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The Daily Wildcat

The Daily Wildcat


    A group lesson for the individualist

    A European hospital administrator here tells the story of George, a young, soon-to-be father who came with several of his brothers to visit the administrator late one night. The administrator noticed that George seemed a little distracted, but the group sat down for coffee and small talk for 40 minutes until George finally said, “”Would you do me the favor of letting me borrow your car tonight? My wife’s in labor, and I need to take her to the emergency room.””

    What the administrator witnessed was not a man’s lack of proper concern for his wife’s condition. Rather, George was participating in cultural forms designed to provide a support network for just such an emergency. George knew that his family and friends would be there for him, but he also knew that proper gratitude and respect were due.

    These support networks are clear to me every day. Families and, sometimes, it seems, entire villages, come to sit with sick relatives. Adult children, grandchildren in tow, carry chairs from the kitchen to the bedsides of the elderly. The juice, soda, chocolate and baked goods they bring crowd the small shelf by each bed. When the doctors make their rounds, the families stand outside the room, talking to each other or visiting other acquaintances in the hospital.

    The maternity ward is an especially crowded department. Though visiting hours officially end at 5 in the evening, whole families wait outside the doors for a nurse or doctor to unlock them so they can slip inside to see the youngest of their kin. Babies are wheeled out from the nursery at all hours of the day to be greeted by aunts and uncles and cousins and grandparents. From birth, they are part of this vast network of support.

    The long visits, the crying children, the boxes of chocolate given to diabetics – in general, the intensity of these support networks – often seem ridiculous to me. As a Westerner, I’ve always considered peace and quiet essential to recovery. The curtains around the beds are meant to maintain privacy, not to alert the other four patients and their relatives that something interesting is happening.

    But a recent article in The New York Times by Daniel Goleman reports on new research that patients with large support networks recover more often and more rapidly. So what started our “”two visitors only, and no children”” rule? And more importantly, why are we so bent on going it alone that we avoid the complicated but beautiful system of love, obligation, duty and gratitude that bind large families and communities together?

    Part of it may be that we’re sheltered from the realities of aging and disease. In the U.S., the elderly often remove to warmer, sunnier, children-free locales, while in many other countries, the aged move in with their children. Here, different generations live together, not only interacting, but performing duties expected of them.

    Also, our American individualism, articulated in the Declaration of Independence, is founded on our resistance against forced obligations and authority. This individualism pushes us toward enterprise, courage and leadership, but it also deludes us into thinking that we can – and should – do it all alone. Infirmity is a private problem that we must face ourselves.

    But it’s not just disease that we face alone; our stubborn individualism is an entire outlook. I can’t speak for all Americans, but I know that I don’t want to be beholden to anyone; I want to plan and follow my own program that won’t be messed up by others; I want my life to be influenced only by my own will and not by human dynamics. Unlike George, the new father, I want to rent a car or arrange a taxi instead of having to rely on a relationship.

    Of course, this attitude has its benefits. Individualists will stick to their principles despite social pressure; collectivists, like many people here, women especially, may express their desire to be “”free”” – in dress, occupation or marital status – but they are hindered by a fear of what the relatives and neighbors will say.

    But when we dismiss social support networks as complicated, intrusive or unnecessary, we miss out on the reciprocal altruism that’s allowed humans to survive. We miss the nobler side of humanity, the large family paying tribute to its matriarch or a village honoring a longtime benefactor. We miss out on the experience as part of something bigger than ourselves.

    I set out for Nazareth very much on my own. I arrived at the airport and navigated my way through train and bus and taxi stations to get to my apartment. My new coworkers and acquaintances here were surprised, almost alarmed, that I came here without my family to live alone. And yes, it’s been good for me to face some challenges here by myself. It’s fostered confidence and perseverance.

    But, although I didn’t know it when I arrived, I was already part of a support network. When my grandfather worked at this hospital in the 1970s, he paid for two young Arab men to attend college in the U.S., because they were not allowed to attend college in Israel.

    That debt of gratitude is repaid to me daily by the extended family of these men. The family shows me kindness, taking pains to make sure all my needs are met, feeding me, taking me on trips around Israel and driving me on errands, though I myself have done nothing for them. I have a family in Nazareth. My aloneness has built my confidence, but my support system has given me a sense of belonging. I’m not as foreign as I thought I was.

    Marian Lacy is a senior majoring in Near Eastern studies, molecular and cellular biology, and English. She is spending the semester volunteering in a hospital in Nazareth, Israel, and can be reached at

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