Learning A Radical E Pluribus Unum | Reflections by Fellow Caitlin Flanagan '19

“When we try to pick out anything by itself, we find it hitched to everything else in the universe.” John Muir

The first essay I wrote for an English class in college was about the “privacy of the soul” in Virginia Woolf’s Mrs. Dalloway. Although I cringe now reading over the apparent and enthusiastic belief I had discovered Woolf’s use of the stream of consciousness method myself, it is evidently written from a place of personal investment. My first reading of Woolf’s literature sparked in me an appreciation for the capacity of literature to show reverence for the unique interiority of each individual soul. I loved the line in the novel, “There is a dignity in people; a solitude; even between husband and wife a gulf; and that one must respect,” and carried an interest in the ways literature could express that fundamental personal solitude into the remainder of my studies.

I think a literary lens on essential aloneness, particularly on the value of each individual story, helps navigate a world of difference with compassion. In the stories of his community-making, Jesus meets each person with an emphasis on their particular hearts and stories, and rejects the urge to categorize them according to their work, gender, or ethnicity. Just as I relished literature for the way it chewed over the contradictions, wonders, and questions of every human person, I tried to push myself to meet each person with a readiness to be surprised. At a place like UVa, where there are so many markers of social belonging to lend quick, shallow categorization to each person I met—from the Greek letters on their t-shirt and the buttons on their backpack, to their major and hometown—it takes a conscious decision to expect the unexpected. To the extent that I have at least tried to refrain from judging a person according to the stories told about them, their imposed narratives, I have benefited enormously.

We each know that we ourselves do not belong firmly within one, static identity, and even often surprise ourselves with the person we are becoming. My love for literature has accompanied my belief in a God who writes into each individual a story worth telling. I think a respect for the self as a radically unique and complex being has enhanced both my personal experience of college, as I have given myself time for reflection and allowed myself to defy certain imposed categorizations, and my engagement with others, as I have worked to open my mind to appreciating their narratives for the ways they tell them and understand them, rather than for the ways they can fit into my own.

Yet, while I can look back on these four years and identify the ways I grew in my appreciation for human solitude, I feel just as strongly that I have a greater awareness of connectedness. A writer I studied for my senior thesis, Rebecca Solnit, writes in an essay on hope, history, and indirect consequences that she thinks the only way “to stop tyranny and destruction” would be a society which is a “radical e pluribus unum,” one which compassionately remembers, retells, and celebrates stories of self, other, and together. A compassionate democracy looks beyond individual freedom and individual responsibility to see the connections which necessarily exist between people, between the ecology and people, between past and present, between different ideas. Like Walt Whitman’s guiding metaphor in Leaves of Grass, Solnit theorizes a thriving democracy which both recognizes the pluribus: that each human soul stands erect as one individual, solitudinous leaf of grass, one which carries its own meaning, responsibility, and dignity; and which asserts the great unum, the unity between all living things in this world that must be nurtured and recognized.

One quote from Mother Teresa has entered into my mind many times in college: “If we have forgotten who we are, it is because we have forgotten we belong to one another.” This is a testament to a fundamental interconnectedness, a belief that fullness of self is only found in depth of relationship. Living outside of a family unit for the first time, it can be easy to operate as a lone agent, responsible to and for none. For me, though, I often felt unmoored when I only conceptualized my time in terms of my own needs and goals. In close community, and with the recognition of the ways my time can be used for others, I found it easier to escape the sadness of self-sufficiency. In love of others, the formation of a personal identity is not a stressful, abstract endeavor to find myself and then express that self through the clothes I wear or my social media posts. Rather, I have tried to, and will continue to try to, find myself in the work of love—a more complicated, flawed, and beautiful sense of self, which is not ever static, but grows in certain directions. The belief that I am more fully myself when I am in community with others removes the heavy burden from my shoulders that I need to enter relationship with an articulable and identifiable identity, and frees me to find myself in the convoluted, scrappy, and wonderful work of human relationship.

I think an increased sense of connection also lends greater power to the decisions I make, whether out of generosity and love or self-interest and fear. I am often struck by the ways that the love we experience from others either limits or enables increased love for others. The connections between the language of individual compassion and large-scale kingdom-building in Jesus’ message lends a deep significance to the power of the everyday. Each specific decision to love another, from a heartfelt apology to a cookie on a sad day, has profound, compounding resonances, as another immortal soul internalizes the compassion they have been given and walks into the world with increased generosity and openness. Similarly, I have tried to view the pain I have experienced from negligent friends or cutting comments in terms of a larger network of shame and frustration, to imagine the connections between the way they are treating me and the way they have been made to feel. This is an essentially anti-American idea, as connection can be seen as undercutting individualistic responsibility, but has been a perspective that has both enabled me to take the consequences of my own choices seriously and to view the mistakes of others with human empathy.     

As I move into a new space, attempting to find a home there, I hope I remain connected to the person I felt myself becoming in college with understanding and love, even as I continue to grow and change. I hope I remain grateful for my connections to the people who loved and shaped me in this place, even as we all forge relationships in these new places. I hope I see the vine upon which we are all branches, the body of which we are all parts, the family within which we are all brothers and sisters. I hope, too, I value each individual soul for its particularities. I hope I never lose the sense that I belong to others. My time in college, with both its radical loneliness and depth of community, makes me hope for a future characterized by a radical e pluribus unum, a divine unity founded on reverence for each soul as an individual miracle.