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Author Wendell Berry on the Perils of Individualism

Novelist, essayist, and farmer Wendell Berry has a unique image for the perils of individualism. As he was walking with his friend Wes Jackson, they observed a plot of Maximilian Sunflowers, a nearly ten-foot tall plant native to the Midwest. Wes Jackson pointed to one particular plant that was growing alone, disconnected from the "community" of other sunflowers.

Wendell Berry observed that although this solo, individualistic plant had grown very tall, it was clearly not healthy. The blossoms were thick and heavy, so heavy that the branches were starting to strain and break under the weight. Berry noted that in one sense the plant had "succeeded" as a solo plant. After all, it was growing and it was unusually tall. But, unfortunately, it had completely failed its intended purpose as a Maximilian Sunflower: these plants only thrive and give life as they grow in community, not in isolation.

Berry concluded,

"We could say that [achieving success solely] as an individual was the [plant's] failure. It had failed because it had lived outside an important part of its definition, which consists of individuality and its community. A part of its [healthy] potential lay in its community, not [just] itself."

For Wendell Berry, people today are often lonely and isolated because we've lost a simple, biblical truth: true health—spiritually, emotionally, and physically—is found in community, and we've forgotten that "to speak of the health of an isolated individual is a contradiction in terms."

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