I love the Geico commercial that has fun with the “loner cowboy.” Have you seen it? The cowboy sits on his horse while his girl comes running out weeping hysterically and yelling, “Don’t go, Jessie!” He says, “I’m sorry, Daisy, but I’m a loner. And a loner has to be alone.” He then kicks his horse and goes riding off (only to slam his head against the letter “E” when “The End” appears across the screen – if you’ve seen it, it makes humorous sense). I love the commercial, not because of the insurance, but because of the way it recognizes, and has a little fun with, that iconic staple of the American Western: the Rugged Individual.
Of course, that Rugged Individual motif shows up in far more serious narratives, like the movie “The Outlaw Josey Wales,” starring an icon in his own right, Clint Eastwood. In that movie, Eastwood portrays a former Confederate soldier, Josey Wales, whose wife and son are murdered by shadowy Union sympathizers. Wells then sets out on the proverbial path of revenge, riding by himself from town to town hunting down the perpetrators of the crime. He intends to ride alone, nursing his grief and rage. As he rides, however, he reluctantly assembles a motley crew of other victims of Western movie peril until he has a veritable entourage going from place to place with him. Finally, they find a ranch outside a town, which they all defend in an expected gunfight, and then Wales rides into town to confront – and dispatch – the ring leader of the aforementioned shadowy Union sympathizers.
However, when Wales returns to the tavern after the demise of the last villain, a US Marshall sits in the corner, a hat pulled down over his face, with his searing eyes glinting through the shadow of the brim. Wales and the Marshall lock eyes. Standing around the tavern, though, are the members of Wales’ motley assemblage. One of them looks at Wales and says, “Hello, Mr. Jones! This marshall here is looking for an outlaw by the name of Josey Wales. You know anything about him?” And everyone else in the bar participates in the ruse. The marshall obviously knows that everyone’s lying, but he’s also impressed with the fact that Wales is so loved. So, as he and Wales continue to look at one another, the Marshall says, “Mr. Jones, you’re a very fortunate man to have so many good friends.” And he rides away.
The point? Even rugged individuals can’t do it alone.
Recently, Krista Tippet, who hosts the NPR program, “On Being,” interviewed three medical professionals in a program entitled, “The Evolution of Medicine.” One of the three professionals was Mark Hyman, a physician and the director of the Cleveland Clinic Center for Functional Medicine. I was struck by how Dr. Hyman spoke of the power of community for healing sickness. In fact, he said that “the power of community is central to health care,” and then later made it even stronger when he said, “. . . community IS medicine.” Dr. Hyman and the other participants made it clear that as 21st century medical practice evolves, more and more attention needs to be paid to the power of community to support and heal the individual. In fact, the three panelists emphasized that more than ever, we need to realize that most of our problems – and the solutions to them – are systemic in nature.
Even that rugged individualist, The Outlaw Josey Wales, discovered that his community became the support system that solved his problem. Likewise, as we learn more about what makes for a life filled with health and well being, we increasingly see how important it is to pay attention to the systems of which each of us is a part. Indeed, as we organize Support Teams for folks we know, in Mark Hyman’s words, we’re actually doing a very important form of medicine. Community heals. I’ve often described what we do with Support Teams as nurturing community and the more I do this, read, and interact with members of this amazing hospital community at UAB, I know that medicine isn’t just what the physicians and nurses do around the hospital bed or in the rehab clinic. When we prepare meals for one another, assist with chores, listen to each other’s stories, or simply sit with each other in silence, we’re participating in a healing process – because community IS medicine!
The last thing we need to do is ride off and try to do this thing alone.