Not recognizing the difference between an individual-in-community and individualism is common. It is a common malady that is emaciating us.
When was the last time you went to a movie or watched a television program? Was the emphasis on a person and their goal or a group effort? Identify a popular ad today. Does it appeal to a self-centered or a corporate value? Glance at a newspaper. How is autonomy highlighted?
A 2006 survey concerning social isolation in America reported the most common response to the question of “confidants with whom Americans discuss important matters” is that the respondent had no confidants. A person does not have to be religious to recognize the truth that “Two are better than one, because they have a good return for their work: If one falls down, his friend can help him up. But pity the man who falls and has no one to help him up!” M. Scott Peck states the reality today: “We are inevitably social creatures who desperately need each other not merely for sustenance, not merely for company, but for any meaning to our lives whatsoever.” Nevertheless, the march toward individualism continues unabated and with gathering speed.
Individualism is defined as “I will relate to you if it does something for me.” This common preoccupation with self provides no intrinsic value ‘for you,’ except as fodder for my own growth. This exacerbates feelings of isolation, worthlessness, and constantly being used.
Individualism is all about personal rights to the detriment of the common good. A focus on individual rights is the opposite extreme from the once common thread in America’s social fabric of “I have a responsibility” to others. Reports of a person risking their own safety, even their life, to help another being attacked or to pull them from a flaming building or car do not seem to be as common as they once were.
Biblical absolutes recede when the source of moral values is the individual. What follows is the erosion of perceived responsibility for anything or anyone else. Consequently, the seismic shifts of the last decade in sexuality, corporate financial malfeasance, and the sense of entitlement should not be surprising.
The Biblical community and societies built on a scriptural foundation in the past emphasized the individual-in-community over individualism. Individual rights were often voluntarily subjugate to the needs of the community. The Old Testament Moabite Ruth declared to her Israelite mother-in-law, Naomi, “Your people will be my people and your God my God”, when her best interests would have appeared to be better served by staying in her native land and bidding her mother-in-law goodbye. The focus beyond self remained in the New Testament when the Apostle John wrote, “If anyone says, ‘I love God,’ yet hates his brother, he is a liar.”
We exist in webs of relationship. Individuals-in-community add value, meaning, and zest to living—for everyone. The community protects both the visible and intangible value of each person seeking safe harbor in its midst. While we usually do not want to be our brother’s keeper or want anyone to be responsible for us, life is us and not just me says Julie Gorman. I could not agree more.