Soul Searching, Part 7- Individualism And Understanding Wider Relationships

This section of the book Soul Searching: The Religious and Spiritual Lives of American Teenagers is remarkable to me:

American youth, like American adults, are nearly without exception profoundly individualistic, instinctively presuming autonomous, individual self-direction to be a universal human norm and life goal. Thoroughgoing individualism is not a contested orthodoxy for teenagers. It is an invisible and pervasive doxa, that is, an unrecognized, unquestioned, invisible premise or presupposition… most US teenagers are at least somewhat allergic to anything they view as trying to influence them. They generally view themselves as autonomous mediators or arbitrators of all outside influences; it is they themselves who finally influence their own lives… This autonomous individualism, not incidentally, helps to explain why teens have such difficulty articulating how religion influences them. They have difficulty imaging how religion influences their lives because they tend to imagine that nothing influences them, at least without their final choice that it does so. The idea that one’s life is being formed and transformed by the power of a historical religious tradition can be nearly incomprehensible to people who have allergies to outside influences. Such a perspective lends itself instead to thinking of religion as something one chooses to use… not something to which one devotes oneself or gives away one’s life. -pp. 143-144.

The individualism that so dominates our culture is a double-edged sword.

It robs us of a sense of who we are in relation to the rest of the world. And it quite frequently robs us of a greater quality of life that would be lived if we would just slow down a bit and relax and enjoy what we already have.

The first of these is especially important: without a sense of who we are and where we come from, we tend to act as though our life is lived in a void.  Yet, in actuality we are part of an entity larger than ourselves: our culture, our religious tradition, our nation, our world, etc.

Our individual life doesn’t have to base its significance on carving out a name for ourselves. Meaning can just as easily come from contributing to the bigger picture.

We accomplish more together than separately. But to work together, we have to understand who we are in relation to each other. And this involves recognizing the influences that have shaped all of us, the common history we share, just as much as it involves recognizing the individual strengths and weaknesses that we bring to the table.

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