Have among yourselves the same attitude that is also yours in Christ Jesus,
who, though he was in the form of God,
did not regard equality with God something to be grasped.
Rather, he emptied himself,
taking the form of a slave,
coming in human likeness;
and found human in appearance,
he humbled himself,
becoming obedient to death,
even death on a cross.
Most people in our Western culture of individualism find this gospel truth hard to comprehend. We tend to think that “more for me” is naturally better. South African Dominican Albert Nolan writes: The cultural ideal of the Western industrialized world is the self-made, self-sufficient, autonomous individual who stands by himself or herself, not needing anyone else . . . and not beholden to anyone for anything. . . . This is the ideal that people live and work for. It is their goal in life.”
Individualism permeates almost everything we do. For Americans, it is a basic assumption. We worship the ego, ourselves, almost like a cult. We are, by nature, a self-centered, selfish people. This helps explain why our concept of liberty skews to the self and not toward the common good. Many tend to believe that the benefits of freedom are for themselves alone which helps to understand why so many resist COVID-19 restrictions, believing they infringe on their personal rights—not understanding their responsibility to help keep their neighbor safe.
We’ve seen this attitude prevail in people’s response to the presidential election as well. When your candidate doesn’t win, the reaction is to deny the reality or the legitimacy of the results. It’s like crying foul when our favorite sports team doesn’t win. We act like petulant children who are poor sports when we aren’t the victors, threatening to take our marbles and go home. America has gone from a “we” society to one focused on “I” where the needs of the many are sacrificed for the few. How do we turn this around?
America needs a “make-over” if we are to begin to mend our social fabric and heal our nation after the compounded traumas of 2020. Perhaps America needs to adopt a “New Year’s Resolution” that enables us to change the focus from ourselves to others. Why don’t we try a little kindness and generosity in the months ahead?! There are several examples we could learn from that can show us the way forward.
This September, the city of LaGrange, Kentucky unveiled a permanent sign which read: “Welcome to LaGrange, Kindness Capital of Kentucky.” It all happened because of two young girls encouraging people to come together—using two words “Be kind.” The Richins sisters (12-year-old Raegan and 9-year-old Rylyn) happened to see a sign on the road when the family was returning from a trip with the words “Just be kind.” The girls asked their parents if they could make some yard signs with similar words. They started out painting 40 signs but the demand of the townspeople was huge. Everyone wanted a sign and in the past year the girls have painted about 3,000 signs. They even have their own website and Facebook page. It all started out because the girls wanted to make a difference in their community. According to Reagan: “We felt that every place could use more kindness because there’s never too much kindness.” She says they’ve received more than 3,000 emails and phone calls about their “Be Kind” campaign and hopes it will spark a wave of kindness across the country. (Reported on NPR “All Things Considered” on December 2, 2020.)
We get the impression in this country that greed is good. Self over country is good. Yet there are examples that defy what some have come to believe is the norm. Those who we might suggest are heroes of generosity and selfless giving. Consider Dolly Parton, for example. She quietly gave $1 million to help fund research into a COVID-19 vaccine. Thanks in part to her generosity and others like her (e.g. the Gates Foundation), we now have at least two that have been approved. In addition, since 1995, her Imagination Library has given 147 million books to young children around the world to promote literacy among the poor. There are other such heroes, of course, who give of their time and/or treasures every day: from First Responders to the volunteers at the local food bank. And we thank God for all of them. A spirit of generosity is what is needed across this land, reminding us that we are all in this together.
A “we” society is more focused on our responsibilities to one another and less focused on our narrower self-interest. Political and religious differences are kept within reasonable bounds; people are connected and willing to cooperate, even share a common destiny. Our history shows that unlike a pendulum pulled by gravity, the societal pendulum between individualism and community—between selfishness and generosity—does not swing automatically. It is controlled by the choices we make. So in 2021, let us choose humble ourselves and be kind and generous to one another.