How much of my time and energy, how much of me, am I supposed to devote to my family? Am I most comfortable when I talk, dress, and behave just like everybody else in my clique? What do I do when I disagree with some of the things that my organization, my country, or my church stand for?
These questions all revolve around a task that each of us face as we develop our own identities: working out the balance between ourselves as individuals and ourselves as part of the community. Every culture, and every person within that culture, must decide how much importance to give to the individual and how much to the community.
During the Vietnamese War, an American general was severely criticized for suggesting that it was easier for a Vietnamese soldier to die for his country than it was for an American. His critics thought the general was saying that the Vietnamese were braver or more patriotic than their American counterparts. That was not what he was saying at all. The general was astutely recognizing that the Vietnamese, unlike Americans, tended to see themselves not so much as individuals, but as part of the community. It was the community, and their place in it, that gave them their identity. As the Vietnamese saw it, if they had to lay down their lives for their country, they as individuals would die, but they as part of their community, would continue to live on.
Does the Individual Really Matter?
There is a natural tension between what is good for the individual versus what is good for the community. American culture tends to come down on the side of the individual. Nature itself, however, seems to place the good of the community above the well-being of the individual. A bee, without hesitation, will sting anyone threatening the hive, sacrificing its individual life in the process. Even when nature favors the "survival of the fittest" individual, it is in order to prune away the weaker members and so improve the gene pool of the community.
Following the lead of nature, some world religions, in particular Hinduism and, springing from it, Buddhism (prevalent in Vietnam), emphasis community, the oneness of all things. The ultimate goal of existence is Nirvana, or liberation from the individual self. For the Hindu, in heaven the individual soul loses its unique identify, is dissolved like a drop into the great ocean of life. How foreign this is for most Americans.
The Judeo-Christian-Muslim world view, while cherishing the community, also affirms the lasting value of the individual. As Jesus pointed out, when God broke into human history in order to rescue the enslaved Jewish community, God introduced Godself to Moses as "the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob," as the God of individual people. These individual ancestors of the Jewish people continue to be alive for God, for, as Jesus said, "all are alive to God" (Lk 20:38). Relationships with God are forever. The central tenet of Christianity, Christ's resurrection and our own, is a radical affirmation of the permanent value of the individual.
Striking A Balance
In trying to strike a balance between ourselves as individuals, and as members of the community, there is no one right answer for everyone. Rather there is a whole spectrum of legitimate choices. But both extremes, rugged individualism and ruthless collectivism, are unbalanced and destructive. "Virtue lies in the middle" in the struggle to maintain a healthy tension between the needs of the individual and those of the community.
I find myself, for example, counseling university students from the ghetto not to allow themselves to become so entangled in the problems of their families, that their individual educational goals become derailed. Most Americans, however, tend towards the opposite extreme, an almost exclusive preoccupation with self.
The unintended results of this self-centeredness is the isolation of individuals and the fragmentation of society. Individuals who have succeeded in isolating themselves from community start seeking pseudo-community through chat rooms, talk shows, etc. And in our fragmented me-only society, the nation's wealth does not trickle down to the community at large, because it is being poured into the deep pockets of privilege individuals.
Each of us is, in large measure, a product of our society and its perspectives. As Americans we need to be aware that our tendency is to favor the individual at the expense of the community. We need to try to compensate for this bias so that we can balance individual freedom and achievement, with social responsibility and connectedness.
We Are Part Of The Main
We are part of something bigger than ourselves. We stand before God not merely as so many individuals, but as members of the body of Christ (1 Cor 12:27). Our God-given gifts are meant not merely for our individual benefit, but to serve the needs of the larger community (1 Cor 12:7). Happiness does not come from either excessive individualism or excessive collectivism. Happiness arises when individuals sacrifice some personal interests in order to bind themselves to others in community, so as to develop and share their gifts in love.
No man [sic] is an island, entire of itself
every man is a piece of the continent, a part of the main.
...I am involved in mankind.
' John Donne