Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Rugged Individualism

"Desert Reflections"

As I was listening to a recent news report about all the presidential campaign rhetoric beginning to heat up, I thought about something sociologist Robert Bellah wrote some 30 years ago about American society. In his book, Habits of the Heart, he observed that we were on the road to becoming a collective of “rugged individualists” as opposed to a community of people who devoted themselves for the welfare of the common good. As the name implies, a “rugged individualist” is primarily concerned about his/her own self-gratification, the life-agenda of the individualist is personal gain and individual success and comfort at any cost.

A collection of rugged individualists is on a slippery slope heading toward cultural extinction. 

The interesting thing about a society of “rugged individualists” is that on the surface,  it might look like they are a community of people who care for each other’s “good.”  After all, it’s not as if individuals go off somewhere to live alone in some mountain hermitage, most people hang out with lots of other “like-minded” people; but the reason people associate with these others is that this often provides a convenient way for “networking.” People often associate with others who are perceived as being able to help the individual meet their personal goals. 

As I reflect upon it, I wonder how many people in today’s society have fallen into the trap of “fooling themselves” into thinking that, because they associate with others they are in relationships with them, when in fact they are only in a relationship with themselves, with their own ego.

I am reminded of something the monk and author, Thomas Merton, once said:

The beginning of love is the will to let those we love
be perfectly themselves,
the resolution not to twist them to fit our own image.
If in loving them we do not love what they are,
but only their potential likeness to ourselves,
then we do not love them.
We only love the reflection of ourselves we find in them.

Of course, this makes me think about the ageless “Myth of Narcissus,” and the deep insight it provides into a flaw of our human nature.

Narcissus gazed into a reflecting pool and saw the image of a beautiful, strong young man. He fooled himself into thinking he was seeing someone else; but he was really only seeing himself- and he fell in love with what he saw, in love with his own reflection.

In today’s society, so deeply plagued by “rugged individualism,” we all must guard against falling into the trap of “Narcissism” – fooling ourselves into thinking we love others when in fact we only love ourselves.

Lots of so-called “relationships” have conditional clauses attached to them – personal relationships, family relationships, all relationships of any kind.  The conditional implication is “I love you and will be in relationship with you if you think and feel and act or look the way I want you to think and act.”  Often times this means, I will be in relationship with you as long as you are a “copy” of me – The Myth of Narcissus prevails perhaps more often than we might imagine.

The Dali Lama once wisely observed:

Remember that the best relationship is one in which
your love for each other
exceeds your need for each other.

Some important wisdom for a society of rugged individualists.

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