“God is dead...And we have killed him...Who will wipe this blood off us? What water is there for us to clean ourselves? What festivals of atonement, what sacred games shall we have to invent? Is not the greatness of this deed too great for us? Must we ourselves not become gods simply to appear worthy of it?” -Friedrich Nietzsche
"For in his innermost nature man is a social being and if he does not enter into relations with others he can neither live nor develop his gifts." -Pope Paul VI
Nature abhors a vacuum. Aristotle made this observation in reference to physics, but it applies to a much wider spectrum of phenomena. The underlying idea is quite simple. Wherever there is empty space, something will invariably move in to fill it. We see it in politics. After the fall of old regimes, new ones move in to replace them - often the new order is far, far worse. We see it in ecosystems. Invasive species move into unstable niches, gaining far more traction than in their native ranges - often with destructive effects. We see it in our daily lives. Losses of every type create holes in our psyches - holes that are either healed through learning or plugged by bad habits. Today, I want to break down one particularly deceptive bad habit that we are all too fond of worshiping. Independence.
The loss of traditional community structures, traditional wisdom, and traditional value systems has created a vacuum in the postmodern world. Relativism, scientific humanism, and the deification of the self - all of these have emerged to replace the meaning that tradition once provided. These postmodern viewpoints ironically converge on several (contradictory) beliefs: all truth is relative, reason and science are infallible, and individualism is the pinnacle of human achievement. Beginning during the Enlightenment and spanning to the present day, these viewpoints have become more and more compelling, especially as we've grown in technological and social complexity. But very few of us have ever read the fine print of the postmodern contract. It is a road to ultimate disappointment and spiritual depravity, as Nietzsche lamented years ago.
The twentieth century was a particularly depressing 100 years with regard to the destructive capacity of human beings in large numbers. It makes total sense why we have chosen to bow to the awesome power that science has demonstrated. Who doesn't want to be on the winning team? Also, who doesn't personally want to be more capable and more powerful? All of these impulses are in our nature, but so too are the deep-seated needs for interdependence and supernatural belief. The former is an evolutionary constant. Many have called the latter a "god-shaped hole." Thus, even without knowing it, the most spiritually bereft person puts their faith in something. For the scientific humanist that something is science. For the relativist that something is relativism. For the individualist that something is the self. The problem is that these beliefs are unstable and ignore the fallibility of the human mind. They also reject the historical context from which they all are derived - Western civilization.
When I say Western civilization I am referring directly to you and me, as well as everything around us. We are the products of Western history, religion, and thought. Thanks to colonialism and globalization, there are virtually no humans living today who haven't been affected by the West. I don't say this as a claim that Westerners are superior, only to point out that if you are reading this right now you are swimming in the sea of Western civilization. I am writing it in English, using structures of thought developed in the West, on technology developed by Westerners. The sooner we realize that we are inseparable from these larger forces that surround us, the sooner we can start actually working on our problems. Stemming from that realization is the truth that interdependence with others and dependence on God are essential to human flourishing.
Independence is such a loaded word. Yes, we need to grow and improve ourselves and our talents. Yes, we should utilize reason and science in the pursuit of our goals. And yes, we should use a sage amount of relativism to gain perspective on how others see us and the world. But we should not place independence ahead of all other virtues. Any attempts to elevate the self to the realm of the divine are doomed to fail. We are part of the divine, but we are not its source nor its representative. We are all God's children and are forever subservient. We are also in a community with all other lifeforms, and it is our unique responsibility as humans to care for one another and the Earth. By surrendering to both interdependence and dependence we become closer to our brothers and sisters and to God, not further away.
Each day we will be confronted with difficult decisions. The first step in answering them is recognizing our only true independence - the capacity for free will. We have the freedom to choose what values we will uphold and whether or not we will boldly live according to them. As of late, I keep coming back to Reinhold Niebuhr's Serenity Prayer in confronting the struggles in my own life: "God, grant me the serenity to accept the things I cannot change, courage to change the things I can, and wisdom to know the difference." May it also help you in these trying times.