Most people agree that to be free to choose, to determine one’s actions, is essential to what it means to be a person. Even as our country is slowly ripping apart, this idea finds broad support from the most loyal advocate of gender fluidity to the orthodox Christian. At the same time, many of us are aware of how our warped, one-dimensional commitment to the individual and his freedom robs us of other goods, especially the brotherhood of man.
Everyone we meet is our brother or our sister. We need to consider this, especially at present when families are estranged by ideology and the pursuit of individual fulfillment. “We are all in this together” was a popular pandemic phrase meant to evoke a sense of familiarity and communion between citizens. But the sentiment was largely utilitarian. It meant, for example, “If you wear a mask it will help me and if I wear a mask it will help you – let’s make this pact.”
But brothers and sisters, families, must be motivated by love, which frees us from using others for our ends. That love begins with sympathy, or builds upon sympathy, so that we feel what others feel and stand with them in their experiences. We can feel sympathy with any person, because we share one and the same fallen nature. St. John Henry Newman explains how even the righteous can have sympathy with the depraved: “any man of tolerably correct life, whatever his positive advancement in grace, will seldom read accounts of notoriously bad men, in which their ways and feelings are described, without being shocked to find that these more or less cast a meaning upon his own heart, and bring out into light and colour lines and shapes of thought within him, which, till then, were almost invisible. Now this does not show that bad and good men are on a level, but it shows this, that they are of the same nature.”
As sons and daughters of Adam, we share the same nature and suffer the same disease of original sin. This fact bonds us to all men, regardless of race, religion or creed. Yet a deeper sympathy dwells among Christians, Newman says. In becoming Man, Christ not only sympathized with man, “His presence in us makes us sympathise (sic) one with another . . . the Christian, as he is naturally found everywhere,—has everywhere the same temptations, and the same feelings under them, whether innocent or sinful; so that, as we are all bound together in our Head, so are we bound together, as members of one body, in that body, and believe, obey, sin, and repent, all in common.”
Despite such bonds of unity we have with all men and with Christians especially, many Western Christians live as if they were islands. Newman says, “Persons think themselves isolated in the world; they think no one ever felt as they feel. They do not dare to expose their feelings, lest they should find that no one understands them. And thus they suffer to wither and decay what was destined in God’s purpose to adorn the Church’s paradise with beauty and sweetness . . . and deny themselves the means they possess of at once imparting instruction and gaining comfort.”
In other words, we cut ourselves off from the very means of our salvation. Yes, God sees us as unique, unrepeatable beings whom He loves; but he did not create us to live in isolation. In fact, it has been said that the gifts we have, natural and spiritual, have been given to us precisely to help others, that we each have a piece of someone else’s puzzle. In Christian marriage, spouses are informed that their primary goal is to get their spouse to heaven. But the same is true, in a different way, of every person. We are all called to love, to inspire each other to deeper intimacy with our Lord.
In 1978, the author and Soviet dissident Aleksander Solzhenitsyn gave a shocking and powerful commencement address at Harvard entitled, “A World Split Apart.” There he chastised Westerners and Americans in particular, for a diseased individualism that was actually harming individuals and the community as a whole: “The defense of individual rights has reached such extremes as to make society as a whole defenseless against certain individuals. It’s time, in the West, to defend not so much human rights as human obligations.” This is the task of every Christian. Not to ask what our rudimentary responsibilities are, but to ask what our brother or sister – in nature or in Christ – needs from us.
Part of what makes us human is our ability to choose for ourselves, but that’s not all. We cannot be defined apart from our relationship with God and one another. It was Christ Himself who prayed that we might be one. Ask yourself today if you answer our Lord’s prayer by sympathizing with the needs of your family members, friends and coworkers. Do I seek to live with others as brothers and sisters in Christ, or am I only concerned with myself and how others can help me?