“To each his own!” – What We Mean When We Say This

Have you ever heard someone say this to you in response to something you have decided to do or to say? What was your response when they said this? I have heard this a few times in my life and for some reason I can remember and recall the content of the conversation and who had uttered the phrase “to each his own”. Since my later years in high school, this phrase has irked me; you could call it a pet peeve or a conviction of sorts, but it doesn’t really matter what you call it. The reason it has irked me (which I realize might sound silly to some) is not because the semantics or the choice of words, but rather the sentiment that lies behind the statement.

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I am not sure if you have ever studied the period of time in European history known as the Enlightenment, but if you haven’t, I would recommend that you do so because it is one of those things in history that has had a tremendous impact on our Western world . For the time being, I will simply introduce you to some of the ramifications of this movement during the 18th century in Europe. The essence of the Enlightenment philosophy was an elevation of the human faculty of reason as the highest and most virtuous of human qualities. The aim of the enlightenment was to create a people who were free (this is evident in our Declaration of Independence). What was it that people were to be free from? The Enlightenment was a movement that attempted to free people from the restrictions of tradition and community and move the spotlight on the individual who was the one who contained natural rights and the freedom to fashion their own future. Thus, there was a certain detachment that the Enlightenment created from other people (community) and from history (tradition). My good friend, Stanley Hauerwas, writes this about the impact of the Enlightenment on today’s modern culture:

Yet most modern ethics begin from the Enlightenment presupposition of the isolated, heroic self, the allegedly rational individual who stands alone and decides and chooses. The goal of this ethic is to detach the individual from his or her tradition, parents, stories, community, and history, and hereby allow him or her to stand alone, to decide, to choose, and act alone.

I think that the phrase “to each his own” actually perpetuates this Enlightenment type of thinking and tends to support the detachment from community and history that our modern culture aptly personifies. First, the community. Every time that I have heard this phrase spoken it has felt as if the person saying it has little care for understanding who I am. Also, while they are in the process of saying these four words they simultaneously seem to be in the process of detaching themselves from me. Does it not seem that way to you too? The sentiment behind this statement keeps people from a true knowledge of one another and thus keeps them at arms length. Just as well, it forfeits the opportunity to dig into life with other people; to know deeply and to be deeply known. This sentiment, birthed from the age of the Enlightenment, says “You do what you want to do and I will do what I want to do, and everything will be cool” or “Just make sure not to infringe on my individuality and we will be ok”. Our culture has a inflated view of the individual and it keeps us from real community and deep relationships and I think these ideas are found in such statements like “to each his own”. We are far too content with remaining strangers with family, friends, and those we deem apart of our community.

Second, the deeper meaning of this phrase tempts to detaches us from history and tradition. As a lover of history, I despise this idea because no matter how hard we try to separate ourselves from the past (whether it be our parents, our personal story, or from the far-removed ancients) the more we realize how inextricably connected we are to everyone and everything that has come before us. We are not individuals that are isolated from the people and events that came before us and whether we acknowledge it or not, most of our life is a reaction to what cane before us. It is ironic that we wish to detach ourselves from history when the very idea of individualism taking center stage and tradition or history entering backstage is a direct product of a historical happening! It was the philosophy of the Enlightenment!

At this point you may be wondering why any of this actually matters. Well, I am particularly passionate about these ideas (and openly critical of them) because they have no room in the community of people called the church. The church is a community of people where strangers come to stop being strangers and where those with no story come to realize that they are indeed apart of a story. In the church I cannot see any room for sentimentalities that propose detachment from each other or from history. The church must be a body where people no longer remain strangers to each other nor remain detached from the history and tradition. Therefore, there can be no throwing around of such phrases as “to each his own”. This sentiments has the potential to estrange us from our community and the story of humanity. The church and its practices should oppose Enlightenment thinking and leave behind phrases such as “to each his own” that bring about a worship of the individual. How do we do this? Great question. Thinking would be a good place to start…but don’t think alone, think with others :).

P.S. I welcome all critiques, clarifications, and comments on this matter!

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