American culture is promoted as an individualistic paradise; a place where people can be “themselves” and “stand out from the crowd.” You can have it “your way right away” or be “an army of one” if you so desire. One of the most popular lines of technology in history is not called an usPod, usPhone or usPad but an iPod, iPhone and iPad. We often determine our worth by our ability to fix, do and create things on our own. Even in team building exercises there is a subtle irony in striving to be the best member of the team, the one who goes above and beyond to effectively be a part of the group.
But what if individual accomplishment isn’t merely equal to collectivism, but the servant of it? Put another way: what if the “you” that is different from everyone else isn’t just a part of the “we,” but can’t exist without it? Maybe it’s not that all of our uniqueness, singularity and identifying traits do not exist without everyone else but that those qualities just don’t matter very much without others.
In Genesis 1 and 2, the Hebrew creation story includes a subtle and curious delay in indentifying the gender of the first human God creates. The first human is not identified as a “man” initially, merely as a human. There is no revealed gender identitiy in fact until “woman” is created. Obviously this does not mean that the first human wasn’t male, but it does seem to indicate that the gender of the first human did not matter in the grand scheme of things until there was a need for distinction.1 (Please do not misinterpret this point as applicable to political theory. Nationalistic collectivism is a political nightmare because it can too easily ignore intrinsic human rights. I believe wholeheartedly that the Church must promote a view of life that can only work in the context of the kingdom of heaven. Collectivism works when the central ethic is love and deference, but not when the central ethic is power, as it is in our national political landscape on all sides of the aisle.)
Perhaps there is a different way we should be looking at the rest of the world. Instead of twisting ourselves into shapes and images that help us to stand out from everyone else, what if we began to look at who we have actually been created to be by looking at how we are naturally different from those people whom God has allowed us to walk with day to day and week to week? What if the best way to be “original” is not to strive for individualism, but to pursue community? What if the most substantial contribution that you and I can make to the world is never going to be found in a solo performance?
It seems likely that when Jesus makes the statement that there is no greater love a person can show than laying down his life for his friends, the point becomes quite clear that we will never know the most profound truths of life, and we will never attain to the heights of achievement and success if we pursue those ends outside of the context of community and relationship.
1 Richard Elliot Friedman. “Commentary on the Torah.” Genesis 2:23.