“No man is an island entire of itself,” the great John Donne famously wrote. Rather, he said, every person “is a part of the main.” That is, we are all involved with and interconnected to humankind. God, a relational being as well, created humanity to thrive in community, not in dogged isolation. It is heresy to think otherwise.
Yet, this heresy is alive and well, even in our houses of worship. Places that should be blossoming gardens of communion and family-ship are rampant with the weeds of stubborn, self-reliance, and spit-in-the-wind individuality. Yes, at times this kind of independence serves us well. It produces those pull-yourself-up-by-your-boot-strap stories we all love. It gives us our historical, entertainment, and motivational heroes.
In moderation, this type of individualism is good, but when it gets out of balance, when we become over-obsessed with personal freedom, personal rights, and personal independence, it is oppositional to building healthy relationships; at home, in the neighborhood, or at the house of worship.
Maintaining our individuality, at the expense of compassion for or involvement with others, is violation of the beautiful African principle of “Ubuntu” that says, “I am who I am, because of who we all are.” It is simply counter to being human.
So how do we lay aside overgrown personal independence for communal interdependence? It’s pretty simple, though not necessarily easy. You must break your own heart open first. Don’t wait on your neighbor, your pastor or rabbi, the person in the other pew, or the one you consider to be über-spiritual to begin – you must go first. Then in a strange paradox (as individuals give their hearts away one by one), community is born.
Growing up I had a beautiful piggy bank my aunt brought back to me from the Great Smoky Mountains (technically it was a bear bank, not a pig, but you get the idea). I stuffed in my coins and loved to shake it, hearing all that change rattling about.
Once it reached the point that it wouldn’t clang and jangle, it was full. What then? Then, I was supposed to break it and pour it out, finally having enough with which to do something. But I could never bring myself to break the bank. I couldn’t bear to destroy it, so it sat there on the shelf, inaccessible and unused, the good stuff trapped inside.
This is the same way many of people live their lives. They shove all their stuff through the slots of their hearts and encase it, so that they (and nobody else) are the only ones who can get to it. After all, it has taken them so long to get all that junk saved up. It is a lot of work to squirrel away their valuables on the island of their stubbornness, so they just can’t break it open.
For if they were suddenly broken open for others to see, then they would be empty. They would lose their independence and seclusion. But, and this is some good news, they might finally be able to spend and/or give away some of the good shiny stuff on the inside.
And don’t be mistaken: There’s some good shiny stuff inside each of us that others could benefit from, and we could benefit from sharing. Oh, there’s some trash inside of us as well. Lint balls, paper clips, old broken buttons, guitar picks, worn out ticket stubs: All that is mixed in too.
But I have found that when the giant piggy bank is finally broken open, there’s a lot more of the valuable in there than we thought there was, and it always helps if there’s more than a few hands sorting, rolling, counting, and working through what is on the inside.
That’s where we must begin. We break open our hearts, shake and rattle them around until the stuff on the inside comes out. Then, together, we can sort through it all. And together is when we are at our best: “I am who I am, because of who we all are.”
Ronnie McBrayer is the author of “Leaving Religion, Following Jesus.” He writes and speaks about life, faith, and Christ-centered spirituality. Visit his website at www.ronniemcbrayer.net.