We hear it in the music we listen to. We hear it in the speeches we give. It’s in the movies we watch, the books we read and the blog posts we scan online. It’s certainly no secret that our culture is obsessed with individualism.
“I’ll make it on my own…I’m a survivor…Pull yourself up by your bootstraps…Only you can make things happen…You’ve got to think about yourself…”
Individualism is defined as: The habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.
There’s nothing inherently wrong with being self-reliant. Being able to take care of ourselves and to manage our own lives are crucial attributes often lost in current generation. We would all do well to revisit the lessons learned in our grandparents’ age, for they followed the well-worn paths of knowledge handed down by generations before them.
But the self-reliance that empowered our grandparents, and their grandparents before them, flowed from their community sense of living. They knew how to do things for themselves, but they also knew how to share and carry each other’s burdens, and to learn from each other the valued skills necessary to earn a living and make a life. They knew how to plant a garden and hunt a deer, but they often relied on their community for other means of survival.
We’ve emancipated ourselves from this community lifestyle, and instead have embraced the mentality of single individualism. Our friends are often a list of people we distantly associate with through social media. Our face to face relationships are often shallow. Our discussions are usually one-sided and with people who think the same way we do. Learning skills from others who have mastered those skills is no longer needed; we can turn to YouTube and learn how to change our own oil, sew a seam or bake a cake.
The internet revolution has put knowledge and information right at our fingertips, and while this has filled a necessary gap for many of us, it has also distanced us even further from relying on each other.
But we do need each other. We need the conflict of opposing views to sharpen our own understanding of how the world works. We need the wisdom of those sages who have gone before us so that we might learn from their mistakes. We need to know that we are heard, valued and a part of a system of people who will invest in our development and well-being.
Incidentally, this is where the family unit really should shine. But we have lost touch with the strength of the family in American culture. When compared the family unit in other cultures, such as in Mexico, Israel or Spain, the American family seems fractured. Individualism has taken it toll here, and thus eroded the true sense of where community living begins.
“We have all known the long loneliness and we have learned that the only solution is love and that love comes with community.” Dorthy Day
So what about those YouTube videos? Isn’t having information good for those of us who don’t have someone to teach us?
The internet has filled a gap left in the wake of this family and community erosion. But we’ve sacrificed something more than just the transfer of information. Learning how to work with wood, turn a wrench or fix a leaky toilet from the internet isn’t the same as learning alongside someone who has mastered the right way to do things, and is willing to pass on that knowledge. Young men are often the greatest victims of this tragedy, as fathers are more and more absent, or just not emotionally available, to teach these things, and so boys grow into men who don’t know how to be men. They spend their lives wrestling with a feeling of somehow being unfinished, uninitiated and often incomplete. We turn to YouTube or Google to learn how to do things, while inside we’re screaming to understand why those things matter.
We’re missing the link between each other, the fire of relationship that is passed along with the knowledge. The faith and passion and integrity. Accountability is ambiguous when we make the rules up for ourselves.
This is not how we were designed to live.
God’s plan for us was to dwell in community, where fellowship thrives.
“All the believers were together and had everything in common. They sold property and possessions to give to anyone who had need. Every day they continued to meet together in the temple courts. They broke bread in their homes and ate together with glad and sincere hearts, praising God and enjoying the favor of all the people. And the Lord added to their number daily those who were being saved.” Acts 2:44-47
Now, I’m not advocating for some form of socialism. I know that’s a touchy subject these days. Note that what the author of Acts is describing here is on a community level, rather than a government system. This was what the early church looked like, not long after Jesus was crucified, resurrected and ascended to heaven, and its a very clear picture of what things will look like when he returns.
“And let us consider how to stir up one another to love and good works, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near.” Hebrews 10:24-25
This is community living, and it’s how we were initially designed to live.
“The world is so empty if one thinks only of mountains, rivers & cities; but to know someone who thinks & feels with us, & who, though distant, is close to us in spirit, this makes the earth for us an inhabited garden.” Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Individualism destroys a culture of collective learning. We need each other to become the people we are created to be. We weren’t meant to make it on our own.
So what can we do to return to healthy community living?
Get to know your neighbors.
You don’t need to form a quilting bee to invest in your community. Get to know your neighbors. Invite them over for a bbq or to watch the game. Offer to help them paint the garage, or watch the kids. Some of the greatest silos have been created within our suburban communities, where we live side by side but barely know each other. We erect fences and carve out our own spaces in the sense of security but really we are putting ourselves in a vacuum where we are surrounded by people, but really know no one.
If you have a skill, share it.
Are you a woodworker? Skilled mechanic? Do you know how to can vegetables or fly fish? Whatever you do, your skill and knowledge can enrich and benefit someone else. Find someone you can pass your knowledge unto, side by side. You’ll be surprised at how fulfilling this will be for both of you.
Learn your grandparents’ story.
What was life like when your grandma was a little girl? What did your grandpa learn when he was a young man? These stories often go untold, and the valuable things that can be learned through these stories slip away forever when our grandparents are gone. If your grandparents have already passed, it’s not to late to glean from their knowledge. Ask your parents if they remember any stories they heard while growing up. Ask your aunts and uncles. Ask your neighbor what they learned from past generations.
Our lives are stories carried on from generation to generation. It was the passing of stories and skills that made tribes strong. Individualism cuts those stories off at the roots. Don’t let them slip away.
Invest in the future generation.
Don’t let the next generation grow up without understanding community living. Teach your children how to do things, and how to collaborate with others. Be a coach to the kids in the neighborhood. Time is often the best investment we can make in each other with the greatest return.
Does your church model the kind of community described in Acts? Why not? What needs to change to make this happen?
Reject the individualistic culture.
Spend a week deeply scrutinizing what you hear, read and see. Identify where individualism has affected or influence your life, and then determine how you can change your course. It’s not too late to create and foster the kind of relationships we’re talking about here. It’s a brave thing to open yourself to another person, and I think it’s the fear of rejection that causes most of us to hesitate. But its worth the effort. Its worth the risk.
Friends, we were created for fellowship, for community and for family. Somewhere along the way we were sold a lie that we were on our own, and that there was glory in this. There is no glory in individualism. Our glory comes from connecting and sharing with each other, and with building each other up.
Our glory comes from community living.