- in a desert canyon -
I’ve been following the strident rhetoric in the recent congressional standoff over heath care in the United States. It strikes me that, what is going on in Washington DC may indeed be quite representative of the state of the larger culture.
I am reminded of something sociologist Robert Bellah wrote some 30 years ago in his book, Habits of the Heart. At the time, Bellah observed that our society was well on the way to becoming a collective of “rugged individualists” as opposed to a “nation,” a community of people who devote themselves for the welfare of the common good. Some thirty years later I fear that Bellah was quite prophetic and I wonder if we have come to the place where we are now a “collective of rugged individuals” rather than a civilized nation.
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, winning the argument, beating down an opponent, achieving personal success and comfort at any cost. Yet, if we look at the record of history we quickly discover that any society that ever devolved into a collective of rugged individualists always unraveled and faded away. It makes me wonder if we may also be on that slippery slope heading toward the dead end of cultural extinction.
The interesting thing about a society of “rugged individualists” is that on the surface, it might look like we are 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 if we scratch beneath the surface we may find that we sometimes associate with others for some very selfish reasons. An “individual” may “associate” with others because they believe the “other” might be able to help them meet their own personal agenda. This can happen in the halls of congress, in a church, a neighborhood, in a family, even in a relationship with a friend or a spouse.
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 may only be 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.
This reminds of 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 would all do well to 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: “I will 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. As I look at the state of our contemporary culture I wonder if The Myth of Narcissus prevails perhaps more often than we might imagine?
The Dalai Lama once wisely observed:
Remember that the best relationship is one in which
your love for each other
exceeds your need for each other.