Source: Oinos Educational Consulting
By Frank Marangos, D.Min., Ed.D., FCEP
“People have forgotten what life is all about . . . what it is to be alive. They need to be reminded of what they have and what they can lose!” — Leonard Lowe
Leonard Lowe is a fact-based character in the 1990 Academy Award-winning film “Awakenings,” starring Robin Williams and Robert De Niro. Based on the neurologist Oliver Sacks’ 1973 memoir of the same title, the movie focuses on a 50-year old catatonic patient who, as a young boy, contracted the “sleeping sickness,” Encephalitis Lethargica. Estimated to have infected more than one million people worldwide, victims who survived the 1917–30 epidemic were often left with lingering and permanent neurological sequelae that rendered them nearly akinetic.
Thanks to the experimental drug L-Dopa, Leonard Lowe “awakened” thirty years after he contracted the lethal virus. Once frozen, trancelike, and vegetating in Bainbridge Hospital, Lowe was suddenly able to converse, ambulate, laugh, and most importantly, develop relationships. In one of the film’s most insightful scenes, Leonard makes a profound statement. Intoxicated with the sense of beauty with everything around him, he cries: “I feel saved . . . I feel resurrected, re-born, appeased, satisfied. I want nothing more!”
Tragically, the experimental medication eventually failed and Lowe returned to his semi-conscious and socially distant trance. Fortunately, however, Leonard kept a diary during his short-lived “awakening.” His emotional writings express a deep gratitude “for the social contacts and relationships” he was fortunate to develop during his extraordinary emergence. He lyrically described himself “as a man who had awoken from a nightmare . . . a man released from entombment, from the sensations, feelings and relations which had been cut off from him, distorted for decades.”
A century since the Lethargica Epidemic, the globe is, unfortunately, facing another viral pandemic. At the time of this writing (3/21/20), Worldmeter confirms that the Coronavirus has globally infected 285,777 individuals. While the disease is responsible for 11,883 deaths, nearly 94,000 have recovered. To decrease the spread of the Covid-19 outbreak, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC&P) has wisely issued guidelines for the community mitigation strategy called “social distancing.”
According to the American Psychological Association (APA), “social distancing” means keeping a safe distance (approximately 6 feet) from others and avoiding gathering spaces such as schools, churches, concert halls and public transportation. Quarantine, on the other hand, involves avoiding contact with individuals who may have been exposed to a disease to see if they become ill. Finally, isolation is described by APA as the tactic of separating an individual(s) who has contracted a virus to prevent them from spreading it to others.
Beneficial in preventing the spread of highly contagious viruses, social distancing, quarantine, and isolation can, unintentionally engender unhealthy environments and intensify other problematic societal conditions. While public-health experts agree that social distancing is the most effective way to keep people healthy when vaccines and tests are lacking, staying away from loved ones can be dangerous in its own way. That is especially true for at-risk groups who may face lengthy quarantines, self-imposed or otherwise. As such, while the effects of the Coronavirus are not neurological, the infection has the potential to exacerbate the trance-like virus of hyper-individualism.
Hyper-individualism, characterized by an excessive focus on “me” and “mine,” has been identified with political, philosophical, religious, and economic ideologies that promote the values of independence and self-reliance and advocate that the interests of the individual should achieve precedence over the state or a social group. Unfortunately, “hyper,” “radical,” “expressive,” “anarchist,” and other extreme constructs of individualism distort the fundamental unity and justice that holds society together. Such Solipsistic world-views have the potential of creating societal discord by blurring rudimentary ideals and common ethical interpretations.
Leonard Lowe’s Diary is a valuable primer for reducing the negative effects of hyper-social distancing. While social distancing describes valuable strategies that the nation is encouraged to take by faith-based, governmental, and civic health officials to decrease the spread of the highly contagious disease, its hyper expressions may actually promote deleterious societal ramifications that may last long after the Covid-19 incubation period plateaus.
Since 1960 the nation has become increasingly focused on the “self.” This trend, says psychologist Jean Twenge of San Diego State University, “reflects a sea change in American culture toward excessive individualism.” In her article, “The Problem of Hyper-Individualism and its Impact on American Life,” (2016) the New Testament scholar Valerie A. Abrahamsen, agrees with Twenge’s assessment that while individualism can generally lead to the development of each person’s fullest potential, “individualism in the extreme is unethical and supersedes the common good.”
According to the Pew Research Center’s Report, How Young People View Their Lives, Futures and Politics (2007), modern religious life, as with nearly every social institution in America today, is increasingly subsumed by an ethic of expressive individualism. The 2018 Barna Research Group Trends Report, underscored Pew’s conclusions, adding that America is increasingly a lonely nation. The proportion of American adults who say they are lonely has increased from 20 to 40 percent since the 1980s. Roughly 43 million adults over the age of 45 are estimated to suffer from chronic loneliness.
According to Barna’s Research Group, “in our culture of hyper-individualism, allegiance to Christian churches is a casualty of efforts to create our own version of fulfillment.” Only 3 out of 10 twentysomethings (31%) “attend church in a typical week,” compared to 4 out of 10 of those in their 30s (42%) and nearly half of all adults age 40 and older (49%).
Hyper-social distancing, the tendency for people to act in frenzied self-centered ways without regard to others, is an offshoot of hyper-individualism. Examples of prioritizing self-advantage over the good of the community can be seen in the recent hysterical hoarding of toilet paper, bottled water, canned goods and other disposable resources without concern for others. This attitude elevates the well-being of the “self” against the well-being of others. Not only does this senseless behavior potentially puts others in danger, but also signals that people are only thinking of themselves and not the needs and concerns of the larger community.
Much of contemporary society has been infected with the virulent virus of ‘self,” of what sociologist Robert Bellah calls “radical individualism.” In his book, Habits of the Heart: Individualism and Commitment in American Life (1985; 2007), Bellah insists “just when we are in many ways moving to an ever-greater validation of the sacredness of the individual person, our capacity to imagine a social fabric that would hold individuals together is vanishing.” He cautions, “in the absence of any objectifiable criteria of right or wrong, good or evil, the self and its feelings become our only moral guide.”
Social scientists have been warning about the dangers of hyper-individualism for many decades. In Bowling Alone (2000), for example, Robert Putnam warned that excessive individualism is eroding America’s community life. In her book Culture Wars and Enduring American Dilemmas (2010), Irene Taviss Thomson asserts that the concept of self “is fraught with controversy.” While in the American cultural lexicon, individualism is described as “always good,” like Putnam, she warns that when it is “excessive,” however, it becomes “selfishness,” which is not good.” Finally, Tim Carney supports both Putnam and Thomson’s warning asserting that “hyper-individualism doesn’t work as a way of life. Man is a political animal,” he writes in Alienated America: Why Some Places Thrive While Others Collapse (2019) and is meant for society. He needs durable bonds to others, such as those formed in institutions like a parish, a sports club, or a school community.”
According to Pope Francis, hyper-individualism is the result of two tendencies that may be identified with the ancient heresies of Pelagianism and Gnosticism. Since the beginning of his pontificate, Francis has spoken out about the two heresies. Pelagianism gets its name from the monk Pelagius who lived in the 400s and taught that the human will, as created by God, was enough to live a sinless life. Gnosticism, on the other hand, was a widely diffused belief in the 2nd century that the material world is the result of an error on the part of God.
Like his predecessor, Pope Benedict XVI, who also condemned the Pelagian trend in modern society, Francis, asserts that a “new form” of Pelagianism is spreading in today’s culture in which the individual, “understood to be radically autonomous, presumes to save oneself without recognizing that, at the deepest level of being, he or she derives from God and from others.” Salvation for the Palegianist, insists Francis, “depends on the strength of the individual or on purely human structures, which are incapable of welcoming the newness of the Spirit of God.” This dangerous attitude “reveals itself in situations of crisis,” insists the Pontiff, “when better health or economic well-being is desired.”
Ecumenical Patriarch Bartholomew I, spiritual leader of approximately 300 million Orthodox Christians worldwide, concurs with the position of his Papal counterparts. In his Vatican address, “A Common Christian Agenda for the Common Good” (2018), Bartholomew, like Popes Benedict and Francis, asserts that “one of the more dangerous contemporary tendencies for a culture of solidarity, is individualism, self-idolization and self-entrapment to egotistic self-sufficiency, which creates chasms between people. The dominating words of today,” cautions Bartholomew, “are “me,” “myself,” “mine,” “autonomy,” “self-realization,” and “self-admiration”.
While the dignity of the individual is actually derived from the positive theological concept of the image and likeness of God in humanity, like Benedict, Francis, and Bartholomew, Psychologist Martin Seligman warns that hyper-individualism “can leave us almost naked before the ordinary assaults of life.” Seligman poses an important question in his book, Learned Optimism (2006). “Where can one turn in the past century for identity, for purpose, and for hope,” he asks? “When we need spiritual furniture, we look around and see that all the comfortable leather sofas and stuffed chairs have been removed and all that’s left to sit on is a small, frail folding chair – the self.” Tragically, in the end, Seligman cautions, “the self . . . sets itself up for an epidemic of depression.”
like Benedict, Francis, and Bartholomew, Alistair McFadyen suggests that Christian Trinitarian Theology provides a corrective to expressions of hyper-individuality. “Personhood is both compassionate and, at the same time, keeps sight of the particularity of each individual.” Personhood, writes the author of The Call to Personhood: A Christian Theory of the Individual in Social (1990), should, therefore, be understood “spiritually, materially, psychologically, interpersonally, socially, institutionally, and politically. We become the people we are created to be,” insists McFadyen, “as our identities are shaped through the patterns of relation, communication and exchange that surround and incorporate us.”
Authors Stanley Grenz and Jay Smith are in full agreement with McFadyen, arguing that the Trinitarian vision of God is intimately connected to the nature of personhood and the health of community. In heir book, Created for Community: Connecting Christian Belief with Christian Living (2014), the authors insist that it is “the vocation of persons created in the image of the triune God to participate in (triune and ecclesial) community.”
In his insightful article, “The Christian Response to the Coronavirus: Stay Home” (2020), Esau McCaulley, assistant professor of New Testament at Wheaton College, suggests that the current experience of social distancing provides “a lesson for a diminished church.” It is not that the church should disappear, McCaulley warns, “but that the church’s absence, its literal emptying, can function as a symbol of its trust in God’s ability to meet us regardless of the location.” Reminiscent of Leonard Lowe, he asserts that the church “remains the church whether gathered or scattered. It might also indirectly remind us of the gift of gathering that we too often take for granted.”
Like McCaulley, Thomas J. Reese, S.J., senior analyst for Religion News Service writes that “Christians have a responsibility beyond practicing personal hygiene.” In his American Jesuit Review article, “Coronavirus is a Physical and Spiritual Threat” (2020), Reese insists that Christians also have a public responsibility “to support civic programs to protect the vulnerable and care for the sick. In the short term, that means supporting health care workers who put themselves at risk caring for those who have fallen ill. It means scrupulously following the instructions of public health officials.” However, when this pandemic is over, he exhorts, “we cannot go back to sleep . . . The saints of old risked their lives for those with the plague. We can at least do our civic duty.”
It has been said that “sometimes the best news is bad news before it is good news.” Although one of the chief dangers of social distancing is the promotion of excessive individualism, it can also provide the Petri dish for rediscovering the value of the “other,” of community and authentic relationships. Hopefully, the forced suspension of church attendance, school, philanthropic, and professional responsibilities will help humanity feel the need to “re-awaken” to the sanctity of personhood and its authentic association.
What will be the result of encouraging faith-based communities to “virtualize” rather than physically attend their respective ecclesial experiences during the current global pandemic? Will the sacramental nature of the Church suffer from its lack of Eucharistic tangibility? Will social distancing encourage faith-based communities to retreat or to re-imagine creative ways to “incarnate” God’s command to love the “other” and the marginalized as themselves?
The Coronavirus has reminded us that human connection can spread illness. I am optimistic that the pandemic will help us re-discover that human connection can also promote physical, emotional, and spiritual wellness. Perhaps, our current experience of social distancing will engender what Émile Durkheim calls “Collective Effervescence” (CE), a concept coined by the French sociologist to describe the shared emotional excitement people experience during religious ceremonies.
Like Leonard Lowe, I am hopeful that the nation’s current experience of social distancing will one day be viewed as a historical season of “forced retreat” through which humanity had the opportunity to recognize “the gift and wonderment of life . . . and what we have to lose!” When wisely executed, social distancing has the potential of helping societies experience a new form of “collective effervescence” by awakening to the truth that one cannot find the meaning of life in pursuing an overly personal agenda but in a sense of self that is grounded in something greater. In the end, if we are unable to wake to the gift of authentic relationships based on service, sacrifice, and love, we are doomed to remain little more than individual sleepwalkers.