One of the metaphors we use to describe the risk entailed by any major existential challenge is that it can lead us to “fall apart”. The interest of this metaphor is that it portrays human identity in terms of unity, wholeness, and self-containment. It resonates with the etymology of the word ‘individual’: that which is not divisible. Biologically, an individual starts by a process of aggregation of cells in its mother’s womb and ceases to exist when it breaks apart with death. We are alive because some mysterious force which we call ‘life’ or ‘soul’ keeps us together, as a unity, physically. In the same way, we flourish emotionally and psychologically by keeping that which makes us unique, distinctive, irreplaceable, recognizable, valued, and hopefully loved, in a coherent and meaningful ensemble.
Existing, being alive, and flourishing as individuals therefore is linked to wholeness.
We belong to a culture which rather than wholeness values well-being, and associates this well-being to a notion of individuality which is a synonym of autonomy and self-referentiality. It all started with the search for certainty of Modernity (and by Modernity I mean here the age of reason that started with 17th and 18th century Enlightenment). We are painfully aware of the limitations of our perception of reality, of the constant possibility of making mistakes or deluding ourselves. Is there any reality so immediate, self-evident, and undoubtable that I can trust it absolutely? We all know the famous solution given to this dilemma by the French philosopher Descartes: Cogito ergo sum, which can be translated as “Even when I doubt of everything else, included myself and the world, I know that there is medoubting, me questioning and me thinking – my only certainty is my self-awareness”. In other words, Cogito ergo sum means “me, me, me”! This ‘me’ is the measure of everything and the arbiter of all values. The whole of reality can be established starting from it. Ultimately, I am in charge of my identity: I become what I decide to be through my decisions.
This momentous shift of perception has fundamentally simplified our perception of reality: there are only subjects and objects. We humans are subjects, those who act upon everything else, in a position to overview and control, and we shape reality. Everything else, included other human beings sometimes, are ‘objects’, that is ‘acted upon’, things we can delimit, describe, handle, put to use. There is no denying that this approach has given us great power and effectiveness: the whole technological revolution on which our present well-being rests was made possible by this approach to reality.
From this viewpoint, therefore, being whole means being autonomous, self-referential and in control. There is no other reality than that which can be known empirically and exploited with the help of technology. If there are other aspects of reality, they are optional and ultimately superfluous, they can be left to our free time, like hobbies, when the serious business is over. Among these unnecessary realities, as we know, we have relegated God, interiority, nature, and other negligeable things like wonder, compassion, and grace.
This has an impact on the way in which we perceive ourselves as individuals in relation to other individuals and to the world. We are happy to cooperate with others on the basis of facts -of what we can be sure of from the scientific or pragmatic viewpoint- but we leave aside everything else, especially beliefs and values, because they cannot be proved, are too subjective, divisive, and ultimately irrelevant. We only need to agree with others on their rights - and ours: we will not encroach on their individual freedom and we expect them do the same with us.
What shall we make of this notion of individuality as well-being from the viewpoint of theology?
Whenever I read accounts of what life standards were throughout much of human history, there is no denying that we are lucky to live in our time. Despite the persistence of huge inequalities, there has never been a better period for life expectancy, health, nourishment, education, free time, travelling, upward mobility, social and political freedom. We tend to think that it is only a matter of time before these enhancements are extended to the whole of humanity. During my life time alone, for the first time in history, the share of people who had access to them (and therefore qualify as middle class) has gone from 1/3 of the world population to over 50%. As always we can choose to see the glass half empty – but it would be unfair to deny this progress.
This appreciation however changes if we ask ourselves whether greater well-being has made individuals flourish, develop their potential, feel fulfilled – in a word whether well-being has contributed to wholeness. This is the question that theology would want to keep alive with regards to our identity as individuals. Has our focus on well-being alone made our lives more meaningful?
Surely this question can be seen as a luxury. For people who live in extreme precariousness, just staying alive, eating, finding a shelter, being safe from physical harm is all-consuming – in the fight for survival there is no time for wholeness.
This is why the salvation God promised and realized in the Old Testament is first of all a rescue: he liberates his people from slavery, protects them against the enemy, gives them bread from heaven, water from the rock, and a land where they can settle and live without fear. This is the content of the Lord’s blessing promised to Abraham and renewed to all his descendants.
When God announces his intention to intervene decisively in favour of his people however, his aim is not just ensuring their survival or their well-being, but something which might sound unnecessary, namely that which Scripture calls worship, or praise, or thanksgiving. In the book of Exodus, God does not simply say to Moses that he wants to take his people out of Egypt (that is what he wants to save them from), but that he wants them to be free to worship him on his mountain (that is what he wants to save them for).
This is what, from a theological viewpoint, truly makes us whole or, if we want, holy: the freedom to indulge ourselves in thanksgiving. It is not just a question of politeness, of saying thank you for a gift we receive from God. Thanksgiving is so important in Scripture because it is the symbol of what makes human existence responsive, meaningful, and worth living for.
An image will help us here. According to psychology, one of crucial ways through which a child perceives itself as a whole, as a unity, and as an individual, is the embrace of its mother and father. Our longing for meaningful and loving embraces during the rest of our life echoes this foundational experience. This is why in times of distress, when we feel threatened to fall apart, embraces are so comforting, from the right people and in the right context of course. But even more than physical embrace, what restores wholeness are the metaphorical embraces of words of consolation and encouragement, of quality listening, or even just of silent presence and companionship. What makes us whole in life is feeling recognized, valued, and loved. These are the things that put a smile on our faces, give us energy and motivation, make us glow.
I like to think of praise and thanksgiving not just as the verbal expression of a recognition but as something analogous to what happens to a celestial body that is caught in the gravitational pull of a star. It stops roaming aimlessly and starts orbiting around the star, feeds on its light and warmth, and thanks to the circular motion, acquires a spherical shape, literally becomes well-rounded. We never escape God’s gravitational pull of course. In him we have life, movement and being, as Paul says in the book of Acts. But our sense of identity changes decisively when it is impacted by the embrace of God’s Word, when we acquire the ability to recognize him active and present in our lives and joyously acknowledge our dependence on him.
Modernity wants us to rely on a search for absolute certainty, whereas at a much deeper level, our identity depends on assurance and validation. Assurance and validation are the true embrace that makes us whole, the mysterious force that allows us, as we say, to “keep it together” and, echoing Zechariah’s words in Luke’s gospel, leads us to give praise to the Lord, the God of Israel, who “enables us to serve him without fear, in holiness -and we could say in wholeness- before him all the days of our life”. This is why, more than well-being, the ultimate sign that we truly are alive and free as individuals is thanksgiving.