Each year, Oxford Dictionaries chooses a “word of the year," as determined by a vote of independent linguists. This is the word that, by its common and popular use, best defines where our culture is going. The word of the year for 2013 was “selfie.”
We think the word selfie may actually have a meaning that goes beyond the photos we take of ourselves with our smartphones and post on social media. The word symbolizes, at least in our minds, a society that is overemphasizing the importance of the individual self and undervaluing the importance of the family and the community.
“Preserving my individual options” seems to be the goal of so many. We hear more and more members of the millennial generation saying things like, “Marriage would tie me down” or “Having kids would really limit my flexibility and my freedom.”
The problem is that when we think only of our own options, only of our own freedom, only of our own individual rights, we end up not thinking enough about the needs of other people and about our commitments to our spouse, children, church and community. Sometimes, being loyal to the people and the institutions we love means intentionally and purposefully giving up some of our personal options.
Most free societies are built around individual rights and personal freedoms, and it sounds almost revolutionary or communistic to limit them. Perhaps what is needed is not limits, but balance.
It is not the individual that is the basic unit of society, it is the family. And there are and always will be trade-offs between the “freedoms” and options of the individual and the commitment, sacrifice and responsibility of having a family.
We must realize that it is the latter, not the former, that creates a strong society and molds individual character. David Brooks of The New York Times put it this way: “People are not better off when they are given maximum personal freedom to do what they want. They’re better off when they are enshrouded in commitments that transcend personal choice — commitments to family, God, craft and country.”
The idea of not wanting to give up personal options and happiness by making commitments or taking on the responsibility and sacrifices of marriage and children is a completely misplaced notion. Because it is those very sacrifices and commitments that lead to the deepest kind of happiness.
Still, we live in a world that worships the cult of the individual. Everyone wants to be “their own man” or “their own independent woman,” and we are sold the bill of goods that therein lies fulfillment.
In actuality though, a constant quest for unfettered freedom and the avoidance of being “tied down” grows increasingly hollow and ever less fulfilling, while commitment and loyalty to people that we love more than ourselves (spouse and children) deepens both how we feel and who we are.
People who have had a bad family experience or who have not had good family examples become part of the demise of family simply by choosing not to participate in a family life of their own. They decide, based on the false advertising of the culture of the individual, to simply abdicate family — to either not have one or to not be fully committed to whatever family they have. They begin “looking out for No. 1” at the expense of the commitments they might otherwise make to those they love.
Perhaps what we all have to remember is the little (and true) cliché that those who are all wrapped up in themselves make for a very small package.