Is individualism overdone? - Catholic Courier

Is individualism overdone?

One small delight of travel in another country is to stay at bed-and-breakfasts for the opportunity they provide to engage in a deeper conversation than could be had at a typical hotel.

So it was on a recent driving trip in British Columbia, Canada. My wife and I were the only two guests at a B&B near Victoria, so we had the full attention of Peter, the innkeeper, breakfast chef extraordinaire and raconteur.

After serving a morning meal that would last through the day, he would sit at the table as we shared a second and third cup of coffee.

British-born, still suffering a childhood leg injury received when a bomb fell on his elementary school during World War II, an educator who spent his career in Asia, Peter was never at a loss for a topic.

"Help me understand why everyone who wants to can own a gun in the United States," he said one morning. His attempt to delve deeper into the national trait that would allow, if not encourage, such a practice was earnest.

I began with the Second Amendment, the right to bear arms, the various court decisions, when he interrupted, "Yes, yes, I know all that, but help me understand why."

We tossed it around some more. Peter offered his explanation: an individualism peculiar to the U.S. and, as he firmly believed and stated repeatedly, an overemphasis on rights, an underemphasis on responsibility.

Who’s to argue? It is instructive to deal firsthand with another’s perception of our culture. It was particularly interesting in this case since our countries developed in the same time, share the same continent, mother country and language.

Canada has strict laws banning gun possession and, as Peter pointed out, murder rates far below those of the United States.

Why would there need to be an armed society if that society has provided for the public safety by constituting a police department (or police service, as Canadians gently phrase it)?

The question is more than just a topic of amusement for people of another country.

Although he was speaking in the context of health care, a remark by a Dominican theologian, Father Charles Bouchard, offers an explanation.

"Americans think so differently about these things," he said. "We have a kind of prevailing ethos or cultural mind-set of a type of individualism that does not sit well with anything that smacks of the common good or of social goods," he said.

An individualism overdone, as others see us, may be the effect of the self-reliant, "can do" independence stemming from pushing to frontiers.

There is a need to understand relationships better, how society depends on relationships.

In his recent book, The Difference God Makes: A Catholic Vision of Faith, Communion and Culture, Cardinal Francis George of Chicago makes the point that an "ideology of individualism" is leading people to emphasize personal rights at the expense of responsibilities and their duties to their communities.

"The Gospel’s injunction to surrender oneself to Christ and to others in order to be free has become largely incomprehensible," he wrote in the book’s introduction.

There is need for recognition that all people are connected to one another and to future generations through a network of relationships, he said.

"Catholicism offers a remedy by emphasizing the fact that people are who they are because of their relationships with God and with one another," said Cardinal George.

That’s a good remedy for each of us to bring to daily life — evangelization by example.

Stephen Kent is a columnist for Catholic News Service.

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