Dating, Job Searching, & Moving: Unknown Acts of Western Individualism

In my blog, On Church Shopping, I talk about how the genuine search for a church community is a lot like dating. It make church shopping to be more about finding relationships to commune with, rather than finding a product to consume. However, I mentioned very briefly in a parenthetical statement in that blog that

“the whole act of ‘dating’ to find a spouse is still a super Westernized act of individualism, but that’s a conversation for another day.” 

Apparently ya’ll really wanted to have that conversation sooner than later. “How is dating a Western act of individualism??”, you may ask. “Isn’t it just a natural part of life?” Well, yes—for us living in a radically individualistic culture.

Joseph H. Hellerman outlines this discussion beautifully in his book, When the Church Was a Family, so the bulk of what I’m going to say is inspired by his work (and said much more eloquently for that matter). 

In our American society, we are given the freedom to choose whatever we want—as long as it’s not breaking the law or infringing on other people’s rights. Yes? We love the freedom of decision making. We cringe at the thought of social obligation to anything. It’s the nature of an individualist society. And it is such a gift in many, many ways.

That said, some of life’s decisions are heftier than others. Case in point, every American citizen has to come face-to-face with these three major decisions:

Vocation – What am I going to do with my life?
Spouse – Who am I going to spend my life with?
Residence – Where am I going to live?

Once you have the answer to those three questions, then congratulations, you’re hailed by society as a successful adult. Just look at the conversations we have when meeting new people. How do those normally go? I guarantee you that within the first 3 minutes of the conversation, you’ll talk about what you do, who you’re married to, or where you live or where you’re from. Our identities hinge on these three things.

However, as many of us have experienced, the pressure behind answering these three questions are massive. The entire point of parenthood is to raise an independent child who can figure out what they’re going to do with their life, who they’re going to spend it with, and where they’re going to live. And there are very few other societies that do this. Hellerman writes, 

“How painful and agonizing these decisions are to make! For in Western culture we must ultimately make these weight decisions—and shoulder the responsibility for their outcome—alone.”

– Joseph H. Hellerman, When the Church Was a Family, 24

The pressure behind these three decisions are so natural to us that we don’t think twice about it. It’s just how life is done. But would you believe me that there is a totally different way to go about life that completely relieves the pressure of figuring out these three decisions on our own? It’s quite simple, really. 

Move to an Eastern Collectivist culture.

In my blog on Individualism, I compare and contrast individualist and collectivist cultures. Collectivists place their primary identity in belonging to a group, and base their life around whatever is best for promoting the strength of that group, be it a family, tribe, church, or what have you. Collectivism is found in most Eastern cultures today, and was the social structure for the Old and New Testaments. When faced with the massive life-decisions of vocation, spouse, and residence in these cultures, the answer for collectivists is simple: 

Do whatever is best for the group. And that group is often one’s family.

In terms of your vocation, you’re going to continue the family business. If you’re raised as a farmer, fisherman, or a carpenter, then you’re going to remain a farmer, fisherman, or carpenter for the sake of the family.

In terms of your residence, you’re going to stay where your family is. For one, that’s where your job is, but ultimately, it’s just because supporting your family is more important than pursuing your individual dream career. The whole thought of parenting a child just for them to leave at age 18 and figure out life on their own is a very unique Western culture trait. In collectivist cultures, you simply stayed where you were raised (which is why it was so radical for Jesus’ disciples to leave their homes and vocations, FYI).

In terms of your spouse—and this is perhaps the most controversial for us in the U.S.—you married who your family told you to marry. This is why arranged marriages are even a thing. At the end of the day, in a collectivist culture, your spouse is not your primary relationship. Your family is. In fact, marriages are viewed more about solidifying an alliance between two families than it is sparking romance between two individuals (yet these arranged marriages by families always seem to last longer than chosen marriages between individuals… Hmmm….)

This way of life is just crazy to us. But it comes second nature to people raised in collectivist environments. Why? 

Because life isn’t about them. It’s about their family.

All of those major life-decisions are made for them because they are embedded in a community that is more important to them than fulfilling personal goals at the expense of leaving them. And if you really want to have your socks blown off, this radical commitment to family was the foundation for people who belonged to the Church as their new family. People left their families who were the foundation of their entire life to join this new family of God called the Church. This radical commitment to the family-group is the social basis for belonging in the New Testament Church. 

Unfortunately, we can’t flip a switch and inherit collectivist worldviews. But what we can do is press a bit more into community when it comes to these major life decisions. Who are our friends we can ask opinions about the person we’re interested in dating? Or the community that we can embed ourselves into when we do move to a new place? How can we push ourselves to have honest conversations with those we love about our work, and getting clarity on what we’re suppose to do with our lives?

If there’s anything we can learn from collectivist cultures, it’s that it’s certainly a lot easier to make life decisions when we’re not alone.

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