God calls every single individual creature into being, and pronounces it “good.” That goodness comes from the fact that the origin of everything is God, and its God-given purpose is to image God in some profound way and to serve others. As Catholics with our sacramental tradition we celebrate that goodness regularly.
To the degree, however, that any creature ignores the rest of the world’s needs and focuses only on itself, its individualism is “diseased.”
The symptoms of that illness are found in such attitudes as economic consumerism (we are what we own), moral relativism (all ideas are equally good for those who hold them) and militarism (we may have whatever we can take). Each, when distorted and taken to an extreme, is distressing. It is the extreme which I call “radical.” Together they can signal the collapse of a society. Historians paint ancient Rome in the same colors!
I would suggest that these symptoms, troubling though they may be, are only indications of a deeper spiritual disease, which I prefer to label “radical individualism.” It is a malady which also merits the accusation of being profoundly anti-Christian as well. I might even venture to call it a modern western plague!
Allow me to list some of the disparate symptoms which, at least in my pastoral observation and personal judgment, seem to signal that sickness.
- The inability or unwillingness to live with any discomfort, and a corresponding urgency to find quick and easy medication for everything. Invitations to lose weight without diet or exercise or inconvenience find ready consumers. We live in a drug culture which embraces all ages and economic levels. We want a “no pain pill” for everything!
- Spirituality without the inconvenience of belonging to any group which might inhibit my freedom or curtail my time. Membership which might entail any change in attitude or life style is to be avoided at all cost!
- Advertisements for clothing or items of life style are proudly touted under the title, “It’s all about you!” Such a patently self-centered ploy is disturbing. People in marketing know which buttons to press!
- Politics suddenly seems only about us. The major American parties appear to be preoccupied over taxes, but without any apparent correlative concern for the common good or for the needs of those truly disadvantaged. It’s the old question of excessive rights without duties.
- Lack of concern or empathy for those on the margins of society, no matter what the cause. It’s almost as if kids and elderly can fend for themselves.
- Stealing has become too common. The startling and often thoughtless ease with which people are prone to simply take what belongs to others, be they white collar criminals or street gang members, is very troubling.
- The popularity of “no contact” dancing without partners or even any apparent awareness of the surrounding crowd. (NB: This may just be the grumblings of a seasoned bachelor!)
- The troubling current high divorce rate which could signal a willingness to say, “I’m out of here” at the first sign of disagreement or minor incompatibility. No one should live in danger of harm, but families are also harmed when any effort to seek patient compromise seems off the screen immediately.
- n The popularity of books praising individualism such as Ayn Rand’s “Atlas Shrugged” is problematic for Catholic Christians. Add all the shelves of self-help tomes which also crowd our bookstores everywhere.
- n The proliferation of so called “gated communities” to keep out any and all undesirable individuals, whoever they may be. This troubling trend highlights people who seek residence in like minded communities so that interaction with those of different perspectives can be avoided at all costs. Conversion and change of mind / metanoia hardly ever happens there.
How’s that for a random list of a few indicators of the new American disease? Such a constellation of factors should seem very problematic to parents, teachers, pastoral personnel and counselors who care about the emotional health and social wellbeing of our communities!
This is not to say that there are not also some admirable and redeeming characteristics of the American psyche as well. Our instinctive generosity to give disaster relief to people caught in terrible natural catastrophes comes to mind immediately. Whether for devastating earthquakes in Haiti or disastrous wild fires in Colorado, Americans respond with outstanding compassion and aid. It’s a matter of pride that our fellow Catholics are second to none in this regard!
On the other hand, as Catholic Christians we also have an abundance of spiritual remedies for this disease, especially necessary these days if the malady is as much of an epidemic as I fear. There are attitudes, resources and regular spiritual practices which can inoculate our society against the plague of this distorted individualism. Authentic Christians believe in the community as a means of salvation. In the Creed we proclaim that we believe in the church.
Pondering the rich resources of Christian spirituality, I would recommend the following:
The cultivation of a humble sense of one’s own personal limitation and a realization of our respectful but profound need for others.
Regular immersion into the thought and message of the Scriptures. They constantly presume community membership with its blessings and obligations. The prophets usually addressed the entire nation. Moreover, almost inevitably, for example, when Saint Paul says, “you,” he is using the plural … “you all!”
Repeated reminders that in a very real sense every sacrament is a gift of social grace for the whole Church, not merely for the individual who receives the sign and its grace-filled summons.
The regular participation in the weekly Eucharist where the entire community assembles, including all ages, social levels and economic strata in order to praise the God who “does for us what we cannot do for ourselves” as the Quakers are wont to say.
The Christian insistence that everyone should be regularly involved in some form of service to those in need. Special involvement in efforts outside our “comfort zone,” using our talents and experience, can bring us into relationship with real people, not the stereotypes which divide so many segments of our society. This is a crucial element in young adult preparation for the sacrament of confirmation
A renewed appreciation for the truly global and universal aspect of Catholicism.
I suppose that the spiritual disease of distorted individualism is more chronic than what physicians might call “episodic,” and that only long-term treatment can do the trick! The rich historical tradition of Catholic Christianity has a proven record of providing the type of healing needed by our American society. This religious heritage is important if we are to attain the vigorous spiritual health envisioned by our God for the society in which we live and work. In that regard we ourselves need a high dose of “re-evangelization!”
I suggest that this comprehensive treatment is a project worthy of every part of society. Radical individualism remains a useful topic for conversation by parish councils and spiritual life committees everywhere.