Community vs Individualism – A false divide? Part 2

What is often dressed up as individualism is often a plain delusion. Advertising screams at us, claiming that if we buy that product which all the other millions have already bought then we will be truly unique and truly individual. So in effect we are encouraged to be part of the herd under the guise of being an individual. I wonder if being an individual is a huge sham. After all we are the product of the prejudices and beliefs of our times. The really different ones are mad, and/or unable to relate to the rest.

Great theologians like John Zizioulas and others have given us brilliant explanations of what constitutes a person. A lot of it revolves around the idea of a person being the network of relationships she is part of. Of course reading him would give a much better understanding. But I still don’t understand what an individual is. The problem is illustrated by a few musical examples.

In a symphonic orchestra there are many individual instruments or ‘voices’. Often the unity of a community is illustrated that saying that we are an orchestra playing our different parts. Agreed. But… the orchestra is considered successful only if each person performs exactly what has been pre-ordained for them. So in effect there is very little individuality. Yes each instrument is different but if they did their own thing it would be chaos.

So maybe we have to look at a jazz ensemble. Even there, with all the improvisation spaces there are still rigid traditions that dictate the place and space of each musician. I have heard of a few improvisational ensembles where they make it up as they go along which sounds absolutely amazing but there seems to be so few of them.

The time you truly hear an individual is when the others intentionally give space to the individual. Maybe that’s how we go. We live a life that in ourselves is always seeking to give others space in our own way. It is an other centred individualism where our primary concern is the development of the individuals around us to be more fully human in their own way. But of course this sounds very idealistic and I’m not sure how it fully works out in practice.

But through reflection I have to conclude that community is not the end to which we strive for. It is both. An other centred individuality and a community which ensures that its individuals flourish. After all Jesus is not the Holy Spirit. Father, Son and Spirit work for each other so much so that they not only seem one, they are one while being three. A mystery of course but it’s that mystery, that we are called to inhabit.


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