Individualism. Is It About Fear?

Abuse always robs a person of their selfhood. It will place a person in a defensive position in regard to all their interactions with others and how they view their place and obligations to society and to the wider planet.

‘The age of the individual must end – our world depends on it’ writes Tom Oliver in today’s online Guardian[1]. I have a problem with this, not because I don’t agree with Professor Oliver’s basic premise, but because it passes over, a little too hastily, the real problem. In fact it almost avoids it.

The individual is really an artificial construct, its significance and relevance for our particular times hailing from those of Margaret Thatcher, as Professor Oliver rightly points out. But the individual is not the true person. It is not even the person who wrote the article, or the one who is writing this one. This is because the true person is a far more complex emotional being than the individual.

The true person is a self, known to their Creator and known to those whom she or he can entrust with the truth of that selfhood. So for those who have known unconditional acceptance from another person, the self is already rooted in the ‘other’. Over time, the self learns to ‘forget’ itself, so that it can find itself again in helping another person become their true self. The process works itself out in any relational engagement that takes place between one or more human beings and, as a result, becomes the substrata of a civilised and compassionate society.

All of this suggests that the idea of ‘selfishness’ is an oxymoron. It is a denial of what the self, as opposed to the individual, truly is. Selfishness is easily confused with individualism, which we all beat ourselves up about quite a lot of the time, because we do not fully understand what is going on in our true selves.

Individualism, and selfishness, are in fact the manifestation of a fundamental state of alienation, or of distrust. Individualism is a manifestation of fear. The individual is one who must defend themselves from the danger of being robbed of what little has been left to them of their true selfhood. In other words, they are likely to be people who have experienced abuse of some kind at some point in their lives.

Abuse, whether sexual or emotional, always robs a person of their selfhood. Unless abuse is addressed properly at source – at the time when it originally happened, it will place that person in a defensive position in regard to all their interactions with others, and how they view their place and obligations to society and to the wider planet. It may also turn them into abusers, people who need to control others in order to deflect any possible further wounding to their already wounded selves.

All of this suggests that there is work to be done in regard to how we discern and then relate to people who may be the victims of an affliction, an affliction that we could describe as individualism. ‘Individuals’, seen in this light, are a danger to others, as well as to themselves. In its most extreme form individualism manifests itself as a narcissistic personality disorder which can also bestow that individual with a certain charisma, especially potent in those whose individualism is driven by the will to power.

The will to power is fundamental to the abuser’s way of life. The sexual predator’s will to power is its own aphrodisiac and therefore highly addictive. This is what we saw being played out in the decades of power-driven abuse perpetrated by Peter Ball, the erotic power drive fusing with the sensuality of a distorted spirituality. But, as with other kinds of abuse, it may also have been driven by fear and the religious delusions needed to deal with that fear.

This returns me to the original point being made by Professor Oliver in his Guardian article, that the survival of the world depends on our working together to end the age of individualism. Perhaps there is a collective sub-conscious denial about the amount of damage that has been done to the collective self over the years, by politicians and religious people alike – to our sense of worth as a society or nation and that as a single people we are capable, and have the power between us to make things better. The Thatcherite maxim which denies this creatively empowered sociality is perhaps one of the most dangerous lies that has been served to us this century – the last being the justification for the first World War, supported at the time by the Church of England. If we believe the lie – that in fact we are not persons in the fullest sense, but only individuals battling for control or power over others and over the earth, then the future looks bleak.

As a Christian, I do not believe that it has to be this way. There is something about God’s own will to disempowerment as we see it in the crucified and subsequently risen Christ which calls us out of our fearful individual enclaves, including the power bases of tribal religion on the one hand, and of the institutional Church on the other, into a place of belonging together as a people.  This is where the work of ‘renewing the face of the earth’ begins (Ps.104).  So we need to reach out to one another, across the barriers of fear and distrust that we have created, knowing that we are all called and truly empowered to be a part of it.


[1] Downloaded 20th January, 2020

Author: Lorraine Cavanagh

Anglican priest living in Wales, UK. Author. Books include 'In Such Times - Reflections On Living With Fear' (Wipf and Stock 2019), 'Waiting On The Word - Preaching Sermons That Connect People With God' (DLT 2017), 'Finding God In Other Christians' (SPCK 2014), 'Beginning Again' (Kindle e-book 2015) All books available from Amazon

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