Tuesday, January 30, 2007

Growing Into Anonymity

As the resident non-architect to blog on a site about architecture, I thought I owed it to myself to read The Fountainhead, Ayn Rand’s description of the ideal man, uncompromising architect Howard Roark. While I am not yet finished, I can say I’ve had a different reaction to this book than Atlas Shrugged, mainly in that I see more clearly the deficiencies of Ayn Rand’s philosophy and writing. The book has also caused me to reflect on what it is to grow older and grow into a profession, all the while contrasting what I have become with what I hoped to become in my younger years. As I age, I understand better that while the world was once my oyster, I am now becoming just one of many. Instead of growing into fame, power, or notoriety, I, and most of my generation, are growing into anonymity. I wonder, is that a good thing or a bad thing?

One of the facts that contrasts this growth into anonymity is the celebrity culture that seems to have no bounds. The notion of 15-minutes of fame seems to be a reality with blogs, YouTube, reality television, all of which tempt us to think we may be the next great contributor to our profession, pop culture, or society at large. In fact, what has happened with the proliferation of media is that anyone’s odds of standing out for longer than a few minutes in anyone else’s conscious have dropped considerably. While there are more opportunities to escape anonymity than ever, actually escaping it requires besting scores more competition. So it seems we’re stuck, anonymous and wondering when our time will come. And to some, this anonymity can be a crushing weight of perceived meaninglessness, and leave them wondering what their purpose was. The disillusionment of anonymity is one of the reasons for the wild success of The Purpose Driven Life.

As it turns out, the Christian take on all this is that anonymity is not necessarily such a bad thing. In fact, it’s practically a virtue. Over and over Jesus instructs his followers that becoming the least is our path to exaltation, and denying ourselves is preferred to worshiping ourselves. (Ayn Rand obviously has a different take, advocating man worship in no uncertain terms.) Other secularists would claim that this is the way religion controls people, by convincing them to become nothing so that someone else may control them. While this is undoubtedly true for many cults and dangerous sects of all religions, I don’t think this is at the heart of Christianity. From the Christian viewpoint, growing into anonymity simply puts us where we need to be: as creations of God worshiping our creator.

This is not an easy thing to accept in a culture that rewards those who stand out, even for Christians. Unlike the Soviet Union of Rand’s youth, America is home to constant temptation to shirk anonymity, to “make a name for yourself,” to become something special. Even in niche fields where the opportunities for fame are miniscule, I wouldn’t be surprised to learn that within everyone, there is a desire to stand out, even if only by having the widest read blog in your field. But these wonderful motivators in youth can be difficult to lose in adulthood. How does one deal with the fact that he/she will not be “the great man,” or that he will not achieve fame?

It is here I would have to come back to faith. While the meek certainly inherit the earth, Christianity absolutely does not (as socialism does) lump all humans together as cogs in a wheel. In fact, Jesus’ healing ministry to those in the most need (Mark 5 about the demoniac is one of my favorite stories) suggests that God cares very deeply about humanity on a personal and individual basis, assuming you believe that Jesus was divine. God’s words to Jeremiah are often used in the pro-life debate, but I use them here to suggest the way we may remember we are more than one of many; we are one full person in the eyes of God, and it is from this place we may find our full identity: “Before I formed you in the womb I knew you, and before you were born I consecrated you.”

My understanding of the mid-life crisis is that middle age allows man to reflect on his place in the world, wanting to know if he has made a mark. Ayn Rand can project her ideal man easily enough in a work of fiction; for the rest of us, we have to be content knowing that yes, our anonymity is a difficult thing to accept. But if we accept that our anonymity on earth is actually not a reflection of the way God knows us, perhaps it is a little easier to take. This is not a panacea; it is a reality of the spiritual life.

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