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The Me Word

The Me Word

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The first symptoms appear in the very first days of life. At 14 months, the condition is acute. It peaks on or about the subject's 14th birthday, and shows no sign of abatement before age 54 or 64. In certain cases, it extends to extreme old age and beyond.

It's called many things—independence, rebelliousness, non-conformity. It's something that comes imbedded in every human psyche: a persistent, agitating willfulness to "be my own person."

Few things are as insulting to our self-image as the notion that we're one of the pack, that society dictates our habits and behavior. If our parents wore their hair short, we fight them to grow it long; if we blossomed into consciousness under the tutelage of a long-haired generation, we shave it to the scalp. In practically everything we do, we feel the burden to affirm our individuality to ourselves and to the world at large.

But like most everything else in the nest of paradox that is the human being, our sense of individuality comes coupled with an opposing drive: the desire to belong, the yearning for communality with our peers. Our identity craves and needs both distinctiveness and homogeneity, both a self and a family.

The Chassidic masters tell us that these are not, in truth, opposing aims; in fact, they corroborate and fulfill each other. A well defined individuality enhances a person's contribution as a community member. And a tightly knit community enhances the worth of the individual.

Chassidic teaching demonstrates this truth with the example of words in a sentence. For example, the five words "man", "is", "an" "individualistic" and "creature" each posses meaning. But the sentence "Man is an individualistic creature" contains much more information and insight than the sum of its words. In this case, five times one equals much more than five.

In order for this quantum leap in significance to occur, two contrary forces have to be applied. Too much unity among the words (as in "manisanindividualisticcreature") produces gibberish, as does too much independence (as in "Is creature man an individualistic"). The sentence must delineate the individuality of its member words, and the words must subjugate themselves to the communal logic of the sentence. When both these needs are respected, the result is a communality that is enhanced by the individuality of its members, and individualities enhanced by their membership in the community.

Since the universe is basically words (see Genesis 1), the above should work equally well in the grammar of marriage, community building, international relations and cosmic harmony, among other things.

See also Hillel's Paradox and Community, Individuality, and Why It's Frustrating to Have a Brain

By Yanki Tauber; based on the teachings of the Rebbe.
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