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Going Against the Grain of Individualism

“Look out for numero uno” and “Take care of yourself before you take care of others” are common refrains aimed at improving our well-being and potential for success. As Americans, we are part of a culture that encourages individualism. Generally speaking, people from individualistic societies are particularly challenged in their ability to appreciate perspectives other than their own or to quickly connect with others in a meaningful way. Our society simply does not encourage us to develop these skills as we grow up. In an article entitled “The Effect of Culture on Perspective Taking,” authors Dr. Boaz Keyser and Shali Wu explain, “Members of collectivist cultures tend to be interdependent and to have self-concepts defined in terms of relationships and social obligations. In contrast, members of individualist cultures tend to strive for independence and have self-concepts defined in terms of their own aspirations and achievements.”

Being an individualist culture is not inherently a bad thing. We have done pretty well for ourselves as we have pursued our aspirations and grounded ourselves on concepts of freedom and hard work. Nevertheless, our cultural tendencies present certain challenges that we must wrestle with. At times, we will be called to courageously go against our cultural grain in an effort to fulfill our full potential as an individual, community and society.

We are creatures who have been made to live in community and to function in a life that is connected to others. God himself is a social being who interacts and connects; not even God runs the show in isolation. The reality is that our very identity as a person is defined in relational terms. Identities such as mother, son, employee, friend, leader, philanthropist, entrepreneur, teacher, and so on define us in relationship to other people. We do not exist autonomously. This truth often frustrates our individualistic worldview, but when we embrace this reality, we tap into experiences, opportunities, and possibilities that we would not have discovered otherwise.

Breaking the norm and being intentional about thinking and behaving in culturally unconventional ways is not easy. It takes a conviction that living in community with others and being collaborative in how we address our challenges is more powerful than self-reliance and competitive problem-solving. We must believe that being vulnerable and relational is not a sign of weakness, but of strength; and that we are not better off to simply self-preserve.

I am mentoring a young girl who is trying to work her way through school and become the first in her family to get a college degree. As she and I have spent more time together, I have realized how different the experience would have been if I had just written her a check or delivered a college care package and wished her well. In doing so, I would have been disengaged and I would have sent her the message, “take care of yourself.” Instead, I go to her house and she comes to mine; we’ve worked on how to create a budget and make plans for how she’ll meet her needs and accomplish her goals. I really understand her perspective and she now knows me and the struggles I’ve been through. It is much more powerful for her to experience living in community with someone who believes in her and is helping her gain the skills that she can use for a lifetime, than it is for her to have a solution to every problem that presents itself. She is learning that she doesn’t have to be completely self-reliant and live in isolation, which, contrary to popular belief, empowers her.

Here’s the thing….It is no longer only my mentee’s goal to graduate from college; it is now my goal to see her graduate too. She’s not in this alone.

This is the power of community and it is effective in all types of relationships: at home, at work, after hours, on the soccer field, at church, or even at a distance. It is not just for one-on-one relationships, but also for business or community relationships. This break from individualism manifests itself as we discover the power of sharing the load, being understood and making an effort to understand the perspective of others on a deeper level. In this, we are compelled to stop solving our problems in self-reliant and often self-destructive ways, but we realize that the way we conduct ourselves impacts others, we can seek mutually beneficial solutions, and we are empowered to endure and persevere until we realize our collective goals.

Is our individual-self still important? Absolutely! Do we still need to value each and every person and their contributions as unique? Without a doubt! But it is crucial to the overall health of our society for us to break down the proverbial walls that we have built around our lives in an effort to protect our time, our resources and our talents so that they can be used exclusively for our own purposes. We are a nation with one of the largest populations worldwide, yet we rank in the top 5 for loneliness; we have more natural resources than almost any other county in the world, yet we are considered to be the world’s most anxious country. If we want these realities to shift, our national motto cannot be “Every man’s an island” and we cannot continue to believe that we are only going to be successful if we watch out for me, myself and I. That is deception in its truest form; we are created to live in community and that is where we will discover what we are truly capable of.

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