It seems like a truism to say that each one of us is an individual. How well we know that we are individuals. America, many would say, is a land where the individual can thrive. It is a land of opportunity and freedom where a man can “stake his claim,” strike out on his own, and make something of himself.
Can you appreciate this idea? Or do you perhaps appreciate this concept even at the level of an unspoken assumption? You might think, for example, that freedom in this country is diminishing as the rich get richer and the poor lose their ability to break out of cycles of poverty, to break out . . . on their own.
Individualism is coded, as it were, right into our American DNA. Rugged settlers colonized the land, enduring harsh winters with meager supplies. These settlers then moved west into even more wild and unknown territory. Our Declaration of Independence provides a political context for our ideals of freedom and our God-given rights to pursue our own happiness: “We hold these truths to be self-evident, that all men are created equal, that they are endowed by their Creator with certain unalienable Rights, that among these are Life, Liberty and the pursuit of Happiness.”
Thus, however much we applaud community, we also dignify the free man forging his own path. This lies deep in American consciousness, so deep as to be an unquestioned assumption, a consciousness of which we are not self-conscious.
We are individuals in the sense that we differ from one another, each of us set apart in some way. I am not you; you are not me. You go your own way (a Fleetwood Mac song is now coming to mind), and I will go mine. Thus we read in Webster’s dictionary that individuality is “total character peculiar to and distinguishing an individual from others.” In an extended sense, individuality can mean one’s personality. You are not just like me, nor I just like you. We have our own individual personalities and temperaments. We are, therefore, set apart from the crowd, distinct in some sense and thus “divided” from the rest. Once divided from the rest, no more division is necessary; we become—and can truly be called—“individuals.”
There is, however, another sense in which we humans are individuals. As human beings we are unities—we are whole persons. An individual is not a “dividual”—that is, he is not divided. Even Webster’s hearkens back to this concept, listing another definition (albeit archaic): “the quality or state of being indivisible.”
Humans are undivided creatures. Have you heard of The Incredibles? Well, we all are The Indivisibles. You might think that we are now entering the realm of anthropology, metaphysics, and even theology. We were made as complex unities, souls-in-flesh that mimic our Creator by being both one and many. While we possess a body and a soul, they are united in some unfathomable way that makes us an indivisible whole, though the parts may be separately named. We might also name the spirit, will, heart, mind, and emotions, whether we regard these as parts of the soul or not.
But we do die, and is not our body then separated from our soul? Are we not divided and therefore divisible—“dividuals” and not individuals? I think yes, but this is not how it was intended (for death is an unintended interruption due to sin and the Fall); and at any rate, it is a temporary, unusual separation. When Christ returns, the dead will be raised incorruptible and our souls and bodies will be unified once more. We shall be glorified individuals, glorified soul-body unities, knowing not only the unity of ourselves but also our unity with the church and with God himself. As creatures we will be one and many, as the church we will be one and many, and somehow we will altogether be one—in Christ.
Those of us who work in schools and homeschools as classical Christian educators will note that this reconciliation of all things in Christ is the ultimate telos, or goal, to which all we do aspires or should aspire. The grandest end of education is preparation for the next life. The unity we know in ourselves (despite our sin) signals the unity and harmony we perceive in the cosmos (despite our failing sight), which in turn signals the One who unites and harmonizes our souls, the world, and everything in it. When we start with a deep contemplation of ourselves and our individuality, we will be led before long to contemplate our Creator, the Sustainer and Lover of our souls. We will note our longing for harmony, note the harmony that still persists in this world, and trust that it is God himself who sings.