“Toxic Individualism”

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Ten years ago, Dr. Kristina Darnauer and her husband moved to tiny Sterling, KS. so their kids would be raised with “small-town values.”

“The values of hard work, the value of community, taking care of your neighbor … this is what we’re good at,” Darnauer is quoted as saying in a recent report by National Public Radio (NPR) online. “And here I am saying, ‘Then wear a mask because that protects your precious neighbor.’’’

But Darnauer’s medical advice was met with contempt from some of her friends, neighbors and patients as COVID-19 cases rose in her county and other parts of rural Kansas. People who had routinely asked her for medical advice at church and kids’ ballgames were suddenly regarding her professional opinion as suspect and offensive.

“’It’s heartbreaking,” Darnauer says. ‘Because we say, this is what we value. And then when we actually had the chance to walk it out, we did it really poorly.’”

Divisive Pandemic Politics

In many rural communities, the report says, divisive pandemic politics are alienating health care workers, some of the communities’ most important residents. Chris Merrett, director of the Illinois Institute for Rural Affairs, is quoted as saying that “towns that let pandemic politics drive medical professionals away are choosing what he calls ‘toxic individualism’ over the common good.”

Personally, I’ve heard people who are not following pandemic recommendations say they’ll “take their chances,” or “at my age, I have to die from something.” A recent front-page photo in the newspaper showed legislators in session, many about three feet apart, with no masks. National news showed mass parties at the University of Alabama, celebrating its national football championship, with very few masks. Lots of people go to stores with no masks. Many who refuse to wear them appeal to individual freedom, ignoring what their actions mean to others.

Basically, the concept of individualism is the idea that people should make social and political decisions based on what’s best for them. Some say the country was founded and progressed based on that notion, often referred to as “rugged individualism.”

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Herbert Hoover, president from 1929 to1933 and an Iowa native, in a speech “defined rugged individualism as the spirit of America, a realm where government kept out of the commercial and private affairs of citizens. In the speech, Hoover made the argument that this individualism differentiated America from other nations and was responsible for American success,” according to the online RationalWiki.

The selflessness exhibited by the military in all our wars, on the other hand, as well as instances in which Americans support programs for the needy, show a concern for the common good.

But in my opinion, concern for the common good versus individualism has gotten out of balance. Many Americans are contemptuous of the idea of the common good, saying that when you hear that phrase, “you should reach for your pocketbook,” meaning that you need to protect your money from payment for social programs.

This change in balance is not primarily political, in my opinion, but cultural. But political parties exploit the change by appealing mostly to individual and group self-interest. In Iowa, it’s common for political parties to point out to farmers, for instance, that they should vote for the party that provides the most benefit to them. I’m sure some farmers dislike that approach. Farmers care about a range of issues. But it seems to work.

Responsibility For Others

What does all this have to do with the search for God? A lot, especially if your search is in the Judeo-Christian tradition. The Hebrew Bible is all about the Hebrew people, not individuals, and their special relationship with God. The Christian Bible carries on that approach, making church members “the Body of Christ” and over and over emphasizing responsibility for others and the community.

In a speech in mid-December, Pope Francis called on people of faith to “overcome our personal and collective individualism” and take care of those who are more vulnerable to the deadly virus.

“The pandemic has revealed how vulnerable and interconnected we all are,” Francis said, adding it has made us “more aware of the spread within our societies of a false, individualistic way of thinking, one that rejects human dignity and relationships, views persons as consumer goods and creates a ‘throw-away’ culture.’”

I believe Dr. Darnauer would agree.