Friday, September 23, 2005

The high task of becoming an individual

The group as the abolition of conscience

Kierkegaard asks the question: Why is it that people prefer to be addressed in groups rather than individually? Is it because conscience is one of life’s greatest inconveniences, a knife that cuts too deeply?
We prefer to “be part of a group,” and to “form a party,” for if we are part of a group it means goodnight to conscience. We cannot be two or three, a “family” around a conscience. No, no. The only thing the group secures is the abolition of conscience.

It is the same with busyness. A person can very well eat lettuce before it has formed a heart, yet the tender delicacy of the heart and its lovely coil are something quite different from the leaves. Likewise, in the world of spirit, busyness, keeping up with others, hustling hither and yon, makes it almost impossible for an individual to form a heart, to become a responsible, alive self. Every life that is preoccupied with being like others is a wasted life, a lost life.

Every life that is preoccupied with being like others is a wasted life, a lost life.

A modern, comfortable person might ask: “Why such strong language?”

The answer is that such an abolition of conscience, through family or group, is a sin against God: in Christ God offers us individual relation and calling -- to avoid this through group dynamics, or preoccupation, is a sell-out of highest order.
God has been merciful to us, demonstrating his grace to the point of being willing to involve himself with every person. If we prefer to be like all the others, this amounts to high treason against God. We who simply go along are guilty, and our punishment is to be ignored by God.

The group as the abolition of true self

That is why people are lonely in crowds. They have gone to the crowd to find themselves, instead of finding themselves as an individual before God. And so in the crowd, their deepest heart knows that they are not living as true self before God…their innermost chambers are empty. The crowd by which they have defined themselves is only something that robs their true calling. And so they stand, surrounded and lonely.

This happens in families. And painfully, yes, even in marriages.

The loneliest person is the married person who married while s/he fled true self. In a fatal togetherness, bound by vows…which only help hide the individual.

Thus, the crowd is understood something in which humans hide from their true self. Some institution, some gathering, some tradition or ritual or relation which allows escape: the person defines him or her self in this collective sense, instead of answering to God for true, intended individual creation. “By forming a party, by melting into some group, we avoid not only conscience, but martyrdom.”

This is how even religion, even good church observance can destroy the true self. This is how family can be used as excuse to destroy the true self -- to shield oneself from individual responsibility before the Truth.

When asked if s/he is doing the will of God, s/he will answer: ‘I am doing what my church thinks is right.’ ‘I am doing what my family thinks is right.’ ‘I am doing what my group thinks is right.’

And hereby s/he avoids the question laid before the individual by God: But are you doing the calling of God? And s/he maintains some sense of conscience about it, because s/he has followed the group!

S/he has defined self by something other than self, in order to be happy not being a true self.

The group as the abolition of calling

Kierkegaard says, prophetically, that “wanting to hide in the crowd, to be a little fraction of the group instead of being an individual, is the most corrupt of all escapes.” It makes life easier, ‘but only does so by making it more thoughtless.’ And for this we will answer to God, who made us and calls us.
Every person must render account to God. No third person dares venture to intrude upon this accounting. God in heaven does not talk to us as to an assembly; he speaks to each individually. This is why the most ruinous evasion of all is to be hidden away in a herd in an attempt to escape God’s personal address. Adam attempted this when his guilty conscience led him to imagine that he could hide himself among the trees. Similarly, it may be easier and more convenient, and more cowardly too, to hide yourself among the crowd in hope that God will not recognize you from the others. But in eternity each shall individually render an account. Eternity will examine each person for all that he has chosen and done as an individual before God.

In this life, before God, each one of us has the ‘task of becoming an individual.’ In this is our high destiny, our calling.

Why then would anyone flee this task of becoming an individual, a true self? Because the lie is echoed, and squeezed in upon us by culture and family, that to choose apart from the family or crowd is to lose oneself.

And this lie is shouted in our ears by a hundred voices, in a thousand different ways…every one of them ‘well-meaning.’

But it only gives more meaning to Jesus’ words: “Whoever desires to save his life will lose it, but whoever loses his life for My sake will save it.”

That which we flee from is our true self, in God.

Only in that true self before God will we be truly content. But, paradoxically, it will cost us everything to get there!

Then let us pay that price: let us lose, to find. And in finding, may we lose what keeps us from our true self before Him!




Cf. Soren Kierkegaard, “The Task: Becoming an Individual,” in Provocations: The Spiritual Writings of Soren Kierkegaard, edited by Charles E. Moore.


Patrick O'Hannigan said...

There are echoes here of C.S. Lewis's "Till We Have Faces," and longshoreman/philosopher Eric Hoffer's "The True Believer: Thoughts on the Psychology of Mass Movements."

Hoffer knew his Kierkegaard. Thanks for an interesting post (you don't write any other kind)

Loy Mershimer said...

Thanks, Patrick. High praise coming from one such as yourself!

Perhaps we can collaborate on our own mass movement? But ours will be redemptive, lol.


Till We Have Faces is epic, btw. In my humble opinion, at least. I haven't read Hoffer...