The myth of rugged individualism; or why my grandma was wrong

As a multi-generational native Wyomingite, I grew up with tales of the hard-working folk who settled the American West. Not only were we regularly taught about these people at school, stories passed down through generations of those who came before us contributed to the legends of those rugged individuals.

Rugged individualism.

It’s a concept many of us grew up with, with a uniquely American idea of what it means. Railroaders, homesteaders, pioneers, revolutionaries. They crossed the American prairie in much the same way as their forebearers crossed the Atlantic, searching for a “new” world where a man could fashion a life with nothing but his own two hands. (Yes, I personally recognize the Americas were populated prior to European immigration and that not all of these people were men. That’s far more than I can get into in the confines of this column.)

Perhaps it’s in these stories, perhaps it’s in my blood, or perhaps it’s a bit of both, that I found my own fierce independence, determination, and absolute reticence to ever ask for help. Seriously. I loathe asking for help. I think it was my grandmother who convinced me that “if you want something done right, do it yourself.”

To say I’ve taken that advice to heart is an understatement.

There’s certainly something to be said for being tough, self-reliant, independent, and determined.

However, the older I’ve gotten, the more I’ve found there’s also a lot to be said for being the opposite. The negative connotations associated with words like soft and cooperative really have to go.

As much as I, and American culture as a whole, can find to admire in rugged individualism, I have come to believe we’ve taken the concept too far, to what I refer to as toxic individualism.

We’re so enamored with the legends of our forebearers we’ve somehow forgotten that they seldom really did anything alone. Railroaders, homesteaders, pioneers — they all worked together or their efforts would have been for naught. And revolutionaries? One of the things I’ve always found remarkable about the “Founding Fathers” is that so many brilliant minds were present at the same time and place to create what they did, together.

In fact, if we look back through the entirety of human history, all of the really monumental things were achieved by people working together.

So how is it that we now focus so much on the I and the me that we forget about the us and the we?

We hear it all the time, the emphasis on “my” rights, without an equal recognition of the rights of others or the responsibilities that accompany rights. Although I was raised to be independent and self-reliant, I was also raised to be respectful of others and to recognize that my rights didn’t exist in a vacuum and didn’t give me license to curtail the rights of others in order to do only what I want.

The tenets of toxic individualism seem to be an intense focus on the self, accompanied by a deep mistrust of other people.

That inward focus and mistrust is not only personally unhealthy, it’s damaging to society as a whole. At worst, it’s dangerous and deadly.

It’s what leads people to stop talking to their neighbors.

It’s what leads to increased feelings of isolation and loneliness.

It’s what leads us to judge one another without really knowing one another.

It’s what leads us to stereotype and blame others for perceived societal problems.

It’s what leads to arguments against providing services in rural communities and states like ours because people should just “man up” and take care of themselves.

It’s what leads to our extreme and at times completely debilitating political polarization.

It’s what leads to the intense suspicion and fear that results in a person shooting someone else for knocking on the wrong door, or turning around in the wrong driveway, or approaching the wrong car, or bouncing a basketball in the wrong yard, or looking like the wrong political party.

It’s what leads to a refusal to admit any sort of struggle or ask for help, even when that can have tragic consequences, particularly in states like ours with horrific suicide rates accompanied by a pernicious and ongoing stigma surrounding mental health and depression.

I’m a very hard-working, independent, self-reliant woman from a hard-working, independent, self-reliant state. Yet when I reflect on my life, I realize I wouldn’t be where I am without a whole lot of help. From my parents, family, and friends, for sure. But also from public schools I attended from kindergarten through my current graduate school program. From the teachers and other staff at those schools. From my community in general.

I realize that paying taxes to support government services is a touchy subject in Wyoming, and I certainly don’t enjoy paying taxes either. But I also realize those public schools wouldn’t exist without public funds. Neither would public infrastructure to ensure drinking water and plowed roads and basic safety and so many other things we all take for granted.

And the list of public programs I’ve utilized throughout my life? Medicaid, WIC, Pell Grants, reduced-cost school lunches, housing assistance, and the list goes on. I’m beyond grateful those programs existed and were accessible when I needed them. I’m beyond grateful my grandparents had Social Security and Medicare to help them navigate their golden years with dignity and that those same programs are now benefiting my parents.

As someone who has benefited immensely from social programs, I recognize I wouldn’t be where I am now without them. That’s probably why I’m such a fierce advocate for them now, when I no longer need them but others do.

Contrary to what some may say or believe, helping out our neighbors in need is very much in keeping with our traditions. Regardless of their political or religious leanings or any other differences. And without forcing people to resort to GoFundMe campaigns or bake sales or spaghetti dinners to pay medical bills or beg strangers for help on social media, without subjecting those in need to our judgment about who is worthy.

One of the Wyoming values I was raised with that I hold most dear is this, “When a person can help, they should.” Being kind and empathetic isn’t weakness. Neither is asking for help or admitting when one is struggling.

That is something I work on continually. I tell myself almost daily that I don’t have to do everything myself, that it’s okay to lean on other people for support, that it’s fine to admit I’m tired and need a break occasionally. That people can be both independent and vulnerable, both self-reliant and part of a community.

I don’t say it often, because she was right about a whole lot of things, but my grandma was wrong when she told me if I wanted something done right, I needed to do it myself. Trying to do everything by oneself is unhealthy, unrealistic, and, frankly, kind of stupid. We’re all here on this Earth in this life trying to do the best we can and that works so much better, and we get so much more accomplished, when we’re doing it together.

Perhaps it’s time we started admiring what was really remarkable about many of our forebearers, and it wasn’t the toxic individualism that has become so problematic. It wasn’t even the rugged individualism we mythologize.

Instead it was the rugged cooperation that made so much of what we most appreciate about our nation, and our state, even possible. Because none of them did it alone. And neither should we.