Even as early as Genesis 2:18, when God said “It is not good for man to be alone,” it’s been evident we’re designed to live in community.
God gave Eve’s companionship to Adam, and he gave his own to both. Even today, after the Fall, we’re given into a family and called to live in community with others.
Sadly, because this is a broken world, our ability to live well in fellowship with others is faulty, though the institutions of family and community pre-date the Fall. This manifests itself when we try to take from others in codependent relationships or try to avoid others by seeking total independence.
Ultimately, we are called to live in healthy interdependence with others, and this is the kind of relationship we need to seek with those around us.
The Right Way to View the Individual
Some people approach community without accounting for individual initiative, and this leads to great misunderstandings.
As Steve Horwitz aptly puts it,
When we analyze social phenomena, we assume that only individuals choose. Therefore, understanding even highly social institutions like the market begins, although it does not end, with individual human action. The theory of spontaneous order explains that many social institutions are the “products of human action but not human design.” That is, they start with individual actions, but those actions produce outcomes that no individual or group of individuals intended.
This doesn’t mean that the individual is isolated. Rather, we start with the proposition that we were created with the ability to choose, and all evaluation of community and aggregate groups must start with a biblical understanding of human dignity and individual responsibility.
Horwitz says later in his piece that, by advocating an atomistic individualistic point of view, we are in danger of “mak[ing] the free society seem like a lonely and hollow place.”
Individualism is often misunderstood as advocating complete independence. Sometimes, it might seem easier if we were independent of others.
But in reality, the world would be a much darker place without fellowship and without the benefits of mutually beneficial market exchange.
Taken to its extreme, though, there is danger also when people rely too closely on others.
The Dangers of Codependence
Codependence is often held up as the opposite of independence, and in some ways this is accurate. It is on the other end of the spectrum of unhealthy relationships, corporately and individually.
We were designed to rely on our parents in our early days because we simply couldn’t care for ourselves, and that dependence is supposed to diminish as we grow older. My young children rely heavily on me, and this is as it should be. They cannot obtain food or be comforted when they’re hurt or learn to respect others without the guidance of their parents.
At some point, though, my role as a parent will change as my children grow older and begin to internalize the lessons we have instilled in them from the beginning.
In codependent relationships, we find ourselves relying on someone else to meet our needs in some way, and this is highly unhealthy, regardless of the scale. Whether explicitly or not, welfare programs promote unhealthy codependence because they enable individuals to rely on crutches well after the original immediate need has passed.
The Importance of Community to Flourishing
Tom Hanks’s character in Castaway comes to mind when I think about the importance of community to flourishing.
When he arrives at the island, he has everything one could desire, but his success is hampered. He finds ways to make do with what’s on the island, but all of his time is consumed by survival measures. Without companionship, he cannot flourish.
Though we can’t operate when we rely too much on others, we still require others to truly succeed.
When everyone contributes that which they have produced through the proper application of their talents through mutually beneficial exchange, everyone benefits. God designed each of us to have the perfect combination of skills and talents, and he wants us to use them for his glory and our good.
The fact that we were created in God’s image and therefore have inherent dignity and worth is key to this discussion. None of this works if we try to operate independently of others or if we try to steal from others. Flourishing at any level requires each individual to take ownership of his or her talents and fulfill his or her role through interaction with others.
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