Is America Going Up in Flames?
The Challenge of Hyper-Individualism
Photography and Text by
While most of us who live in America appreciate the strengths and gifts of our culture, sometimes it seems that our society is rapidly falling apart. This past summer’s massive forest fires in the West are perhaps symbolic of the feeling that an important part of our collective identity is going up in flames.
A major root of this perception among us comes from the fact that so many in our era seem to believe the isolated individual alone is real. Mass shootings of innocent people – like the one that recently occurred in a school in Newtown, Connecticut or in a theater in Aurora, Colorado - reveal gunmen who feel alienated from friends or meaningful social connections, loners who seem unable to view other people as sacred realities in their own right. Rather than being isolated cases, these shootings are symptomatic of a society that is increasingly autistic and atomized, where everyone is too busy for sustained friendship. It is this hyper-individualism that is at the root of so many of our ills.
Although the use of social media is on the rise - a phenomenon that would at first seem to imply an increased relational capacity - these connections are often brief and superficial, lacking in the physical grounding that would make them more than just words on a screen appearing within the ethereal realm of cyberspace. Rather than cultivating a small number of meaningful and committed friendships, we instead spread out our attention across a whole smorgasbord of relatively shallow interactions. Just think of how easy it is to “unfriend” someone on Facebook, and with relatively few repercussions! On the other hand, a recent movement to counteract this tendency – billed as “Pay It Forward 2013” – encourages Facebook users to send actual gifts – in the U.S.P.S. mail! – to five friends, with the understanding that they will then do the same with five of their friends. Isn’t it amazing that such an act could seem so revolutionary?
In this context, even religious, political and ethnic groups tend to view themselves as individual entities that are separate from - and better than - other religious, political or ethnic groups, rather than serving as puzzle pieces that fit together to make a larger Whole. Whatever happened to our experience of something much more vast and spacious that ties all individuals and groups together into a larger Reality?
On the level of popular religion, even God is viewed as simply one more individual - the "highest" individual, perhaps, but an individual nevertheless - rather than as the universal, spacious backdrop of love or the Ground of Being which underlies and supports all things equally. This individualistic kind of god then exists simply for the salvation of the individual, or for the preservation of one's own particular group. Perhaps it is this skewed view of God that is the underpinning for our atomistic view of the human self, and – consequently – for our disjointed view of society.
It is no wonder, then, that there is currently a popular movement rampant in our society – closely associated with this individualistic brand of religion - which mistrusts a government - imperfect though it is - that would foster the welfare of everyone in society. The same movement also casts a skeptical eye on an international body - like the United Nations - that would seek the greater good of the planet. Perhaps this movement could learn from the aspen trees that burned so extensively in Colorado's fires this summer. Typically, when some of the trees are killed in a fire, the unburned trees are able to take over, flourishing in the increased light and sending up new suckers that will sprout into new trees. This sharing is possible because all of the trees composing a grove share the same root system. The largest such grove is 106 acres in size and is composed of over 47,000 stems! Similarly, we might say that all peoples and species share a common divine "root system." But this, unfortunately, is a truth that the current pop movements fail to see.
In fact, when enlightened people speak of fostering the health and well-being of the entire Earth or of the international community, some of these folks would claim that this is actually a misguided case of "worshipping the creation rather than the Creator." However, they have no qualms, it would seem, about treating the individual self - and the individual “God” - as the most fundamental of realities, thereby effectively worshipping the creaturely concept of individuality instead of the transcendent, all-pervasive Mystery that grounds all particular beings. As theologian Paul Tillich so often said, whatever you view as the most fundamental reality or “ultimate concern” is your God, whether that be the individual or the mysterious Reality animating the Greater Whole.
Individuality is important, of course, and that is also one of the chief gifts of our culture. None of us is forced to follow the will of some kingly ruler, social group or religious hierarchy. As the Quakers would say, we are each free to follow the “Inner Light.”
But our individuality is meaningful only as the unique vehicle through which the Greater Whole - God, Mother Earth, the Web of Life, the Universe - comes to know and appreciate Himself, Herself and Itself within each creature. In terms of Process Philosophy, this means that the purpose of the individual is to enrich the inner life of the Consequent Nature of God. Until we once again begin to view ourselves as part of a larger Whole that permeates and connects us all, our society will continue to give birth to a culture of violence, hyper-individualism and estrangement.
All photos are taken by the author, and are from the High Park, Hewlett and Fern Lake Fires in Larimer County, Colorado.
Stephen Hatch, M.A., is a contemplative thinker, photographer and writer. He lives as a sort of "monk in the world," combining family life with meditation, silence, solitary time spent hiking and camping in the wilds, a simple lifestyle, and mindfulness. Stephen has a B.A. in Philosophy and Religion (with a minor in Natural Resources) from Colorado State University, and an M.A. in Spirituality from Iliff School of Theology. He lives in Fort Collins, Colorado, and has taught in the Religious Studies Department at Naropa University, where he specializes in Christian Mysticism. For inspiring quotes paired with Nature Photos, please visit www.NaturePhoto-Quotes.com , or go to the Facebook page by that same name.