NOTE:  At the start of the year, we published a list of nine “core principles” around the notion of Leading Like Jesus. The article got a lot of reader feedback – all positive – so we decided to probe deeper by focusing on each principle individually in subsequent issues of The Catholic Leader. In this issue we focus on Core Principle 9. 

By Owen Phelps, Ph.D.

Director, Yeshua Institute

In this day and age we like to think of ourselves as well-informed by the sciences and devoted to the scientific method.

But our worldview – our perspective on reality – keeps betraying us.

For example, when we start to think or talk about human beings, we generally start by considering the human individual.

From a scientific point of view, that’s ridiculous. The human individual comes out of a human community -- actually emerges from it.

Stop and think about it at the most basic level. Without a small human community – we’re talking two here – there can be no human individual.

We are quite simply one-anothered into existence.

Modern misfire

Today in the Western World we are radically individualistic – even as our scientific research piles up to prove that the human individual, as we know it, arises only out of a human community.

We probably got off on the wrong foot when we followed the lead of the otherwise brilliant philosopher René Descartes, who said: “I think, therefore I am.”

Poor René needed a lesson in sex education. As any biologist would tell us, his thinking had nothing to do with his being here. Under normal biological circumstances, it takes two to make one. René was the biological product of his parents’ union.

But, in fact, he owed them – and many others – much, much more when it came to his identity and personality.

Sad deprivations

We can be sure of the social nature of individuality when we examine the rare but sad cases of feral children, those children who are deprived of ordinary human contact and interaction virtually from birth.

It’s important to separate fact from fiction and outright fabrications, and when we do that we discover there aren’t many verified cases to reference. But from limited cases we know that when these children are found and nurtured, they may have trouble learning to walk upright, to use a toilet, to learn human language or to show any interest in the human activity around them. (One well-researched case of a girl isolated from most human interaction for several critical years by an abusive father is the case of a child born in 1957, Genie.)

There are many “milder” cases of children raised in mass orphanages in Russia and Eastern Bloc countries, then adopted and brought to the U.S. Typically, before adoption these children’s basic physical needs were provided for. But the facilities in which they were housed did not have sufficient staff to regularly cuddle and interact with them, except to feed and change them.

As it turns out, even after many years some of these children are unable to show affection or other emotions, and some become a danger to themselves and others. (For a broader view of critical human relationships in the development of the individual person, see attachment theory.) 

When I hear someone brag that they’re a “self-made man,” I step back – because I know something as basic as control over our bowel and bladder is a socially learned behavior. If someone doesn’t teach us, we will never learn it. A truly “self-made man” would not be trustworthy when it comes to controlling either his bowel or his bladder. 

Assume our own creation

One irony of American life today is that even as we learn more and more about how the human individual is a social phenomenon, we assume more and more that we each virtually create ourselves.

Our assumption is based on the very real experience that as we grow and mature, we can and do make an ever growing multitude of decisions that can figure prominently in how we live, where we live, what we do for a livelihood and with whom we interact going forward.

However, that experience tends to mask the equally real and even more basic experience we have of socialization – where from birth we learn to interact with other humans, develop affections, walk upright, control our bowel and bladder, eat with our hands, drink from a cup, share toys (or not) and make a host of assumptions about the trustworthiness and beneficence of the cosmos, nature, society and other individuals.

We certainly are individuals, and we continue to learn more and more about that as we learn more about our unique genomes. The related topics are fascinating! Yet, it’s important to remember that even our ability to learn by reading and asking questions are socially-derived skills.

If it weren’t for others, we could not be who we become.

It is only through a lifelong combination of socialization experiences and personal decisions that we eventually emerge and continue to develop as individual adult human beings. Just as we are one-anothered into life, we are one-anothered into development, into maturity and, ultimately, into eternity.

Two implications

This dynamic interaction of socialization and the emerging individual self has two implications:

  • First, we owe more than we generally think to others for who we are.
  • Second, we are more responsible than we generally think for who others become – for what they assume and for how they think about and behave in the world.

As regards the former we should be supremely grateful – and express that gratitude in generosity, beginning with God but extending to our neighbor.

As regards the latter we should be extremely conscientious. Our words and deeds to shape others’ lives.

As we conclude discussion of each of the nine principles outlined earlier, I hope all of them help mark your way in your continued leadership journey. Here’s to more growth and development – all grace -- for you in the years ahead. May God continue to bless you for as long as you draw breath.


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