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It's not always about you and what you want

• Feb 28, 2019 at 3:00 PM

When was the last time you were enthusiastic about a group activity? Truly excited to collaborate with others to create something?

The fifth-, seventh- and eighth-grade Spring Lake bands offered a concert Monday night (I don’t know what happened to the sixth-graders). The energy as the fifth-grade band took the stage was palpable. They strode proudly to their seats, arranged, dropped and arranged music, crossed and un-crossed legs. Before Mr. Grevengoed could even signal them to begin, a few horns blatted, and then it was like a freight train held by an invisible cord that stretched from the arms of the director to each child.

I listened to the pieces they played displaying their progress over the year, and I thought about what it looks like when a group of people who are passionate about something come together. I thought about the beautiful things they can make when they remain committed to a vision, a goal.

American adults seem to embrace the concept of individualism more so than many other nations. Our concept of “me” instead of “we” is evidenced in school drop-off lines, those caregivers who sit and block the lanes looking down at a glowing device. It is evidenced in our rabid and raucous cries for individual freedoms, but only the ones that match our values. Our rugged “me” eschews the needs of others over the needs of self, it lives inside a bubble we’ve created that labels anything we disagree with as fake news; and it just isn’t how human beings should interact with each other.

We cheer our children on and promote teamwork and kindness in their sports and their schools. We send treats in for birthdays for all the kids, not just the ones who deserve a treat. All those things cost our children. They cost them patience and time, they cost our children the certain knowledge that some kids just aren’t good sports, that some kids just didn’t practice. This teaches our kids that, in a community, in a society, we sometimes must pick up the slack for other people.

And that’s all good, but somewhere the narrative changes. Somewhere the thinking of our kids becomes inward focused, somewhere a meanness inside of them is groomed and watered, and then it blooms into the kind of people who hold so tightly to what they perceive as theirs that their very neighbors go hungry and sleep in cars. At some point, those fresh-faced 10-year-olds will become closed-fisted misers, intent on a doctrine of the poor being somehow morally corrupt and deserving of their poverty.

It’s a strange juxtaposition; this culture of every child receiving a trophy regardless of effort and merit; this place of homeless families and people who can’t afford health care. Imagine, for example, asking your child how many students need a cupcake in their class. Imagine that your child said that all but two of the kids deserve one, the other two don’t. Would any parent really send in a batch of cupcakes that was two short?

I’m insisting that health care is the equivalent of cupcakes. I’m letting you know that if you haven’t shopped the health care marketplace, you should check it out before you say or type another word about Medicare for all. Let me know how families who work jobs that don’t offer health care can afford to pay several thousand dollars a month for coverage that still requires huge out-of-pocket costs before that coverage ever kicks in.

And sometimes people won’t contribute, and sometimes the rest of us will have to do the work others should have done, will have to clean up the messes we didn’t make and pay for the things we didn’t really need for ourselves. A fifth-grade band isn’t any different.

While those who disagree take their time reaching these true conclusions, I will content myself with the memory of the faces of my 10-year-old and her best friend, clutching their trumpets, trying to see past the bright lights into the sea of people who came to hear them play.

The arts are important; they teach us to be human. They have the ability to crack our hearts wide open in a way that only choosing to be part of something bigger than just us can really do.

A culture that focuses only on the wants and needs of the individual leads to inevitable frustration (school drop-off lines, just for a start) and want. It’s a culture of people who are deeply, at their core, lonely and empty, gazing up from screens and repeating a mantra that simply isn’t true.

This life just isn’t about you in the same way that a band isn’t just about the flutes, or a choir isn’t just about the sopranos. It isn’t about attaining your personal financial goals, not about making sure you are comfortable when so many are in want. This life is about picking up your own glorious instrument, the collision of your deep joy meeting the world’s deep need. It’s about picking up your neighbor’s music when they drop it, sitting up straight and focusing intently to create a beautiful sound — a sound that covers the folks who didn’t practice, a sound that covers the clarinetist whose mom couldn’t afford a new reed, a sound that reverberates across the universe with a single cadence: love.

— By Alicia Hager, Tribune community columnist

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