The problem with the American individual

That moment I thought I was responsible for all the traffic in the world

I was mad and in traffic the other day. Running later than usual for my kid’s drop off. Running late is a BIG stressor for parents whose children are out-of-catchment, you see. The school’s report card, which connects it to funding and other benefits, is largely dependent on days missed and days late. And so out-of-catchment kids, because they are vulnerable (they aren’t “guaranteed” a spot at a neighborhood school), are often pressured to get there on time to boost their report card grade. If they can’t make it, they might not get invited back to the school. Yikes! That’s a cynical view, of course, but in the administration’s defense, as a former teacher, I believe tardiness is an important issue to address in public schools.

But I digress. I was mad and in traffic the other day and everything seemed to be getting in my way. It was a trash truck on one block. Another block had a closed off street. And then there were the drivers. Slow moving, unassertive, seemingly confused, not paying attention, going the wrong way, backing in where they shouldn’t be. The whole thing was really bothering me because my kid’s future hanged in the balance as it was subjected to the whims of these stupid drivers. Yes, I was this mad; meanwhile, telling my kid in the back seat to stay quiet so I could weave in and out of traffic. We might die on the way to school, but at least we won’t be late.

I finally got to the school, after a spirited walk from the car to the first-grade line and I saw my buddy Jeremy. Jeremy is the principal and design director of Bright Common architecture, a passive housing architecture firm specializing in “resilient, energy efficient, healthy buildings that move us towards a post-carbon future.” That’s a fancy way of saying houses that make you feel good and make the environment cleaner. I like that. Anyway, I told him that, “when you’re in traffic, like I was this morning, you never realize you are traffic.” After a moment to catch my breath, I realized that my driving and the physical presence of my car was perhaps as inconvenient and frustrating to another out-of-catchment parent. Jeremy agreed and wondered about the self-awareness we exhibit when we complain about something but don’t take personal responsibility for it ourselves. That’s a good American idea. We have a pull-yourself-up-by-your-bootstraps culture, don’t we? Sometimes people think the poverty that someone is in is strictly their own doing, and a little more hard work will get them through it. Similarly, Americans often think the great crises we find ourselves in, like environment degradation, are a personal responsibility too. Get a job and you won’t be poor. Drink through reusable straws and the earth will stop growing warmer.

Our problems are bigger than you

That sort of individual mentality does two things. It makes one feel totally responsible for the universe, which is typical of Americans, since they have been told both that they are powerful enough to control the world, and also powerful enough to achieve anything they want. The irony of rushing my kid to school is that she’ll get that very same message at school: you have all it takes to be everything you want to be. I think that message gets hammered into us so that we become hyper-responsible for the issues of the world. We center ourselves as the most powerful ones and the ones with the most agency in the world. That creates guilt and fatigue; but it’s also rooted in thinking too highly of ourselves.

What it can also do is increase our judgment of other people. Being polarized has us blaming one another for our problems, but I think that plays into the hands of the powers and evils of this world. The sin that we find ourselves in is not just a matter of personal responsibility. Sin is a condition the world is in and that the powers perpetuate. We need a collective movement against sin, and that starts without assigning personal responsibility to ourselves for solving it.

Our single-serving, individualist culture is hard to resist, though. Instead of having public space, people have their own yards. Instead of village parenting, everyone does it on their own. Instead of having a common way of education, we privately educate our kids in special institutions or home school them. Now, the response that’s been programmed into our minds is that all of these people’s individual choices are their individual responsibility. All they need to do is live in a dense urban area, raise their kids together, and send them to public school. Not so fast though, once again, there are powers greater than us that are influencing us to make these detrimental choices. And our fight is against them, not against each other.

For our struggle is not against enemies of blood and flesh, but against the rulers, against the authorities, against the cosmic powers of this present darkness, against the spiritual forces of evil in the heavenly places.—Ephesians 6:12

Paul has a big idea about the rebellion that Jesus is waging, and we shouldn’t waste that rebellion on one another, or assume rebelling against one another is engaging in that struggle Paul is talking about. I’m interested in uniting against that struggle instead of projecting it on to one another. People who see the world in terms of a class struggle say that the lower classes fight one another instead of the ruling class. We waste our time on each other instead of the bigger struggle we have.

You don’t need to be perfect; curb your judgment and condemnation

I think the moral superiority we achieve with that is rooted in the sense of power that the ethos of the United States pushes on to us from the day we are born. So, I’m deeply sympathetic to this problem because it is so forcefully indoctrinated in us. So it is tempting to point out the errors in your family members’ eyes instead of self-reflecting on yours.

Jesus puts it aptly when he says, “Why do you stare at the splinter in your neighbor’s eye, but ignore the plank in your own? How can you say to your neighbor, ‘Here – let me get that splinter out of your eye,’ when you’ve got the plank in your own? You’re just play-acting!” (Matt. 7:3-4).

This is a call for clear sight, not perfect action. The opposite side of this coin is that we might self-condemn because we aren’t perfect anyway, and we end up back to where we started.

Being the church is the best way to oppose evil

What I’m trying to say here is that instead of assuming that we are responsible for all the world’s plights, and even our own, can we see ourselves as part of a cosmic battle against evil? One that manifests itself in our lives, and one that sometimes makes us complicit in it?

Getting mad at the driver in front of me for not able to make a left-term properly might be the nearest point of contact for my stress. So I might be left with the option of just blaming them. Upon realizing I’m also part of the problem, I might just self-condemn. But there is a much bigger thing happening in the world and because the battle of good against evil involves forces that are bigger than each other, I hope we can hold each other in grace and peace. The main thing the powers want to do is waste our mutiny against each other. Instead of blaming each other, let’s join Jesus in his mutiny against evil.

That means doing it together in an ecclesiological community—a church. That is a significant contrast from the super individualized faith of American Christianity where you simply attend a worship meeting if it suits your schedule, or worse, simply contain God in your heart, while you participate in a political economy that really has nothing to do with Jesus (the one where you make sure none of your “church commitments” interfere with your personal life). That’s where I’ve invested all my money. I don’t have another way to do it. Having faith together and moving on a sense of mission is antithetical to how individualized the United States is. We are a collective force and power that threatens the powers and creates an alternative.

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