments needs to be recognized for what they truly are; the coming together of so many relationships.  I have to wonder, can it make us more grateful and more likely to want to better ourselves, if we know we don’t do it alone?

Click Here for December 2012