Tuesday, February 16, 2010

Soul Searching, Part 7- Individualism And Understanding Wider Relationships

This section of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers is remarkable to me:

American youth, like American adults, are nearly without exception profoundly individualistic, instinctively presuming autonomous, individual self-direction to be a universal human norm and life goal. Thoroughgoing individualism is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers. It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition… most US teenagers are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them. They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives… This autonomous individualism, not incidentally, helps to explain why teens have such difficulty articulating how religion influences them. They have difficulty imaging how religion influences their lives because they tend to imagine that nothing influences them, at least without their final choice that it does so. The idea that one's life is being formed and transformed by the power of a historical religious tradition can be nearly incomprehensible to people who have allergies to outside influences. Such a perspective lends itself instead to thinking of religion as something one chooses to use… not something to which one devotes oneself or gives away one's life. -pp. 143-144.

This aspect of American culture has continually baffled me. From the standpoint of one who has spent a good amount of time studying the history of philosophical ideas, it amazes me how dependent American thought is on the Renaissance humanists of Italy and Germany in the fifteenth century and on the British liberal philosophers of the seventeenth and eighteenth century such as John Locke and Adam Smith. And while I appreciate the impact of all of these great thinkers- it is certainly a benefit that individual rights have come to be regarded as undeniable in Western culture and that tyranny has been all but eradicated in the West in the name of protecting those rights- it is interesting to see how American culture in particular has taken all these ideas to an extreme that is not present anywhere else in the world. My family has strong ties to the UK and I have friends scattered around Europe. As "Democratized" as those countries are, they are also all very "collectivistic" in their political and social outlooks. Policies on everything from economics to foreign affairs to social norms are set from the standpoint of what is best for the nation as a whole (frequently with a utilitarian ring, this is true, but still the idea of collective responsibility is very prominent in European thinking and politics). This is why it shocks Europeans that America does not have a national health-care system.

America was founded as a series of colonies mostly populated by people who couldn't make it in the Old World and so came here to start anew and hit it big. Most of America's history consists of movement to the frontier where this same mentality of a new opportunity to be successful drew settlers. Its interesting to note that is predominantly the major costal cities that were populated and industrialized earliest where the "liberal" ideas of "European Socialism" have taken the most root. It is the still-growing interior parts of American where "conservative" (where conservative means, in fact, the classical liberal ideas of the European Enlightenment) ideals still dominate and where individualism is most apparent (though its definitely still apparent in the costal cities as well). The overwhelming American mentality since its inception has been that success means growth which means you have to work as hard as you can to make more money than you already do to have a more "comfortable" existence than you do now (where comfortable means having more stuff that you cannot use because you are constantly working to acquire more). Ok, I'm exaggerating a little, but this is definitely the stereo-type and it is one that is true more often than not. There is a story I heard of some American businessmen who were visiting Brazil and saw some fisherman napping in their boat just off shore. "What are you doing?" they asked. "Relaxing" was the answer. "Shouldn't you be working?" "Why would we do that?" "Well, you could make more money then." "What for?" "So you could buy more equipment and make even more money." "What for?" "So you could hire some other people to fish for you and then you could just sit around and relax." "Well that's what we are doing now…" The point of this whole diatribe is merely this: The American dream is unsustainable. Success is not measured in material goods but in the quality of life lived with what you have. And quality is not a material term either, it’s a relational and a spiritual one. Better to die with little but the appreciation and respect of many than to die filthy rich but unknown and unloved.

To come back to the real point of this entire post- the individualism that so dominates our culture is a double-edged sword. It robs us of a sense of who we are in relation to the rest of the world. And it quite frequently robs us of a greater quality of life that would be lived if we would just slow down a bit and relax and enjoy what we already have. The first of these is especially important- without a sense of who we are and where we come from, we tend to think that our life is just lived in a void. The typical American mentality is to say "I am alive for an amount of time that is, in the big scheme of things, insignificant. So if I want my life to be significant, I have to be hugely successful." Yet, such a mentality forgets that we are not living in a vacuum. We are part of an entity larger than ourselves- our culture, our religious tradition, our nation, our world, etc. Significance to our individual life doesn't have to depend on carving out an individual name for ourselves. It can just as easily come from continuing the movement of which we are a part, from furthering causes that are not solely ours but which we are part of. We accomplish more together than separately. But to work together, we have to understand who we are in relation to each other. And this involves recognizing the influences that have shaped all of us- the common history we share just as much as it does recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table.

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