Have you ever stopped to wonder why so much of the world is focused on individuals? Have you ever stopped to wonder why community is seen as nothing more than what one person can do for society? Go get a good job. Be productive. Do what you have to do. In the process of doing what we need to do for ourselves, we tend to forget how our actions and decisions affect those around us. We forget that we live in communities, even though they surround us every day. Society, as it is featured today, is almost entirely geared towards individuals. Everything becomes about one person: me, myself, and I. I need to do this because it will help me get this job. I need to treat myself to this . While these voices start off pushing the individual to be better, over time, they develop into: I can’t help you because I need to do this for me. I had to do this myself, so you just have to figure it out for yourself. In such a world where each individual is looking out only for themselves, the result is only selfishness and misery.
When people become too individualistic, they tend to forget where they stand in society. As a functioning member of society, not only do you have a responsibility to perform well in your careers and take care of your civic duties (pay your taxes, vote, etc.), but you also have a responsibility towards the rest of society. The meaning of “society” isn’t just a group of individuals who happen to be working towards the same sort of personal goals for their lives. It has to do with a community that is ordered to securing the welfare of the common good, that is, for all people taken together. This isn’t to say that personal goods are wrong to pursue; rather, there needs to be a healthy balance in the priority given to each one. This means looking out for how one’s decisions affect the greater community. For many people, this may seem like a no-brainer after living in a family; however, the difficult part is projecting this into the greater sphere of the world.
Let us look at some examples. For instance, how many people today can say they actually know the neighbors that live on their street? I, for one, can say that majority of the families in my neighborhood are strangers to me. Yet, this is almost accepted as normal in the world today because everyone runs on their own personal schedules. How can we vote for things as a community and perform acts of service for the neighborhood if we don’t even know the people who live down the street from us? This has been a very interesting development in the last few decades. Many parents and grandparents can attest to knowing every kid on their block; however, that neighborhood community is quickly fading as a norm.
Dietrich von Hildebrand wrote much on the human person, and one aspect he touched on in his essay “The Struggle for the Person” was individual liberalism. This concept referred to the phenomenon of a human person becoming distant from relationships and community, both with God and with other persons. In his essay, Hildebrand discussed how the spirit of the age is one of people becoming increasing miserable and aware of their estrangement from true community. He said: “People are rejecting the dissolution of the essence and value of community, which reduces it to a mere sum of individuals persons juxtaposed atomically.”(1) When society is so ordered to the individual, the true essence of community is lost, and that loss is felt keenly by each individual. Hildebrand goes on to say that when the individual is “uprooted” from his place in the community, society naturally falls into a “basic attitude which is not merely anthropocentric, but egocentric, because it sees the ultimate goal of life as the material prosperity of the individual, around which everything else revolves.” (2) The human person is not meant to be egocentric, as by our very natures we are a dependent species. As infants, we require assistance in order to do anything - and while it is true that, as we grow up, we become more independent - we also need others to help us out. Humans are not meant to be solitary: However, in this world of independency, the “sharing”, or healthy ways we depend on those around us, become looked at as weaknesses.
Remember, “no man is an island.” The answer to the problem of individualism is solved with a united effort to form true community. This is an effort that involves people spiritually. According to Hildebrand: “The person is a rational being who is not only connected with his environment casually, but can touch it ‘intentionally’ [that is, by being mentally present to it] and penetrate it in an act of knowing; he is capable of thinking, drawing inferences, and providing a meaningful motivation for his conduct.” (3) This means that an individual approaches community with a consciousness and an intentionality that cannot be imitated by other “communities” of plants and animals due to the nature of personhood. Thus, as Hildebrand also says, “to believe that the path to true community entails a rejection of the spiritual person, resulting in an affirmation of the cult of the vital and the vital-psychical sphere, is a pernicious mistake.”(4) Yet, how can people utilize their spiritual personhood to form community? One way is found through love. By being egocentric, pride and selfishness take precedence in society and so damage our relationships and communities; when everyone looks out for themselves alone, it’s chaos. What is needed is something beyond what is outlined for me in my daily schedule or routine. This requires positive action on the part of all individuals in order to influence the greater community; for instance, caring for the needs of others, and making other people a priority in life, changes the focus from being egocentric to communion. Love is sacrifice, going outside of the necessary conventions and reaching out to help those in need, without expecting something out of it in return.
- Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 307.
- Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 308.
- Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 311.
- Hildebrand, My Battle Against Hitler, 313.