A current topic in the news is the rise of individualism, defined by the Oxford dictionary as “a social theory favoring freedom of action for individuals over collective or state control.” When I compare my father’s generation to that of children, there is certainly a significant trend towards individualism. My father grew up during World War II when Americans sacrificed for a greater cause. He recently told me about his Christmas presents during the war: a pair of wool socks, an orange, and a small ball. He was so pleased to receive gifts during this period of rationing and national service. He worked jobs from his early youth through college so not to burden his family. Sacrificing for others was a given for his generation.
My son was fortunate to gain admission to some of the best universities. He worked extremely hard at his studies and was rewarded for his efforts. During his senior year, I attended the Harvard-Yale football game with him and saw a co-ed wearing a Harvard t-shirt stating: I am the 6% – how about you? The t-shirt referred to Harvard’s acceptance rate. Humility was not always practiced among these individualist students, some of whom will be our nation’s leaders. I can’t image anyone from my father’s generation wearing this t-shirt.
Individualism is directed inward. As long as there is no harm to others (who are also looking out for themselves), then in theory, individualism is acceptable behavior. What one does with their body is of no business to others. Rising to the top in your respective field is due to your individual talents and hard work. Creativity and winning defines the individual. Life is all about ‘me.’
Paul writes about humility in Philippians 2:3 as he sits in a Roman prison:
Do nothing out of selfish ambition or vain conceit. Rather, in humility value others above yourselves, not looking to your own interests but each of you to the interests of the others. (NIV)
Then Paul goes further and writes about the humility of Christ: “he humbled himself by becoming obedient to death – even death on a cross.” (2:8, NIV) Christ achieved self-actualization by becoming a rabbi through years of study. Christ used his talents to teach others and uplift his community. He was competent in his religious studies and had a social following. Yet, he understood the needs of the community. His focus was outward.
Steve Collier, President of CD Construction Consulting, writes in his book Shrewd and Innocent (Mars Hill Publishing, Austin, TX, 2010, page 113):
We aren’t called to love our neighbor and hate ourselves, or love our neighbors and ignore ourselves, we are to love our neighbors as ourselves. Loving yourself, a form of self-interest, appears to be a given. It’s stated as though it’s something normal – it should come naturally.
Another definition of individualism is “the habit or principle of being independent and self-reliant.” Loving yourself is needed to love others. Self-actualization is needed to fully serve others with all of an individual’s God-given gifts. Without serving the needs of our community, individualism goes against the very essence of Christianity. Christ was fully divine yet humbled himself in the most degrading way, exhibiting true servanthood. Our love of self must be directed externally – beyond ourselves. Humility counterbalances individualism. Love of neighbor counterbalances self-reliance. Collier continues: “There is a love of self, a self-interest, that is actually good.” It just needs to be projected outward to our neighbors with humility.