"In the midst of all the jubilation over 'our age'... there is a hidden note of concealed contempt for humanity; in the midst of the generation's (self-)importance there is a despair about what it is to be human. All, all want to join in, everyone wants to fall under the spell of the totality, 'world-historically', no one wants to be an individual existing human being." - Soren Kierkegaard
What intrigues me about this quote is how apropos it is for our "age" - i.e. 21st Century American society. Over 150 years have passed, and although our Western culture (especially in the United States) has, in principle, appropriated individualism - even to an unhealthy extreme - we remain entrenched in conformity to "the totality" described by Kierkegaard. Although it may look somewhat different (Kierkegaard was primarily responding to the popularized Hegelian philosophy of his time), it seems rooted in the same inability to really grasp who we are as human beings.
We often think and speak as though we are living lives of complete freedom. And we are told by our leaders and our culture that the freedom we experience ought to be experienced by the whole world. But this "freedom" seems to me a false freedom, a freedom which results not from the genuine desire to live a life that is truly "my life", but instead merely reflects the life which, from childhood to adulthood, has been taught to us as being the ultimate goal of living. And what is this goal? Apparently it involves finding and making a life for ourself that centers upon comfort, security, and independence.
Not that any of these concepts are bad in and of themselves. But are they a genuine reflection of what humanity ought to be? Is the goal of the human being - as our society, culture, media, and even our family and friends continually remind us - to get an education, in order to find a good job, in order to provide financially for a family (which means finding a wife, and having some kids) and make sure that your offspring have those same opportunities?
Is the goal to live our lives in such a way that we maximize personal accomplishment and experience? Again, surely these are all wonderful things, not to be despised... but are they the goal? Most of us who call ourselves Christians would quickly and loudly say "No!" But do we really believe our own words?
These are not just hypotheticals; this is our day-to-day experience. Each day we wake up, go to work or school, spend time with friends or family, think about preparing for the future... and are we really that different from the people in Kierkegaard's time? Are we not, like they were, quietly despairing of "what it is to be human"? How many times do we push aside that little voice that says, "there is more to life than this," because we are afraid of what might happen if we actually listened? Certainly, we have responsibilities and we must not live foolishly, but I think that, on a deeper level, the reason we so often ignore that voice is because we really don't believe that there is more to life.
We say that serving others and living simply and following Christ no matter what are primary, but deep down we doubt it. We doubt it because nearly everything in our world and in our psyche is telling us that what really matters is comfort, security, and independence. And too often we choose to remain in that reality because it is, after all, the reality of "the totality" -- everywhere we turn, we are given practical, logical, and even moral reasons why it is good to live in that world.
The only problem is, Christ tells us something different. And Kierkegaard recognized what we, I think, also implicitly recognize: that following Christ is a totally different way of life. It means the rejection of a certain set of guidelines and the decision to live according to principles that, for the totality of humanity, will seem utterly backward and ridiculous.
And that is why only an individual - one who has given up the totality and surrendered to the subjectivity that exists between God and that one person - is able to make the "leap of faith" required of such a life. Certainly, I believe there are many people who are living the life Christ offers, to greater or lesser degrees. I am not passing judgment on anyone, since I am, more often than not, trapped in the totality myself. And there is more to this picture: the Church, for example, ought to be primarily the community of individuals which provides guidance and support for all who are seeking to genuinely live life in Christ, instead of (often) just another mouthpiece for the totality.
But for now, I am asking myself how I can take steps in my own life to stretch beyond what I have been conditioned to accept as the goal of life, and I pray that I will be given the strength to keep moving in that direction... it is a slow process, but I believe it is necessary for each of us if we are to become truly human.