Moving to a Culture of Individualism

Whenever a person (or group of people) emmigrate to a new land there is a mixture of hope, excitement, fear and grieving. What is familiar is left behind. What is uncertain is lies ahead. One culture is left behind and the person moves into another culture. When you move to a new land you understand that these things exist before you move. But when you don’t move to a new land and the culture changes anyway, it can be confusing and frustrating. Realizing that our culture is changing, knowing the ways it is changing can help us bring the accumulated wisdom from the previous culture into the new one.

Freedom from Want by Norman Rockwell

The Basic Unit of Community: From Family to Individual
For the past 500 years or so, the nuclear family has been the basic unit of community structure in Western culture. The term “blood is thicker than water” demonstrates the idea that family ties are more important than anything else. If you grew up before 1950 you grew up in a culture that instilled this notion through television, radio, newspapers, magazines and all other media. It was a notion that was taken for granted. Norman Rockwell’s painting of the multi-generational family at Thanksgiving dinner is perhaps that quintessential image of this cultural assumption.

This was not always so. Prior to 1500 the basic unity of community in Western culture was the fiefdom. These geographically located kingdoms provided identity to those who lived within their borders. People “belonged to” or “lived under” the rule and protection of the nobility. At other times the tribe or clan, a larger version of the family, was the way in which people identified themselves.

Today, the idea that the nuclear family is the basic unity of community has all but disappeared. Slowly, the individual has become the basic unity of personal identity. Images like the lone cowboy (think John Wayne) or the person who, unaided, overcomes all obstacles to obtain their goals are the images of the new culture. Loyalty to a larger group like a family, tribe or nation, takes second place behind loyalty to one’s self. Individualism also has a part to play in the increased rate of divorce in our country. Other trends such as couples living together for years before getting married (if they do get married) and waiting longer before starting a family are partially due to a cultural emphasis on self-fulfillment. Finishing school and establishing a career come first. We also see people moving away from extended family and relocating for jobs or simply because they want to live elsewhere.

In essence, family has taken second place to individual fulfillment. People raised in the family-unit culture generally find the culture of individualism to be a selfish and dangerous choice. I believe it is natural to see it that way because individualism threatens the very fabric of the family-unit culture. But it is important to remember that no culture is 100% perfect. While a culture of individualism has many flaws, the family-unit culture wasn’t perfect either. Emphasis on the family meant that many people stayed in loveless marriages because of societal and cultural expectations. Many times adult children stayed near parents or extended family who had abused them exposing their own children to further abuse. A culture of individualism makes it easier and more socially acceptable for people to get out of unhealthy family situations.

So what does this mean for people of faith? It is hard to say. But one of the most immediate things we will notice is that we have to start talking about families in a different way. A family that consists of a man and a woman who have only been married to each other, living in the same household with their children is no longer the “average” family. Like it or not, families can have one parent, two parents, four parents or more.  They can have just two moms or two dads. They can have brothers and sisters that have different parents or just one parent in common. And families now include people who are not blood relatives or the result of adoptions at all.

Secondly we will need to stop equating Christian values with family values. They are not the same thing. In a family-unit culture it is helpful to use family values to help explain Christian values. But in a culture of individualism we will have to find new ways to teach people about Christian values. How do you teach a culture raised on the notion of self-fulfillment about self-sacrifice or being servants? When we talk about purpose and contentment and being the people God made us to be we are searching for ways to teach Christian values in a culture of individualism.

We shape our culture as much as we are shaped by it. Perhaps it is ironic that the pinnacle of the family-unit culture paved the way for the culture of individualism. Only when a culture is so willing to sacrifice everything for the family unit do children begin to believe that their happiness and well being are more important than anything else. Thankfully we have a God who is with us, regardless of the culture we live in, calling us and leading us to bring grace and love, beauty and truth and forgiveness and reconciliation to our time and place.

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