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The Hall of Mirrors and radical individualism

Saturday, 12 August 2017  | Peter Corney

In the past, some of the great houses of Europe were built with the special feature of a hall or room. All the walls would be lined with mirrors so that, as you entered, all you would see were reflections of your own image. No doubt an interior design feature that its wealthy owners found pleasing! This has also been reproduced in some modern buildings, with the ceiling lined with mirrors as well.

Also in the past a feature of the travelling circus or carnival was often a tent of mirrors, but this was designed to distort your image for fun. Some made you look short and fat, some thin and tall, while others gave you a rippled effect or showed your image out of focus. The effect was comical and amusing. I remember as a boy spending some of my precious pocket money on a side show tent of ‘fun mirrors’ at the Perth Royal Show!

One of the features our Postmodern world has embraced is an attitude of mind like the hall of mirrors, where the self is constantly reflecting on itself. We all have a tendency to be preoccupied by our selves, how we feel, how we look, what others think of us. Self-interest is a perpetual preoccupation! In our teenage years it becomes an obsession, one that has now been facilitated by social media to levels dangerous to youth mental health.

Our Postmodern world has embraced an attitude of mind that has taken our natural tendency to a new level in the realm of ideas, values, truth and meaning. The individual’s subjective view and perspective has become the primary authority, particularly in matters of meaning, purpose, ethical values, right and wrong. Now the individual’s subjective view is neither unmodified by, nor subject to, any external authority or notion of objective truth, let alone any concept of transcendent values. This is further reinforced by an idea of personal freedom where the individual’s will and choice are primary and sacrosanct, an idea reinforced daily by living in the prosperous consumer/market society of unlimited personal choice. The sense of obligation to some common good or community responsibility is being overwhelmed by these trends.

Hyper-individualism has also been reinforced by a fashion in parenting and education that has overcorrected some negative elements of the past and substituted them uncritically with the language and emphasis of the Self-Esteem and Human Potential Movements - ‘you can do anything, be anything’ and ‘anything is possible if you believe in yourself’. Self-control and concern for the feelings of others is also pushed aside by the closely related Self-Expression Movement, with the encouragement to ‘be yourself’, ‘don’t repress your feelings’, ‘be authentic, say what you feel’, ‘be true to yourself’, ‘you have a right to say what you think’ and ‘your opinion is as good as anyone else’s’. Weak, overindulgent and overprotective parenting has lowered the bar for children in regard to facing the tough side of life, and its limits and its requirement of accountability for our bad decisions and selfishness. All of this has fed a sense of entitlement and an ugly narcissism.

This kind of radical individualism that is self-authorising is like the Hall of Mirrors - in the end, you are trapped in a room of reflections of yourself. In fact it may be more accurate to see it as the side show tent of distorted mirrors, as our individual inner worlds are so often distorted by our own desperate needs, desires, dysfunctions, past hurts, ignorance and self-interest. The hall or tent of mirrors cuts you off from the wisdom, experience and knowledge that is greater than your own.

The fact is we can’t be anything we want to be. Only people with a certain kind of physical make-up can be an Olympic sprinter. An individual’s knowledge is limited. Our individual capacities vary. And, at 17 or 18 years, your life experience, wisdom and skills are limited!

This cultural fashion has set up a whole generation for great disappointment, and the evidence is now coming in. All the recent surveys on the mental health of young people in Australia are telling us that they have poor resilience in the face of failure and the inevitable difficulties that life throws at us all; they have high levels of depression and anxiety. The alarming fact is that one in four suffers from some serious mental health issue.

Radical individualism is a problem for the individual’s health; it is a problem for building healthy marriages and families; it is a problem for our communal and social health; it is a problem for the political health of our democracies. The solutions are not very palatable for a Postmodern and materially prosperous society like Australia, for they take us back into many of the very ideas and values that so-called progressives have rejected and ridiculed.

Christian communities have to now redouble their efforts to faithfully and alternatively live out the Christian values that Western society has long assumed but that are now being rejected by a section of our society, or in many cases just been worn down by our prosperity, the contemporary media and an over-reactive education system captured by fashionable ideas. This places a high priority on Christian parental teaching and example, and Church youth ministry, both of which must work harder and more creatively at Christian education and discipleship training. At the tertiary education level, Christian young people will find themselves in a context where the worldview framework is allegedly neutral but in fact is frequently aggressively ‘progressive’ and secular, and often openly anti-Christian. Christian young people need to be equipped to understand the ideas behind what they will be facing, and how to respond. Those entering higher education or any level of political activity need to understand the intellectual, ideological and cultural contests to which they will be exposed, and be prepared for significant ‘soft persecution’. Christians in the West are now in a new cultural war (2 Tim. 3:1-5).

The upside of all this is that there is a growing group of people in our community who are increasingly dissatisfied with what our contemporary society has produced. They are concerned with: our mental health crisis, particularly among the young; marriage and family health; the alarming number of children now in State care; the loss of values and ethics in business and finance; the state of our political processes; and the increasingly uncivil and unreasonable level of public discourse. These concerns may develop into a groundswell of desire for a recovery of those values and ideas from which we have turned away.

Peter Corney is the Vicar Emeritus of St. Hilary's Kew. He was the founding director of the Australian Arrow Leadership Program and maintains an involvement in the mentoring of young Christian leaders. He writes on issues of faith and culture and blogs at www.petercorney.com.


Robert Sunderland
August 14, 2017, 9:52AM
Still worth taking time to read your thoughts. RobMBCU7

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