It turns out that we need a lot of help to be our own.
A central purpose of a well-functioning society is to promote “human flourishing” or to help people achieve the “good life.” But it is difficult to promote human flourishing when flourishing looks different for literally every single person. The best we can do is help each other live “authentically.” By an “authentic life” I mean a life of accepting and embracing the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. To live authentically means to justify your own existence, to express your identity, to interpret meaning for yourself, to judge according to your own moral compass, and to belong where and only where you choose.
Our understandings of the world are not primarily cognitive or rational; they’re habitual. We pick them up from cultural practices that stress our individual, radical freedoms, from depictions of freedom as limitlessness, from the people and actions that our society valorizes. Societies define, reinforce, and pass on certain values, but perhaps more importantly, they provide the scaffolding for people to flourish according to those values. If human life requires the pursuit of authenticity, then we need a society that allows us to explore, redefine, and express ourselves. Society’s role here is not only reactive, however; it also forms us. By equipping us to pursue this vision of the good life, society also reinforces this vision of the good life. As a result of this mutual reinforcement, it is exceedingly difficult for us to envision an alternative to bearing the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. But, if we are not in fact our own, then living “authentically” will not produce human flourishing, and a society that compels us to live “authentically” will only make us increasingly distressed, exhausted, and alienated.
Of all the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging, the burden to belong somewhere may be the most dependent on the support of society. It’s one thing to be responsible for choosing where and to whom you belong in this life, but it’s another thing altogether to have the freedom to act on that choice.
Belonging requires a society that facilitates fluidity. Our tendency is to place obligations on one another. We are naturally social beings and when we live in a community, that community will organically draw us into its life, making us a member, placing burdens and responsibilities on us as well as conferring rights and privileges.
Even the land does this. Living in a particular place for an extended period of time organically etches something of the natural environment upon you. Perhaps you find yourself belonging to a place because the changing of the seasons becomes a part of your rhythms of life. People who have lived in the Northeast often speak of the way the leaves change colors in the fall, a phenomenon that holds no sway over me because I’ve never experienced it. Growing up, the smell of onion fields reminded me that the California high desert was my home. It conjured up years and years of memories.
We find the same principle at work in human relationships: when you commit to being with someone, it always feels like an aberration when the relationship fails. Think back to a valued friendship that has ended. Even if it ended on bad terms—even if you discovered that your friend had betrayed you—you experience the breaking of that friendship as a loss of belonging.
What is true of friendships is even truer of romantic relationships. Most people experience break-ups as a severing of self. When you have intimately united yourself with someone, any cleavage of that union will involve a displacement. This is precisely why we need a society with robust means to help us overcome our natural tendency to belong. Society must liberate us or we will grow roots. Society must help us “brave the wilderness,” in Brené Brown’s language.
And society provides.
While it is certainly true that online friendships aren’t the same as in-person ones, the number of differences is decreasing. I can write my friends wherever I am and get an instant response as if they were in the room with me. I can play video games with my friends, so that we are “doing” something together. We can record podcasts together. And if I wanted to, I could extend this to include more and more online communities and fewer and fewer in-person ones. A well-produced multiplayer video game can provide common goals, bonding, friendships, and even romance. Or if I feel too “mature” for games, I can get deeply involved in an internet micro-community: groups devoted to modifying drones, to maximizing (efficiency!) a certain workout program, or to conspiracy theories. Micro-communities form around podcasts, websites, YouTube channels, Instagrammers, religions, cars, decades, diets, and so on. Technology has effectively freed me from any need to belong to where my body is. I may have to sleep here, but I don’t have to be here.
The systems and techniques and norms society has developed to help us cope with the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging come with their own problems. Society makes us a kind of promise: it will do its part to help us live authentically if we’ll accept the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging.
But does society enable us to live the good life? What if this whole time society has been constructing systems, techniques, and norms based on a false understanding of what a human person is? If that’s the case, we’d expect to find an inhuman society. And so we do. But we’d also expect that a proper understanding of the human person would give us a more human society. And so it does. We must consider an alternate anthropology, one which assumes that we belong to Christ, as well as the hope it can offer us in life and death. We need to understand how contemporary society utterly fails to keep its promises of a fulfilled life through the Responsibilities of Self-Belonging. We are not our own. We belong to Christ.
Adapted from You Are Not Your Own by Alan Noble. Copyright (c) 2021 by Alan Noble. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
Cover image by Adam Thomas.