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Beginning in the USA and expanding then to Europe, we witness the rise of a rampant individualism where “my rights” are the primary interest.
Read the first article of this series by Dr. Pablo Martínez.
“You will be like God”. This was the humanist option we considered in the first part of this article. We saw how self-glorification – the desire to be famous and admired – and self-realization -to seek great things for one´s self - become the priority in many people’s life. They are the secular gods that the world worships.
There are two other seductive paths offered by society today where the being is built on pillars without a solid foundation. They are also dead-end ways leading nowhere except to emptiness and frustration.
THE AUTONOMOUS OPTION: “WE ARE FREE” (Jer. 2:31)
“Be free, be yourself, be happy”. This could be the summary of such “way of being”. Who doesn’t like to feel like this? This path looks also very attractive. Being autonomous is presented as the supreme source of happiness. Its seductive power is dazzling a lot of people, but at the same time it is destroying thousands of relationships and causing much pain in many families. Why?
“Make your own way and don’t depend on anyone else”, “it is better to be alone and happy than with someone else and unhappy”. Isn’t there a grain of truth here? This way of thinking sounds logical and even legitimate. Where is the moral problem in the autonomous option? To associate happiness with personal independence is one of the devil‘s favourite arguments. He fooled Adam and Eve by making them believe that on being independent from God they would be better and could reach a higher state of happiness: «your eyes will be opened, and you will be like God, knowing good and evil» (Gn. 3:5). Personal autonomy was presented to them – and to us- as the condition to be happy.
This is not actually a modern idea. There is nothing new under the sun. The claim that it is a sign of “progress” is almost ridiculous. Many centuries ago the people of Israel said to God, «We are free, we will come no more to you » (Jer. 2:31). These are exactly the same words that millions of men and women repeat today in search of personal independence.
“Be free, be yourself” is an attractive but also a tricky option. It is like a mine field: as you walk through it, the mines explode. You blow up links whenever you need or feel like to with devastating consequences. Indeed, the breaking of all sorts of commitments is the prevalent outcome of such a “way of being”.
As a result of this, we are witnessing today an epidemic of broken relationships. Many people are reluctant to establish long term relationships; they refuse those solid links that require commitment and loyalty. No wonder the striking increase of people living alone who declare no interest to set a family or to have a steady partner. I remember a young man who referred to marriage with these words, “If I can take a taxi, why should I trouble to buy a car? What a vivid illustration of the moral values behind this trendy “way of being”, a toxic mixture of individualism, pragmatism and hedonism. Certainly commitment requires faithfulness, sticking to one’s vows and promises, a voluntary limitation of my personal freedom for the sake of a joint project. There is no human relationship -family, friends, work, church- where I can do all that I feel like doing at every moment. Maturity implies a voluntary inter- dependency that is not submission, but an expression of personal freedom.
The autonomous option lies behind many fractures in marriage. It is not unusual to hear a man or a woman say to their spouse after years of marriage: “I am leaving; I leave you because I need my space, I need to feel free. After all, I have the right to be happy”. This kind of decision turns their family upside down and brings a great deal of emotional turmoil and, consequently, social unrest. This is so because the effects of such autonomous behaviour on family life expand like the earthquake shock waves.
Even non-Christian authors acknowledge the deep impact that this behaviour has on society: it causes great fragility in the delicate network of interpersonal relationships. Much of the so called social instability has to do with this “I am free” philosophy. Some expert voices are being heard today warning us of its high potential danger. Indeed a civilization can hardly stand when people despise some of its basic pillars, namely loyalty and faithfulness. To keep one's vows and covenants, to be willing to make strong links is essential to social welfare because long term commitment is like the “cement” that sticks together personal relationships and provides social cohesion.
The French sociologist G. Lipovetsky in one of his best known books makes a lucid analysis of contemporary individualism and explains how we got here. He refers to the progressive reduction of the interest people show towards other human beings –social introversion- in the last 50 years. He describes it as a series of concentric circles in the following way:
From 1950 to 1970 people were keen to make this world a better place to live. Their social concern was worldwide, probably as a response to the Second World War tragedy. A heartfelt need for global peace led to the creation of the United Nations and other international forums. A better world was the target.
In the late sixties and seventies the circle got narrower. People’s interest is focused on the work realm. They give up the unrealistic idea of a better world and now the aim is less ambitious, so they concentrate their effort to get better jobs and work conditions. It is the time when the trade unions rise and become influential all over Europe; likewise the great demonstrations (Paris, May 1968) and the birth of the youth protest movements (the hippies in California) occur. The target was to change their nearer world, to have better works or jobs.
This tendency to social withdrawal did not stop here. In the eighties people reduced their area of interest to their family. These were the early symptoms of individualism. It was the time when the great schools of “systemic family therapy” flourished, first in Palo Alto (P. Watzlawick) and then extended to Europe. The target was even more modest: to have better families.
By the end of the 20th century and beginning of 2000 the concentric circle has been reduced to its minimum. The only interest is myself. The “me first generation” appears. Beginning in the USA and expanding then to Europe, we witness the rise of a rampant individualism where “my rights” are the primary interest. The concern is not anymore to have a better world, or better works, not even better families, but to be happier myself. Popular dictums such as “this is not my problem” or “not in my backyard” reflect this new secular religion whose god is the self. “My own happiness and freedom is my main concern. I do not mind about others”. Of course, this is not put always in such blunt terms, but the spirit behind the social trend today, the “zeitgeist”, is a pervasive individualism that subtly permeates all spheres of life. Not surprisingly the more people withdraw within their “self”, the more they long for communication. The so called social networks seem to be the “aspirin” that mitigates the most dreadful side effect of this individualism: void and loneliness.
THE MATERIALIST OPTION: «I’M RICH AND I NEED NOTHING...» (Ap. 3:17)
These words of the angel to the church in Laodicea show us that, once more, this option is not a modern one. The greed for having more and more has always been a tendency of human behaviour. Today we call it materialism, consumerism or wild capitalism, but it is the same attitude that inhabits our heart since the beginning of mankind.
In this case the priority is not to be, but to have. Those who walk along this path measure the value of their being by their having, their possessions: «you have such, then you worth such». Certain goods are especially important to them because they become social status symbols, which means they supposedly grant you identity and social superiority. These status symbols change according to age, place and time. For a teenager it can be the brand of clothes or the latest smart phone. For an adult it may be a luxurious car, a yacht or a house in a high standing neighbourhood.
The advertisements on the media constantly remind us of these symbols with subliminal or aggressive messages that stimulate us to acquire them. If it is true that publicity reflects contemporary values, then “the winners” in our society must drive certain cars, sleep in five star hotels, use gold credit cards, etc. Interestingly, a reaction against this tendency is the so called downshifting movement which promotes a simple way of life. It goes back to the austere lifestyle of Francis from Assisi: «I need very few things, and these very few things, I need them very little”.
This materialist option has, among others, two great consequences.
If the value of a person lies in what they possess, then the more you have, the better you are. Your assets give you a sense of self-esteem, social recognition and safety. This perception may lead to a compulsive behaviour where you buy both what you need but also what is totally unnecessary. Compulsive buying is a serious problem for many people today. For sure, there may be psychological reasons too (anxiety, depression), but I have no doubt that the materialist mentality is the main driving force behind this phenomenon. Someone said that consumerism is “to buy the things you don’t need with the money you don’t have».
Treating persons as things
The materialist pathway makes you deal with things as if they were persons. You are so fond of your assets (whatever they may be) that you treasure them, you cherish them, you even love them. I remember a wife making this meaningful comment of her husband: “He takes care of his car much better than he cares for his wife” (!). Here we find a perverse twisting of God´s order: if you treat things as if they were persons, then you end up treating persons as if they were things. This is sadly the end of the road of the materialist priority. No wonder Jesus warned us very clearly: “For where your treasure is, there your heart will be also” (Mt. 6:21).
Once the person has become a mere object, the next step In the materialist road is to use them as a means. People are instruments I use to reach my goals of self-fulfilment and personal happiness. No matter if I have to walk over their “dead bodies” (I speak symbolically) in order to attain such goals. This poignant portrait of reality can be seen every day in the job sphere, in marriage and family as well as in all the other realms of life.
These three secular gods are dead-end ways, they lead nowhere. The author of Ecclesiastes calls them “vanity of vanities”, they are empty and a source of frustration. This is why we need to consider the biblical response in our next article. What is the being that reflects the will of God for our lives? What are the priorities that Christ incarnated with his life?
Pablo Martínez, psychiatrist, author and international speaker.
 L'ère du vide : Essais sur l'individualisme contemporain, Gallimard, 1983.