‘Glorious But Terrifying Isolation’—Individualism in American Culture

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By the end of this month, I hope to have turned in the manuscript for my next book—an accessible look at the dominant way most people view the purpose of life as opposed to the Bible’s perspective. Last year, I did a multi-part series on expressive individualism: the idea that the purpose of life is to find and then express yourself. My goal in the new book is to explain this way of thinking in light of the Bible without using academic terms (like “expressive individualism”) or biblical jargon that would make the writing less accessible to the ordinary person.

Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life is a book that comes highly recommended by Tim Keller and other church leaders. It’s written by a group of sociologists: Robert Bellah, Richard Madsen, William Sullivan, Ann Swidler, and Steven Tipton. The first release was in 1985, followed by an update in 1996, and a third edition in 2007. I’ve read this book multiple times, and it continues to stimulate thought and reflection. Below are a few excerpts that help you understand  their take on expressive individualism.

Slipping Solidarity

The authors of Habits of the Heart see diminishing solidarity in society.

Much of what has been happening in our society has been undermining our sense of community at every level. We are facing trends that threaten our basic sense of solidarity with others: solidarity with those near to us (loyalty to neighbors, colleagues at work, fellow townsfolk), but also solidarity with those who live far from us, those who are economically in situations very different from our own, those of other nations. Yet this solidarity—this sense of connection, shared fate, mutual responsibility, community—is more critical now than ever. It is a solidarity, trust, mutual responsibility that allows human communities to deal with threats and take advantage of opportunities. How can we strengthen these endangered capacities, which are first of all cultural capacities to think in certain ways? (xxxvi–xxxvii)

Freedom to Be Alone

Why do we see this phenomenon? In part because of American cultural traditions that prize independence, self-reliance, and autonomous freedom. Here are some quotes.

  • Freedom is perhaps the most resonant, deeply help American value. Yet freedom turns out to mean being left alone by others, not having other people’s values, ideas, or styles of life forced upon one, being free of arbitrary authority in work, family, and political life. What it is that one might do with that freedom is much more difficult for Americans to define. And if the entire social world is made up of individuals, each endowed with the right to be free of others’ demands, it becomes hard to forge bonds of attachment to, or cooperation with, other people, since such bonds would imply obligations that necessarily impinge on one’s freedom. (23)
  • We live in a society that encourages us to cut free from the past, to define our own selves, to choose the groups with which we wish to identify. No tradition and no community in the United States is above criticism, and the test of the criticism is usually the degree to which the community or tradition helps the individual to find fulfillment. (154)
  • From this point of view, to be free psychologically is to succeed in separating oneself from the values imposed by one’s past or by conformity to one’s social milieu, so that one can discover what one really wants. (23)
  • American cultural traditions define personality, achievement, and the purpose of human life in ways that leave the individual suspended in glorious, but terrifying, isolation. (6)
  • This clear-sighted vision of each individual’s ultimate self-reliance turns out to leave very little place for interdependence and to correspond to a fairly grim view of the individual’s place in the social world. Self-reliance is a virtue that implies being alone. (14-15)
  • The notion that one discovers one’s deepest beliefs in, and through, tradition and community is not very congenial to Americans. Most of us imagine an autonomous self existing independently, entirely outside any tradition and community, and then perhaps choosing one. . . . Just where we think we are most free, we are most coerced by the dominant beliefs or our own culture. For it is a powerful cultural fiction that we not only can, but must, make up our deepest beliefs in the isolation of our private selves. (65)

What Is the Good Life?

Another reason for the lack of solidarity is due to the changing nature of what constitutes “the good”—both individually and corporately. More quotes:

  • What is good is what one finds rewarding. If one’s preferences change, so does the nature of the good. Even the deepest ethical virtues are justified as matters of personal preference. Indeed, the ultimate ethical rule is simply that individuals should be able to pursue whatever they find rewarding, constrained only by the requirement that they not interfere with the “value systems” of others. (6)
  • Americans tend to think of the ultimate goals of a good life as matters of personal choice. The means of achieve individual choice, they tend to think, depend on economic progress. (22)
  • We believe in the dignity, indeed the sacredness, of the individual. Anything that would violate our right to think for ourselves, judge for ourselves, make our own decisions, live our lives as we see fit, is not only morally wrong, it is sacrilegious. Our highest and noblest aspirations, not only for ourselves, but for those we care about, for our society and for the world, are closely linked to our individualism. (142)

Religion in This World

How does religious adherence change in a world of expressive individualism? By altering the fundamental orientation of both belief and practice. Communities form around individual interests.

  • The therapeutic conception of community grows out of an old strand of American culture that sees social life as an arrangement for the fulfillment of the needs of individuals. In a “community of interest,” self-interested individuals join together to maximize individual good. (134)
  • The associational model of elaborated interests and reciprocal exchange works outward from intimate relationship through a circle of friends, seen as “personal support networks.” Individuals link up to exchange “support” in order to “meet their needs and validate themselves.” (134)
  • American religion had always had a rich treasury of second languages in the Bible itself and the lived traditions descending from it. Yet the relegation of religion to the private sphere after disestablishment tended to replace the specificity of those second languages with a vague and generalized benevolence. Privatization placed religion, together with the family, in a compartmentalized sphere that provided loving support but could no longer challenge the dominance of utilitarian values in the society at large. Indeed, to the extent that privatization succeeded, religion was in danger of becoming, like the family, “a haven in a heartless world,” but one that did more to reinforce that world, by caring for its casualties, than to challenge its assumptions. (224)

There are so many more quotes I could pull from this book, but I hope this smattering of insights will lead you to read it for yourself. It’s well worth your time.

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