The Opposite of Individualism is Not "Closeness."

We are too alone, so what should we do about it? It is a question with which many social scientists, religious leaders, and so on have been wrestling (they tend to use words like "alienated" and "individualistic"). Most recently, Rod Dreher, over at The American Conservative, has taken up the megaphone to specifically call Christians to consider the "Benedict Option" (named after St. Benedict). He argues that in light of increasing hostility towards the church, Christians ought to root ourselves in a "community that knows what it believes and why it believes, and that is prepared to resist [pressures to conform] joyfully." The idea behind it, as it appears to me, is to band together not just for mutual support and the living out of our faith, but as a witness to the wider society as to what alternatives are possible. 

Much quality discussion, from Leah Libresco to Jake Meador, has ensued in hopes of figuring out what a BenOp community or environment could look like. One of the ideal attributes of a BenOp community that has been put out there is "closeness" or "close-knitness." Dreher hints that we should look at the military as a model of a "close-knit community." He cites Sebastian Junger's Vanity Fair magazine article on veterans and PTSD, where the word "close" is mentioned fourteen times, most of them to describe the bonds between soldiers (e.g. "close-knit," "extremely close bonds," "closeness of community and tribe.") 

But we make a mistake when we think that the solution to our rampant individualism is "closeness." Let's look carefully at the language in Junger's article:

"...they are completely reliant on one another for support, comfort, and defense, and they share a group identity that most would risk their lives for. Personal interest is subsumed into group interest because personal survival is not possible without group survival." 

What he is describing is not a social closeness as much as an "interdependence." To be closely connected is to have intimate and deep access to each other. To be deeply interdependent, on the other hand, is to be so tied up that you cannot move ahead without the other; your progress hinges on everyone else's. In an interdependent context, "you are only as strong as your weakest link," which is a phrase that I often hear from veterans. The main difference between a soldier-unit and any civilian-unit is a deep interdependence, which is the real response to our alienation, not a vague social "closeness."

Most of the Christian groups that I have been a part of, whether a campus fellowship or a small group, attain some form of "closeness," but rarely "interdependence." In truth, the only Christian community where I got a few glimpses of "interdependence," was my fellowship at the Trinity Forum Academy. 

Yes, it actually looks that beautiful.

Yes, it actually looks that beautiful.

It is hard to put your finger on what the Academy is like, given its multifaceted nature, but when asked in parties, I like to quip, "It's a nine-month incubator in the form of a modern monastic community." 

We lived in a single house with eleven other fellows in rural Maryland; a third of the time was spent on manual housekeeping chores in a lodge next door; a third on academic study and reflection in the classroom; and a third hanging out with the rest of the fellows. Light liturgical rhythms structured the whole experience: we prayed twice a day from the Book of Common Prayer (matins and evensong), we cooked dinner for each other every weeknight, we took day-long Silence & Solitudes and held "community check-ins" monthly. 

We couldn't simply skip out on a housekeeping shift because we felt like it; we had to find a replacement. If you were an unskilled cook, as I was, that affected everyone because everyone was on the dinner-cooking rotation. And we checked in with each other daily for prayer needs, and if the need hadn't changed, we kept at it. In my year, we prayed for the same request - for the health of the father of a fellow - twice a day for basically nine months.

The view outside the dining room.

The view outside the dining room.

I had never spent so much effort and time thinking about others. It wasn't out of a natural empathy that grew out of close contact per se. It was more out of a shared sense that we were responsible for each other's growth. Sometimes this was more difficult than pleasant. 

Shortly into my fellowship, one of the fellows made a remark to me that was particularly stinging. It was late at night, and normally I would have let it slip by and just "dock a friend-point" in my head for that fellow. But not only was it impossible to just "let the relationship slowly fade" because he and I were living in the same house, but also I knew that by signing up for this fellowship, I had made a commitment to invest in his growth and in our relationship--even though I barely knew him--so I ought to say something sooner rather than later. (I did. The next day, I brought up his remark and how it was hurtful; he apologized for it. We are now good friends.) The giving and receiving of feedback, both good and bad, occurred every day in our community and culminated at the end of year with "discernment groups," where we split into groups of four to give each other the truthful words that we needed to carry with us into the next stage of our life.  

The secret to the Academy's community - which pulls from a range of ages, interests and personalities - is that it places commitment before chemistry. The only other context where that truly happened for us was our families. When we arrived for orientation on Day One, our director, Grady Powell, challenged us: "You can either come here to figure out how you grow and gain as much as you can. Or you can put your interests and needs aside and focus on how to help others on their trajectory. If everyone does the former, then it is each person for her or himself. If everyone takes a step of trust and does the latter, then we'll have an 11:1 ratio, with eleven people all trying to help one person." 

We all came into the fellowship for different reasons, but we shared a commitment to grow in our calling (most of us in "secular" jobs) and in our faith. More importantly, we signed up to grow not just with each other, but through each other. And so we opened ourselves up. 

Beyond sheer will and commitment to each other, there was an extra ingredient that made it possible for the community to gel together. Let me explain by way of the military. How do they foster such a high sense of interdependence? Junger cites the level of hardship and suffering that soldiers go through as a key reason. To my mind, it is not that suffering is inherently ennobling, but that it forces soldiers to realize that they are vulnerable, and thus that they cannot move towards their shared goal without the other's help--that they are interdependent. 

Of course, it would be ill-advised to "manufacture suffering" in a non-military context and hope that it will bring people together. But the goal is not suffering but what it leads to, which is a frank awareness of our vulnerability--this is the extra ingredient, and it is available to everyone. As a friend of mine, who served in the Army and was an Academy fellow, once said to me, "Vulnerability does not need to be created. It merely needs to be revealed." 

The Academy was only a nine-month experience, but it was enough for many of us to venture deeper in knowledge of ourselves, our society and our faith. We did so in a radically counter-cultural context, one based on commitment rather than convenience, and integration rather than fragmentation. We were away long enough so that when we returned to our respective cities, we were equipped with strange and fresh eyes suddenly noticed how our cities were much more fragmented, isolated and commodified than we had realized. And so we have started planting. Recently, some of us in NYC have decided to meet up weekly, along with other friends, in search of something intellectually and interpersonally deeper than just a regular small group. The topic of our first discussion? The Benedict Option. 


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Sarah Ngu (@sarahngu) is a freelance writer and an alumni of Trinity Forum Academy and Columbia University. Based in New York, she blogs on faith and culture, and produces thought leadership for businesses.