Monday, February 22, 2010

out of the abyss of individualism

Guardian | We shouldn't leave politics to managers and economics to brokers – or be afraid to reintroduce 'virtue' to public discourse.

Human beings begin their lives in a state of dependence. They need to learn how to speak, to trust, to negotiate a world that isn't always friendly, and involves unavoidable limitations. They need an environment secure enough for them to take the necessary risks of learning – where they know there are some relationships that don't depend on getting things right, but are unconditional. The family is the indispensable foundation for all this.

We are also beings who take in more than we can easily process from the world around us; we know more than we realise, and that helps us to become self-questioning persons who are always aware things could be different. We learn this as children through fantasy and play, we keep it alive as adults through all sorts of "unproductive" activity, from sport to poetry. It is the extra things that make us human.

This is closely connected with understanding and sympathy for others. If you live in a world where everything encourages you to struggle for your own individual interest and success, you are encouraged to ignore the reality of other points of view – ultimately, to ignore the cost, or the pain of others. The result may be a world where people are articulate about their own feelings and pretty illiterate about those of others. An economic climate based on nothing but calculations of self-interest, fed by a distorted version of Darwinism, doesn't build a habitat for human beings; at best it builds a sort of fortified box room for paranoiacs.

What is encouraging is how few people seem to want a society composed of people like this. We have, to some extent, looked into the abyss where individualism is concerned and we know that it won't do. This is a moment when every possible agency in civil society needs to reinforce its commitment to a world where thoughtful empathy is a normal aspect of the mature man or woman. And of course without that, there will be no imaginative life, no thinking what might be different.

For myself, the roots of this view are deep in religious vision and commitment. From this viewpoint, the importance of the family isn't a sen­timental idealising of domestic life; it is about understanding that you grow in emotional intelligence and maturity because of a reality that is unconditionally faithful. In religious terms the unconditionality of family love is a faint mirror of God's unconditional commitment to be there for us. Similarly, the importance of imaginative life is not a vague belief that we should all have our creative side encouraged but comes out of the notion that the world we live in is rooted in an infinite life, whose dimensions we shall never get hold of. As for the essential character of human mutuality, this connects for me with the Christian belief that if someone else is damaged, frustrated, offended or oppressed, everyone's humanity is diminished.