Saturday, November 12, 2011

Individualism and Self-Absorption

Fr. Dale Matson

            “I am the master of my fate; I am the captain of my soul.” (From Invictus by William Ernest Henley)
             I came from a Protestant white middle class family that embraced what President Herbert Hoover called rugged individualism. Many have pointed to Teddy Roosevelt as the archetype of the rugged individualist.   
            When I interviewed student prospects as the director of the school psychology program, I would ask them to tell me their story. What became clear to me over the years was the different world views the students brought to the program. Almost all of the Hispanic students told their story in the context of their family and culture. They did not see themselves as individuals distinct from the family which included the grandparents. Sometimes it would take an hour for their stories to unfold. Often, I would get lost in the lineage.
            There is a risk of an ego centricity that accompanies individualism. Perhaps males are given more latitude than females on this. Someone once said that we give our boys wings and our girls roots. In our society today, individualism has now been raised to the level of idolatry. Human rights translated in today’s terms is, I’ve Got To Be Me (A song popularized by Sammy Davis Jr.). Carol Gilligan correctly asserted the role of relationships in moral development and challenged Lawrence Kohlberg on his system of moral development based on individualism. Today, when the individual is free to do whatever she wants as long as it does not encroach on my rights; it is really a “work around”. It is me absolving myself of a responsibility to my neighbor. Ignoring my neighbor is failure to love my neighbor as myself.
            Eventually, I have come to see myself not as an individual with personal goals to be accomplished and a vitae to be embellished. While I still enjoy the alone time, it is obvious that I depend more on others every day. God puts those people around us to help us.
Life lived in a collaborative fashion produces richer results, affirms and empowers others and draws us out of the hell of self-absorption. There is no such thing as a self-made person. Each person begins with a genetic endowment from ancestors just for a starter.
             Hyper-reflection is a preoccupation with self. Kierkegaard called it “extravagant subjectivity”. Our contemporary society caters to and assists this narcissism. This individualism contributes to the symptoms of anxiety, hypochondria, depression and character disorders. At its most pathological point, it is the Schizophrenic collecting his urine because his bodily functions have become his sole focus and vocation. Our society as a whole is so individualistic that it is fast approaching a state of anomie, which Durkheim applied only to individuals.
An individual in isolation may succumb to hyper-reflection, dryness and desperation. A life lived interconnected to the community does not threaten the loss of individuality; it nourishes it. Family, friends and the Church are groups that provide structure, nurture faith, provide service opportunities, and direct us toward God and away from ourselves. The older I become, the more I see individualism as a pernicious modern malady.
The poem Invictus has always bothered me, even in my youth. I prefer, “"I have been crucified with Christ; and it is no longer I who live, but Christ lives in me; and the life which I now live in the flesh I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave Himself up for me.” (Gal. 2:20, NASB)

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