Individualism vs. community

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By Tom Holmes

Contributing Reporter / Religion Blogger

PARKER PALMER, THE PROMISE OF PARADOX

65 the most pressing needs of our time demand community in response.

67 We may honor community with our words, but the history of the twentieth century has been a determined movement away from life together.

67 For several generations, Americans have been in conscious flight from the extended family and the small town.

67 Both forms of community [extended family and the small town] slowed our progress toward a goal we cherish more deeply than we cherish life together: the goal of economic mobility.

67 So we have been drawn toward cities large and complex enough to meet our economic desires and families small and portable enough to make mobility possible. 

68 We must begin by recognizing that our verbal homage to community is only one side of a deep ambivalence that runs through the American character, on the other side of which is a celebration of unfettered individualism.

69 And in the event that one life, one personality, did crumble, community itself was the therapy: in community, one could find a comforting role that helped bring the self back together.

But with the breakdown of our common life came growing personal disintegration and the need for a form of therapy that did not depend on community.

70-71 The "triumph of the therapeutic"—of the premise that community is gone and we must learn to stand alone—can also be found in much that passes for spirituality these days.  In religious as well as secular life, community has disappointed and failed us.  As a result, many who are open to religious experience or on a spiritual quest cannot tolerate the church in any of its organized forms.  So certain forms of spirituality that emphasize the solitary journey of the self-seeking self have gathered many adherents.  At their worst, these "new religions" have made the ego-self the object of the spiritual quest. 

71 Lost, too, is the sense that the self is defined by participation in communities of covenant—lost along with the confidence that anything beyond the self can be trusted.

71 It is difficult to find or create relationships of duration and reliability in our kind of world.  But such realism quickly becomes pernicious: every time we act on that assumption, every time we gird ourselves to go it alone, we create more of the same.

72 Ours is a time in which personal health is supposed to come by focusing on ourselves and by seeking the resources for self-renewal.  But personal well-being is one of those strange things that eludes those who aim directly at it and comes to those who aim elsewhere.

73 Paradoxically, community and individuality go hand in hand: an affluent suburb with many lifestyle options but little community breeds less individuality than a provincial village with few choices but a rich community life.  We have lost personal well-being because we have lost community.

74-75 Families, neighborhoods, work groups, churches, and other voluntary associations stand between the lone individual and the power of the central state.  They provide each of us with a human buffer zone so that we do not stand utterly vulnerable against the state's demands. 

76 But the American condition is one of deepening privatism.  Affluence draws us into ways of living designed to protect us from the sight and sound of one another.

81 But community is less like utopia than like a crucible or a refiner's fire, not least because easy access always means the collision of egos.

82 But those who can survive the dissolution of their dream and the abrasion of their egos will find that the truthy of community is richer and more supportive than fantasy can ever be.  For in community, one learns that the solitary self is not an adequate measure of reality, that we can  begin to know the fullness of truth only through multiple visions. 

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