all for one, and one for all...does it work?

If you are looking for a long, fabulous book to get lost in, pick up something written by Alexander Dumas.  From an exploration of revenge in The Count of Monte Cristo, to ideas of loyalty and resistance in The Three Musketeers, Dumas studies the many ways we relate to one another.  Born in the 19th century to a French nobleman and a slave woman of African descent, his origin surely impacted his view of the classist, gendered and racist society in which he lived.  Perhaps his lineage influenced his view of belonging, of what it means to trust systems that are flawed, of how one asserts value in a society that shuns.  Perhaps his unique vantage point required him to study what it means to be an insider or one excluded, to find comrades through shared experience, to expose unjust power structures. When each of my children were infants, I read long, fabulous novels that could sustain me through late nights.  I read Dumas during the infancy of my second son, whose birthday is this week.  I found The Three Musketeers luxuriously entertaining, and incredibly helpful now for those of us concerned about how we live with one another.

Dumas’ Musketeers work together to save their Sovereign and kingdom from the evil wiles of a corrupt Cardinal Richelieu.  Their cry, “All for one, and one for all!” is part of Western culture, a cry raised by children and frat boys alike.  It offers an ethic of unity, a call for a purpose held in common, and a commitment to a cause manifested through relationship.  It is also really fun. It is fun to live in a community to which one is wholly committed but for which one mustn’t forfeit oneself.  The beauty of this phrase is echoed in the long held cries of patriots that go something like: “All for God and country!”, or even the more recent pledge of my Mighty VOLS: “I will give my ALL for Tennessee today.” For the musketeers though, the cry does not ask only for total sacrifice. Instead, it demands loyalty to a cause while promising loyalty in return.  Give your all to us and we will give our all to you. 

The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

So often our commitments require us to lose our sense of self for a cause bigger than us, but Dumas reminds us that the highest causes ensure that our best participation comes when we are “all in.”  Any cause that encourages us to divorce ourselves from our highest ethics is not a cause that promotes common welfare.  If we cannot bring our whole, integrated selves to a cause, then I would argue it is not worth pursuing. Whether about the prosperity, health, equity, safety or belonging of all, we are having conversations about how we should live together in the shared space of America right now.  Who is responsible if a member of our community falls behind?  What does society owe me, and what do I owe society? Am I my brother’s keeper? Our rhetoric often reveals a belief that I can only look out for me, because we are playing a game with one winner.  If you are doing well, I must be doing badly.  What if we listened to our musketeers instead, and started to believe that in the best societies, we can be for others precisely because others are for us?  In Dumas’ rendering, causes that protect and benefit the welfare of all do require sacrifice, but the sacrifice is contextualized by the affirmation of our entire selves, not the diminishment of me to benefit you.

Dumas’ ideal is the premise of the American ideal of democracy.  In theory, America is by and for and of the people.  It is one out of many. E pluribus unum. The best American causes require the independent integrated collaboration of all of us.  It seems to me that we have lost our way here, however. We have begun to believe that, “One for all” can only happen if “all is for a few.”  Our belief that when we all work together we create lasting equitable flourishing has been replaced by the idea that the status quo is good for everyone and anyone who disagrees should be quiet.

Perhaps we would do well to remember that we, as a nation, have protected some pretty atrocious status quos in our history.  We have learned that expanded abilities to live and speak and resist and collaborate increase prosperity.  My right to belong is not diminished by another’s right to belong.  I think Dumas might have been on to something; perhaps I am my best self when I am rooting for the interests of others.

The kids in Parkland remind me of this truth.  They are taking a terrible experience that has given them attention, and are using it to elevate the thoughtful lives of others.  They are, “all for one, and one for all.”  Last weekend, they students met with students in Chicago, who feel overwhelmed by the violence they swim around in all day.  Emma González, a Parkland student who has become a leading spokesperson for the #neveragain movement, tweeted about their meeting:

Those who face gun violence on a level that we have only just glimpsed from our gated communities have never had their voices heard in their entire lives the way that we have in these weeks alone. We all share in feeling this pain and know all too well how it feels to have to grow up at the snap of a finger…People of color in inner-cities and everywhere have been dealing with this for a despicably long time...The platform us Parkland Students have established is to be shared with every person, black or white, gay or straight, religious or not, who has experienced gun violence, and hand in hand, side by side, We Will Make This Change Together.
— Emma González

Dumas believed that the hardest, highest work requires collaboration, and that sacrificial collaboration creates belonging and purpose for those willing to dive in.  These students remind us that collaborating to resist a difficult status quo is happening all around us.  Will you willingly suspend your disbelief that all of us could flourish together? Will you consider believing the idea that it is more blessed to give than to receive?  Will you look not only to your own interests, but also to the interests of others?  Will you join me in believing that it costs very little to be one for all, and that all for all could make America great again?