Erin Manning left a great comment on the selfishness of the Self:
Anybody who has read any of the writings of the late 19th and early 20th century has seen a frequent expression of this one idea: the old order, whatever it was, was about to change, was indeed already passing away, and whatever would replace it would be something very different from what had gone before. Though you can find this expressed as early as the middle of the 19th century, I think that these ideas really got going after the First World War. Suddenly the old justifications for sending huge numbers of young men to fight and die didn’t seem all that compelling, especially to those who had to go and fight. What–fight and die, endure misery whether you lived or not, lose the best and brightest of a whole generation, for kings and political orders, for tribes and nations, for faith or family? What did it gain anybody, in the end? Another world war would raise those same questions, and leave people grappling with the same aftershocks, especially given the already-spreading rupture of the family through divorce, a thing considered shameful half a century before, but now apparently commonplace. Men who went to fight came home to find their wives had moved on to other men, and many women received divorce papers soon after their husbands returned home; it was a different age.
The age of the atomized individual, in fact, had begun to rise (as Carle Zimmerman said in “Family and Civilization”). In one way of looking at it, you can say that the trajectory of deterioration from the first deliberate detachment of the Self from home, family, tribe, nation, religion, community, and so on to the motto today of “I am my own,” which implies that the Self itself is a Thing which one owns like property and can make use of in pretty much the same way, was already set out in those early days of at least the early 20th century, if not before. When a man’s principle source of identity is located not in the Self but in something or many things outside of it (e.g., I am a Catholic, I am an American, I am a proud citizen of Nowhereville, U.S.A., home of the ABC Widget Corporation, I am a member of the Smith family–no, not the Yorkshire Smiths, but the Shropshire Smiths, etc.) there is a stability there that can endure, but when a man’s primary way of identifying himself is as a Self first and all those other things only superficially and tangentially, his identity takes on a different quality, as something malleable, shifting, ephemeral, and prone to radical restructuring.
This does not mean that one’s sense of self is unimportant or meaningless; it just means that the elevation of that sense of self above all else tends to invert those structures which help us find a place in the world that is bigger than we alone are–that, in a way of speaking, can help us to put ourselves at the service of others in that solidarity and brotherhood which is so necessary to human thriving.
To put it more simply, if a woman decides that her freedom to explore who she is as a person is so important that it means that she must leave her husband and children behind, she is abandoning that very kind of community in which the Self is protected and given the chance to grow. Plenty of people have decided their families of origin simply don’t measure up, and have cultivated a weary cosmopolitan attitude about the idea of any duty toward one’s aging parents–but one’s parents are aging, nonetheless, and the kind of Self who will do nothing to ease their final years is not a particularly good one in most cases. There are plenty of illustrations of the point we could examine.
Having said all that, and it’s too much already, I think it’s only fair to recognize that the atomized individual arose for what were likely just reasons. The young people of a century ago looked around them and saw hypocrisy, greed, a lust for power, a desire to control within all of those institutions which are supposed to allow for the nourishing and thriving of the individuals within. It is not too much of a stretch, for instance, to say that the Second Vatican Council had the problems of a sort of Pelagianism to deal with, in which the members of the faith community often seemed to think they were saved because they were members of the faith community and (after all, Father) they Did All the Things. God wasn’t going to condemn anybody who prayed the rosary and made the first Fridays, was He? That would be unfair. The danger of too much suppression of the individual, at least in a faith setting, is that the individual forgets he’s actually supposed to be cultivating a relationship with Jesus Christ–personally, that is, not relying on the priest’s prayers at the altar to do the trick on his behalf.
And that’s just one example: if the institution of marriage threw open the doors to divorce, let’s say, for how long before that did the individuals who came together to form a union remain really separated from each other instead? Or if a political party crumbled under the weight of a lifeless conservatism or an even more placid liberalism, was it the fault of the young voter who demanded to know what the party would do for him, or the fault of the party for forgetting that their job is to serve the people, not grow into a Leviathan for the sake of job security? There are lots of ways to illustrate the problems that fed the rise of the atomized individual.
And now, today, “I am my own,” meaning not only that the Self is all-important, but that the Self can be used for whatever purpose its owner chooses. Want to be a man today and a woman tomorrow? Want to live with a girl for five years and give her two children and then disappear with no obligations whatsoever? Want to change jobs every three months, or cut off your family for the crime of being the kind of Selves your Self doesn’t like much, or reinvent your racial identity à la Rachel Dolezal, or lie, cheat and steal your way to political power? It doesn’t matter-why should it?–so long as the Self remains appeased and temporarily content.
But–and here is the problem–no society can endure for long as a mere collection of disassociated individuals who owe loyalty to the Self but no one else. The fact that we are not completely dissolved as a nation yet has more to do with the lingering echoes of the old loyalties to place and people and tribe and nation and religion and community, etc., than to some power of the Self to balance the paradox between doing what is in its own best interest and pleasing others. To put it lightly, so long as there is only one real Cosimanian Orthodox, the vestiges of the not-Cosimanian will keep things going; but when everybody is a Cosimanian, how is anything supposed to get done, if it involves inconvenience, cost (financial or otherwise) or any suggestion of the sacrifice, however temporary, of one’s own self-interest?
It is at this point that people generally point out that one doesn’t have to be a member of a family or tribe or faith or community to want the roads to get fixed (for instance), and that the Self will put up with taxes to get the work done, etc. That is true for now, but I think there is a danger of forgetting that even delayed gratification, putting up with the temporary loss of money or the temporary inconvenience of the bad road, is a life skill that has to be learned, and it is usually taught by those old forms of family and community. We don’t yet really know what it is like to have, in place of a community, a loose assortment of uncollected individuals who owe no loyalty to anyone but themselves, but I suspect that day will arrive.
I think most of us are free riders on the labors and sacrifices of others — those who live today, and our ancestors — who order(ed) their lives by something greater than themselves.
Just this afternoon, I got word that a volunteer firefighter in West Feliciana Parish was killed today while working an automobile accident there. The roads were icy, and it appears that another vehicle trying to stop for the crash plowed into him. Officials haven’t released the man’s name, but everybody in town knows who it is, and my mother tells me folks are devastated. All the local volunteer firefighters know it could have been them.
In the 1980s, my late father was a founder of the VFD out in Starhill, the rural community where I grew up. A number of those local men got firefighting training, and devoted themselves to protecting their neighbors. Nobody got paid. They did it because they believed it was the right thing to do, and because they knew that by protecting their neighbors, their neighbors were protecting them.
That’s a small instance, but an important one. The Harvard political scientist Robert Putnam became almost a household name with his “bowling alone” work documenting the steep decline in community involvement and “social capital.” I’m old enough to remember when almost everybody’s dad was involved in some kind of service work in the community. It’s not like that anymore. I’m as guilty about this as anybody else.
Patrick Deneen’s new book argues that liberalism itself, in both its liberal-liberal and conservative-liberal versions, has brought us to this place. The book is not going to comfort either Democrats or Republicans, because what Deneen is doing is questioning the system itself. His basic thesis is that liberalism has done a great job over the past 200 years of liberating the individual, but that it has eaten up all the seed corn (the virtues and customs needed to run a self-governing liberal polity), such that it is on very shaky legs. The reason is that so very much in our culture trains us to think that the desiring, choosing Self is the center of the universe.
As Erin Manning points out, liberalism didn’t come from nowhere. It really did make life better for countless people. In my own life, it was because of liberalism, and liberal values, that I was able to leave my own small town, and follow my vocation to journalism, and realize other dreams. But my book The Little Way of Ruthie Leming runs up hard against the limits of that kind of individual liberty, by exploring the richness, the meaning, and the social capital my sister had by staying behind in our town and devoting herself to the community.
I returned, and ran up hard against some of the rigid family reasons I left in the first place. Life is hard. There are no utopias. Solving the problems created by advanced liberalism aren’t a matter of going back in time, if that were possible. The truth is, we are going to have to learn to live by limits, but nobody can agree on what those limits are, and who should be the ones to decide. This is why we can’t come up now with a plausible alternative to liberalism.
But we’re going to have to, or it will be thrust upon us. Watch. Meanwhile, say a prayer for the family left behind by that volunteer firefighter who died this morning because he got up and went out on an icy road to help people, not because he got anything out of it, but because that’s the kind of man he was.
UPDATE: Officials finally released the name of the firefighter: Russell Achord. They also clarified an earlier report that mistakenly said he was a volunteer firefighter. In fact, he was apparently a salaried firefighter. Still, most of the parish’s firefighting squad are volunteers. It could have been any one of them, including my brother-in-law.