The older I get, the more it seems that Edmund Burke got everything right. No, don’t worry, this won’t turn into an anti-French Revolution blog post. The Irish political philosopher has long been a hero of mine because of the way he reduces life to “Little Platoons.” He talks about how each life is defined by the groups to which we choose to belong. And the smaller the group is, the more of an impact it can have on us. Families, church groups, clubs, bowling leagues, friends, and offices are where we find the most fulfillment. We’re all unique as individuals, but true happiness never comes on one’s own, nor does it come from massive, sweeping organizations.
I’ve long thought that Burke is the one thing that’s missing from my generation. Young professionals seem to be less happy than ever before, and my hunch is that the writer would have little doubt as to why that’s the case. It’s becoming much more common for young people to change jobs, move cities, or work as freelancers. While these actions are sometimes caused by unavoidable external circumstances, they nonetheless prevent people from forming permanent relationships with people they see every day. It stops us from putting down roots and truly belonging to something. And while hyper-individualism may be in vogue, everyone wants to belong.
I think about this because I recently attended one of the most Burkean events I can possibly imagine: a Grateful Dead concert. I’ve written at length about my massive admiration for the band, but this time I was struck by their success as a lifestyle brand. Over the last five decades, countless Americans have completely structured their lives around the group. From dressing like hippies to traveling to countless concerts to adopting their peaceful nature, being a Deadhead is so much bigger than music. And when 40,000 Deadheads get together in one space, the result is incredibly magical. I was just there for the music, but looking around, I couldn’t stop myself from thinking about Burke. Because the reality was that many people in that audience would not fit in anywhere else in the world. They love the Grateful Dead’s music, but they also love that these concerts are theirs. For decades, people have co-opted this music to create a subculture where they would fit in, one that would attract like-minded people. That’s why the band has had such a loyal following for so long, even if it’s also why the average person can’t name three of their songs.
One of the most unique things about humans is our desire to arrange ourselves into groups. For whatever reason, we’ve always done this, and so many of our triumphs as a species come from doing things together. This may be hypocritical in a newsletter about maximizing individual potential, but I’m realizing that none of us are that great on our own. Life is about who we spend it with, and the groups we belong to. It’s worth thinking about the little platoons in our own lives, and how we can find more of them. Every group matters, whether it’s a church or a rock band fandom. Although I’m sure some people will say they’re one and the same.