–my latest at The Mirror Magazine
Pope Francis has been making headlines lately (as he tends to do), this time for his comments about motherhood. Most recently, his name got splattered all across the newsfeeds for dipping into a controversial topic in mommy wars: he welcomed women who wanted to breastfeed their children in the Sistine Chapel. But earlier this week, he made an even more compelling comment about motherhood. “Mothers,” he said,” are the “antidote to individualism.”
Americans aren’t accustomed to thinking of individualism as a bad thing. In fact, as a culture we kind of applaud it. So if your average American Joe glanced at this headline, he might have done some head-scratching.
Americans admire the “rugged individualist” (a term favored by Herbert Hoover): the lone ranger, the man above the crowd who fights his way to self-sufficiency and success. A pioneer, a man who pulls himself up by his bootstraps, someone who is so uniquely strong and powerful an individual that he can’t be tied down, can’t be defeated, and most of all, has a completely independent, unhampered personality. This is the recurring image of the hero as he typically appears in our films, our literature, even our propaganda.
Of course, we know, deep down, that there is an element of selfishness to individualism. We get frustrated with our heroes if they reject any sort of interdependence with their fellow human beings; we get annoyed when Iron Man is too focused on himself and his own pursuits to pay attention to Pepper Potts; we like Shane and know he can’t be tied down, but we’d like him to at least form some sort of connection with the little boy and the family he’s staying with. All the same, we also continue to encourage our young adults to use their youth to enjoy “independence.” Be free! You have no strings attached! Use this time for YOU!
What does that even mean? Individualism is the favoring of the self-reliant, independent person over the interdependent community or the group. We like independence, we like autonomy. We don’t want to be tied down. So, as a society, we tend toward individualism. But Pope Francis says individualism needs an antidote. What gives?
The truth is, individualism is not how man is meant to operate. “No man is an island,” wrote John Donne, “Every man is a piece of the continent.” The individual is meant to live in the context of community—ideally, a community that is fundamentally a family. Society must be built on this building block of familial community—or it will crumble. A society of rugged individualists holds together just about as well as bricks without mortar, model airplanes without glue–better yet, like a cake without flour or water. The human heart is meant to flourish in the context of community.
And this is exactly the reality that women in their role as mothers make manifest, as Pope Francis pointed out.
“To be a mother is a gift, the Pope said, and explained that through their sacrifices, mothers assist in helping society to overcome its self-centered tendencies, as well as its lack of openness, generosity and concern for others. ‘In this sense motherhood is more than childbearing; it is a life choice entailing sacrifice, respect for life, and commitment to passing on those human and religious values which are essential for a healthy society,’ he said.”
Motherhood is not a calling in which women are meant to lose their individual identity. Rather, motherhood uniquely points out the interdependent essence of the human person—how man is meant to exist, from his very origin, in relationship to other human beings. In that way, to be a mom in to day’s world is to commit to living a message radically different from the self-focused, no-strings-attached lifestyle so popular in modern America. Motherhood takes those strings—and weaves them into the tapestry of human relationships which is the backdrop for all healthy societies.