Especially in my freshman year of college, the horizon of my understanding was simultaneously expanded and challenged in pretty incredible ways. Exposure to a wealth of diverse worldviews was a very healthy aspect of my own development, and so was the questioning of assumptions rooted in my own family, faith and cultural up bringing.
The notion that things supposedly so fundamental to our humanity and cultural existence, like discussing the quality and trajectory of a government, for instance, are in fact relative to a set of western ideals, the existence of which is often directly influenced by the luxuries we have acquired throughout the centuries. We have the luxury to whine, to rest, to sit back in the comfort of a sofa in a dry warm space and discuss the decisions of our leaders, elders, and representatives. Even complaining about the bad weather and how it affects the mood of so many people in a grey gloom repository like Seattle is something we can invest energy investigating because of the luxuries we enjoy.
Indeed, there are billions of people throughout the world whom, whether it be for cultural reasons that prohibit frank discussion, political oppression, or socio-economic issues that cause a general population to be completely focused on simply surviving (many times it is a combination of such factors), have a wholly different notion of what is fundamental to existence.
When was the last time you or anyone you know cared that existence is in fact fundamental to existence? We’ve accessorized beyond that in our Kardashianized false-reality TV bound enclaves of convenience, peace, and over-consumption.
I remember when I first realized the degree to which individualism set western culture apart. The global and over arching language we in the west use to talk about how fundamental individualism is to humanity became particularly offensive to me. I began to be enamored by anything non-western. “Communal” or “community oriented” cultures became a romanticized ideal for me. I expressed, even on a subconscious level, criticism of the degree to which individualism had crept beyond the respectable place of a chosen or acquired way of life and into an unchallenged assumption of rules governing human identity and relations. I felt like I had some sort of valid grief with this individualism I had unknowingly assumed, and I yearned for something I thought to be more ‘authentic’ and more ‘human’.
To be certain, a fair bit of this criticism and challenge still resides within me. I don’t think it is a bad thing, as long as it is tempered appropriately (how to do this and what it might look like is another discussion).
However, in the course of traveling and living in places that are less individualistic, being part of diverse groups of people and various ‘communities’, I have definitely concluded that there is a resounding and important “I” in community. Whether or not this is just my western sense of global objectivism kicking in, I don’t know. Even if it is, western thought does a lot of good too.
What I have observed is that the degree of relational suffering, dysfunction, and oppression that exists where a focus on the comprehensive health of the individual is overlooked is quite high. Just be placed in a “communal” culture for a year or two, where rights of individuals are secondary and all sorts of isms run rampant. After you witness the abuse, (possibly the suicide), and the very PERSONAL anguish surrounding you, you’ll be pleading for justice, not just for yourself, but also for those individuals around you. And what rule might we appeal to for such a justice to come about?
From where I stand, looking particularly at the intentional development of community, I have observed that the health of individuals is inextricably related to the health of the community they are in, with individual health of the leadership in such community endeavors being of notable importance. Simply put, its not individualism versus a communal way of life, but rather community and individualism have a necessary relationship if both the community and the individuals within are to be healthy. This should be obvious.
I have been a part of a number of “communities” that have claimed some “intentional” focus. It has been an enduring theme in these communities that sharing life together, challenging and supporting one another, being together, and having an impact on the world around us has screeched to a halt as the community has been forced to the level of dysfunction of the most needy and unhealthy people within the group. Narcissism, dependency issues, exclusive cliques, un-addressed baggage from past wounds, histrionic issues, need for personal acquisition of power and a whole slough of other indicators of poor individual health exemplify some of these issues.
And before you read into this something I am not saying, obviously, no community could be without similar struggles. And more importantly, no one should be maligned for experiencing anguish in the midst of such conditions. To the point, when a dichotomized view of community vs individualism prevails, these problems are made worse and possibly even overlooked. The tendency to white wash or write off possible (though not definitely) unhealthy choices as “sacrificing for the community”, “surrendering personal boundaries” (that may be necessary to maintain emotional health), or “putting the community first” may become the norm. Similarly, as is the case with so many well-intentioned ‘ministries’, the needs of those serving become secondary to the development of the community, the movement, the church, the outreach, etc. Just how should personal needs be prioritized with respect to the community or the ministry or the _______?
For me, this has highlighted the weakness in my own criticism of individualism as a simply western assumption of identity and social order. I bought in to a dichotomy, and I was dead wrong: it’s not a community-oriented way of life versus an individualistic way of life. Community and individualism are directly related: There won’t be good health in a community without good health amongst the individuals in that community. Developing a healthy community means developing healthy individuals, and how can a healthy individual be defined without appealing to indicators of individualism? Personal rights, healthy emotional boundaries, healthy physical boundaries, respect of personal choices, etc. All of these hallmarks of individualism must be developed and respected in appropriate ways if an individual is to have health, though health is certainly much bigger than just those things.
A friend of mine recently made a great comment while discussing related aspects of community with me. “James,” he said, “The community in fact does not exist. Only the individual exists.” This comment has been resonating within me ever since, especially with respect to my deeply held beliefs regarding the ministry of Jesus and the duty I have of living out His teachings and lifestyle to the best of my ability. Jesus preached and prayed for the healing and protection of relationship, oneness amongst those who received him, forgiveness, and so many things indicative of community and relational health (Example: John Ch. 17).
As Dietrich Bonhoeffer explains in the “Cost of Discipleship” (he also touches on this in Life Together), “Through the call of Jesus men become individuals.” Later, “He [Christ] wants to be the center, through him alone all things shall come to pass. He stands between us and God, and for that very reason he stands between us and all other men and things.” And again, “Now we learn that in the most intimate relationships in life, in our kinship with father and mother, brothers and sisters, in married love, and in our duty to the community, direct relationships are impossible. Since the coming of Christ, his followers have no more immediate realities of their own, not in their family relationships, nor in the ties with their nation nor in the relationships formed in the process of living.” [Bonhoeffer, The Cost of Discipleship. SCM Press Ltd, 1959. Pp. 94-96.] Christ, he argues, is the mediator, and when he calls someone, He calls that individual to Himself. Christ, through His calling, creates an individual, and through His mediation, creates a community of individuals, the church.
I can remember the first time I read this I was so frustrated that one of my favorite Christian thinkers would advocate some form of individualism. “It’s all about community,” I thought, “and forsaking the emphasis on an individualistic outlook is necessary to practicing community”. But this was me and my dichotomy at work.
And I believe this dichotomy is embraced by too many going through a similar struggle with their western identity. It’s a good struggle, as long as they come out on the other side in a better place for it, with good tools and reality to work with.
All this is to say that in few ways does community stand opposed to the identity of the individual and his or her individual well-being. Of course, radical selfishness or an isolationist pursuit of autonomy may be justified by certain types of individualism, but on the grounds of what makes a healthy individual, such issues may easily be identified as problematic for both the health of an individual and a community. Community and individualism are interdependent on one another, and without Christ, we as cultivators of community will be hard pressed to have the healing and mediation necessary to have relationship within community as appropriately defined individuals.