The antidote to individualism


By Patrick Schmadeke

Streaming through the American subconscious is the deeply rooted ideal of the stalwart individual — the tried and tested hero who beat the odds. This motif makes regular appearances on the silver screen and stories of such people circulate online. We have done a great deal of myth-making in order to invent and ensconce this ostensibly valuable ideal in our culture.


From the entrepreneur determined to go it alone and strike it rich, the youth in the Juvenile Justice Center who says “I don’t need anybody else to get on the right track,” the naive college graduate thinking he has all the solutions to make the world a better place, to the voter who thinks that one politician will solve all the problems, many have bought into the myths individualism produces.

We know that individualism has been on the rise for some time now. This route is corrosive to the community in the way it atomizes and isolates people and it is antithetical to the Gospel. It degrades authentic anthropology into a worldview that tolerates treating people merely as means to an end instead of ends in themselves. It is an inevitable source of injustice.

Since observing injustice from a distance is not an option Christ gives us, we are obliged to transform the inertia of individualism into the vision of community that Jesus has for us (John 17:11). Shifting the tides of culture has never been a project which can be completed overnight, and one cannot accurately predict how any substantive change might unfold. Yet, I can’t help but suspect that the antidote to the infection of individualism is this: a robust articulation of the common good.

So, why is this the solution? If we cannot articulate the kind of community we wish to become then our energies will be without a rudder. If we lack clarity of vision, then we’re simply never going to move in the direction of the common good.

So, how do we achieve this articulation? This is a difficult task because every historical moment is unique. We cannot simply duplicate efforts and structures of the past for our present time but we can discern common threads through history. What patterns reoccur in the lives of the saints? What themes continually crop up in ecclesial documents? What example did Jesus repeatedly set?

One particular expression of the common good from Laudato Si #19 serves as a summary response to all three of these questions: “Our goal is not to amass information or to satisfy curiosity, but rather to become painfully aware, to dare to turn what is happening to the world into our own personal suffering and thus to discover what each of us can do about it.”

This is penetrating language. It reflects the clarity of Christ in the Judgment of the Nations (Matthew 25:31-46) where Jesus says that the way of our salvation is through our kinship with the marginalized. It mirrors the lives of saints such as Mother Teresa and Francis of Assisi who lived in solidarity with those who suffered. And it echoes previous ecclesial documents in their call for communion between all persons (Sollicitudo Rei Socialis #39, Deus Caritas Est #22, Evangelii Gaudium #67).

This passage from Laudato Si is worth serious prayer and is the basis of a reflection exercise I nearly assigned my students last semester called “Where are your feet?” It goes something like this: (A) write down the people, causes and things you care about most; (B) write a list of what Jesus says we are supposed to care about; (C) take a week-long inventory of the places where you spend your time and who you are with (literally, record where your feet are); (D) write a reflection paper on what stands out when you compare these lists and offer incremental steps you can take to conform yourself to Christ.

Christ offers the purest expression of the common good; he shifts the burdens of others onto his own shoulders. We ought to do the same. Only then will we begin to transition from individualism towards a vision of the common good.

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