Wednesday, 6 September 2017

Do Independent Thinkers Need Community?

Recently a friend posted a George Carlin quote:

“I don't like a** kissers, flag wavers or team players. I like people who buck the system. Individualists. I often warn people: "Somewhere along the way, someone is going to tell you, 'There is no "I" in team.' What you should tell them is, 'Maybe not. But there is an "I" in independence, individuality and integrity.'" Avoid teams at all cost. Keep your circle small. Never join a group that has a name. If they say, "We're the So-and-Sos," take a walk. And if, somehow, you must join, if it's unavoidable, such as a union or a trade association, go ahead and join. But don't participate; it will be your death. And if they tell you you're not a team player, congratulate them on being observant.”

Something struck me as very off with this quote. I engaged in a brief back and forth with my friend about it, but continued to ponder long after the conversation was over.

In a way, I think INTJs and certain other 'lone wolf' type personalities might identify. I grew up in convent school and faced all an INTJ's innate distaste for a creativity-killing, uniformity-lauding, groupthink. I was always ahead of the class, or behind the class, but never with the class. I was either sneakily reading storybooks on my lap (now that I’ve worked as a teacher I realize my teachers probably knew all along so maybe not as sneakily as I thought), sketching pictures in my textbooks (my gift to my younger sister who had to use my textbooks after me), or making lists… of anything and everything. Yes, I’m odd. But that was the point. I did not thrive in an environment where I was one of a crowd, where individuality was not valued, and outward discipline was the keyword upon which our lives seemed to be based.

In India, we have had our originality and individuality squashed and discouraged so many times, that sometimes we don’t know what to do if no one is telling us what to do. I was lucky to have a family that did prize and encourage creativity, and didn’t tell us what do with our free time, so at a young age I was organizing summer clubs, neighbourhood fetes, treasure hunts, and surprise sibling fancy dress show for my parents, writing stories, coming up with ideas and plans for every available unstructured moment. But many Indian kids don’t have that. I know, because as a teacher, it has often been hard for me to elicit one original thought from my students. It takes a while to draw that out, and sometimes I wonder if it’s too late. Kids can’t even draw a picture without asking if their colours are ‘correct’ and copying from the ‘class artist’.

All that to say, maybe our upbringing has conditioned us to either feel more comfortable in a group, where someone else thinks for us, and we never voice dissent, or to be very uncomfortable in a group, because our only experience of groups has been of losing our identity and individuality within it. So either we blindly choose loyalty to a party, community, group, religion, or movement, or we choose to react as George Carlin did, and see all groups as automatically suspect, dishonest, untrustworthy, and in some way opposed to our own freedom and creativity. I think this especially happens when one has had a bad experience with a group as an adult. It seems safer to be your own person, and not set down roots anywhere.

This begins to feel like an INTJ's motto.

But, things are different for the INTJ Christian! We have bought into not a group, but a Person- Jesus Christ. We have examined the claims of Christianity, found them to be true, but we haven’t stopped there (hopefully). We have fallen in love with a Living God. We have come to know Him through prayer, through reading the bible, through the beauty and consistency of His teachings, and through the witness of the saints who have loved Him, and made Him visible in the world. Most of us are well aware that the visible, structural Church has a lot of room to grow, that many of its members have given (and still give) a counter-witness (some through heinous and ugly crimes), and that we can’t defend every aspect of the Church on earth with integrity (any experience of working with your local parish will bring these truths home).

So INTJ Christians sometimes deals with these problems by living an isolated Christian life. They take to heart George Carlin’s advice, and become cynical, individualistic, ‘free’ Christians. It’s either ‘me and my bible’ or ‘me and my sacraments’. Everything else in the Church is too messy.

On the face of it, that seems like an unfettered life. No human drama, confrontations, weak and fallible leaders, mistakes and relationship problems? The INTJ says ‘Yes, please!’ When I’m on my own, I have more time and energy to create, to do good deeds, to go places, and do things, to meet goals, to educate myself and to have adventures.

But here’s the thing: if we are really Christians, we have to move beyond our inclinations and even personalities, and ask the million dollar question: “What was God’s plan for His followers here on earth?” And it is pretty obvious as soon as we turn to Acts 2 that it was never a virtual community of individualists who do their own thing, have good will toward each other in a distant way, and meet each other in Heaven after leading long, good and innovative lives.

God’s plan was messier, but far more beautiful. He called us to live with and love real human beings in close relationships, to be of one heart and mind, and by learning to bear with one another’s weaknesses, become truly conformed to and united with Him. If love is the keyword and basis of our life in Christ, then isolation isn’t an option. Love isn’t random acts of kindness. Love doesn’t happen in a vacuum. Love happens in the midst of messy and close human relationships. If the INTJ prizes innovation, creative thinking, efficiency, and independence, the INTJ Christian places above those things love and vulnerability. It’s not about what we can achieve, but about who we can become together. But it isn’t easy, and it isn’t a short-term project. I read a beautiful reflection on this topic: Community 101.

Community will require everything from you. You will have to sacrifice your time, energy and money. You will not be able to hide in your home whenever you want, if you are serious about community. You will discover and be confronted with your ghosts, skeletons, and hurts as well as discover your potential, gifts, call and vocation. You will not be able to live as you wish for you will have to learn what real freedom is. You will have to confront every aspect of your life in the light of the Gospel. No one will control you, no one will force you, no one will demand anything from you. But you will be compelled, for the love of Christ, to revolutionize your ideas about life, reorder your priorities, and you will have to die many deaths to enter into communion with God and others and sustain those relationships, not run from them each time you want. 

You cannot build a community without living in close approximation. Community has many aspects of family life. You do not choose your family members, you live with them. Especially those you naturally initially dislike will be the instruments of chiselling of your heart and character. You will also find people who will enormously inspire you, draw you closer to God, you will discover depths of human interactions that you thought are not possible. You will go beyond formal, surface and weekend relationships, and you will see, sooner or later, the beautiful and the ugly of most of your community members. And you will understand that we need each other to start living on earth as in heaven now. [Read the whole thing here.]

So much yes! I know these things are true because I have lived and served in Christian communities and households for many years. Even though a large part of me shrinks from it, and desires the peace of solitude, it is within the painful and humbling relationships that I’ve had to work on that I’ve really begun to change and grow and mature. It is within community that I discovered exactly how sinful and weak I am. It’s easy to believe that we are basically good, kind, humble and selfless people, till we live with other people, and then we find, oh wait, I’m actually bad-tempered, proud, lazy and selfish. And people still choose to love me! It is in the unconditional love of human beings who know our worst and our best that we truly come to know the mercy and unconditional love of God. And it is in loving unconditionally those who let us down that we become 'little Christs'.

God has so much more for us than a shallow or merely intellectual understanding of who He is. But he chooses to disciple us, form us, convict us and humble us through His Body, the Church- the community of believers. Most Catholics have never had that experience, and that may be part of the reason why so many Catholics are still not disciples. We’re willing to go to retreats, maybe daily Mass, healing services, and read spiritual books, but we don’t want the inconvenience of regular Christian community.

So yes, independent thinkers need community too*. We my achieve more and create more on our own (we may not though), but we will never learn the far more important lessons of love and mercy on our own. We may go farther on your own, but we will never go deeper.

*There are certain conditions though, and it takes discernment to find a trustworthy community that can truly help one grow. Cults and unhealthy groups and organizations often exist within the wider church too, and God isn’t asking us to shut off our brain when we join a community. But that’s another blog post.

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