Challenging American Individualism

We evaluate people on how independent they are. Do they take charge of their own life? Do they care what others think about them?

Whatever problem you face or life situation you’re in, you will be recommended to “Take charge–it’s your life.” “Be the hero of your own story.” “Stop caring what other people think, just be yourself.” And being yourself often means leaving any expectation that anyone else has of you and going off to “find your true self.”

But what if your true self is some how entangled in the expectations of others? We tend to value teamwork when eventually it leads to choosing a hero, when it benefits us, for some, certain, few goals. But the fact is when we work in teams we all know everyone has their own agenda, everyone is still trying to live their own personal version of the American Dream.

That in, and of itself has formed you and I as mainstream Americans in the way we view ourselves, the way we find ourselves, and the way that we think. It is the framework by which we live our individual, set-apart, independent lives.

I want to challenge this way of thinking. Bare with me, you have striven your whole life to live this way, and the fact is that most of us end up feeling lonely, disconnected, and unfulfilled… so you might as well hear me out.

As Americans we are trying to fit life into a certain kind of mold that life doesn’t fit into. The Western world has become increasingly more independent and individualistic, but if you travel very far outside that you’ll find that most people don’t think  about themselves the way we think about ourselves. I don’t think that it is totally unique to the United States of America, but in a way, it does set us apart. Our history as a nation has made us somewhat special in the way that we view independence.

We want something with no strings attached. Jobs without commitment, relationships that begin and end when we decide, families without expectations. Somehow this all leads us to decide that living your own life, regardless of how it affects other people is not only okay, but it marks you as an adult, it makes you an independent thinker, and gives you some amount of happiness. I don’t think this is a good thing.

Life has strings attached. 

The choices we make affect other people and we should consider those effects. We want to all be the star of our own movie. But life doesn’t work like a movie and if it did there are simply a lot more supporting roles than there are lead parts. And when you quit being a supporter you end up in a movie like Cast-Away. It’s you as Tom Hanks and your own personal Wilson Volleyball as the supporting role. When everyone wants to be their own movie star in their own life movie we are literally making the same movie over and over again. Divorce is high. Familial satisfaction is low.

We want God without strings attached. We want love when we can walk away at anytime. We want lives where we dream our own dreams regardless of the cost.

That may be all well and good for a while, but think about where it’s gotten us. As a nation we are not united. Our families are broken. Our government shuts down. We have no harmony. We haven’t worked for the good of everyone, we’ve only worked for our own personal dreams… something we’ve given ourselves right to.

Yes, you have the right to be your own person. But it will cost you very, very dearly. Independence doesn’t necessarily lead to happiness… or our people would be exuberant with life. We are rich in wealth as a country, but we are lonely.

In America, we want a winner. In China, they value compromises that benefit everyone. What if instead of everyone living their own life with their own plot and being their own hero, people decided we could all make a movie together, with a plot that benefited everyone?

Love and life never are “no strings attached.” There is no such thing as a free lunch, as the sayings go. If you want to make the most out of your life and your relationships you need to acknowledge the strands of other’s lives. Not only do our lives intersect like roads, but they are like a pile of spaghetti or when all the necklaces or little chains and strings in your jewelry all become entangled with one another.

Perhaps the tapestry is the best analogy. You aren’t a picture alone. Yes you’re loved and wanted as an individual. But as an individual you are just a string. Together we make a picture.

If you’re a Christian, and even if you aren’t, I think that God wants us to realize that we are so much better as a collective. God wants us to lose our me-first attitude.

Friends, American Christians, God loves us unconditionally, but I really don’t think that if you accept the gospel with no strings attached that you will ever live the life God is calling you to. Accepting Christ means accepting a covenant. You accept his mission. You accept his way. You accept that you are no longer a lead in your own movie. You play a role in a movie that everyone can be part of. In a plot that will result in Heaven.

And remember Heaven has nothing to do with your personal paradise. Revelation says that all of the nations will be present. And Heaven won’t be about you.

Life isn’t about you. It’s not about your personal story. And when we live like it is when end up lonely, exiled, hurt, bitter, victimized and divided.

Life is about that complicated web of situations and people around you. And I don’t think that accepting a desire for group harmony, group goals, and togetherness means ignoring who you are. But maybe who you are is a part of a bigger picture and a person who truly cares about supporting the other people in your life.

Life isn’t about leaving expectations of others to find our true selves, life is more about finding out how to love despite disappointment, accepting a supporting role, and journeying together as people.

There’s my brainstorm, hopefully something less vague to come.



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