Every society has its sacred cows. Beliefs that have become so unchallengeable—like the Indian bovines which give rise to that phrase—that a local hardly even notices them any more. We may consider ourselves part of a society of liberated secularists but look closely and you can see the same sorts of ideas mooing away on every corner. They can be political like “freedom of speech,” social like “equal opportunities for all” or aspirational like “the right to happiness” but they tend to share one thing in common: they highlight our love affair with individualism.
In Australia, as in most nations shaped by the Enlightenment, the individual has become the most important unit in society. We value many groupings in our lucky country, but the individual ranks higher in public consciousness than the state, the tribe, even the family. It’s the individual’s needs, hopes and dreams that are held to be more sacred than collective customs or social expectations. In short, our sacred cows are braying that we are a proud nation of 24 million gods.
I’ve been a journalist for more than 25 years and after awhile you can start to recognise the shape certain stories will take. It doesn’t matter if it’s a sporting highlight or a scientific breakthrough; we love to celebrate the triumph of the individual. Take 16-year-old Jessica Watson’s solo circumnavigation of the globe for example. Hers is a classic story of individual triumph.
Over eight months the Queensland girl sailed 23,000 nautical miles, combating equipment setbacks and multiple “knock downs” on the world’s most dangerous seas. She had been warned off her attempt by sailing veterans because of her age and inexperience. The World Sailing Speed Record Council even refused to recognise her round-the-world attempt.
Yet she sailed on regardless, non-stop and unassisted, and was greeted with the cheers of 150,000 people as she entered Sydney Harbour. Prime Minister Kevin Rudd welcomed her as “our newest Australian hero.” It was an undeniably amazing feat, but was it her sailing that elevated her to that status?
Watson overcame many natural obstacles but it was the social ones that buoyed her story the most in the media. She pursued her personal goals in the face of the collective wisdom, and so for a moment became the incarnation of our individual ethos. Of course Watson’s not the only fulfil-your-dreams story the media have told. Hollywood thrives on them, regularly delivering the same tale in a multitude of shapes from boxing favourite The Fighter to 2015’s small-business triumph Joy.
Yet no format seems so well suited to the triumph of the individual than the mountain climbing film, including Touching the Void, K2, 127 Hours and at the top of them all, the many, many films focusing on man’s efforts to conquer the world’s tallest peak.
Last year the film Everest even managed to turn the 1996 Mount Everest disaster into a tale of triumph. Eight people from various expeditions succumbed to the elements due to a combination of crowded routes, poor planning and naked ambition. Yet film director Baltasar Kormákur managed to avoid most of the serious consequences surrounding the commercialisation of Everest in order to concentrate on the individuals who died for the sake of their sport. But as Christians we need to think through whether these triumph of the human spirit tales mirror God’s perspective?
It is true that God deals with us on a fundamentally individual level. In fact He solemnly promises to hold the individual accountable only for his or her own choices on the final day: “The one who sins is the one who will die. The child will not share the guilt of the parent, nor will the parent share the guilt of the child. The righteousness of the righteous will be credited to them, and the wickedness of the wicked will be charged against them” (Ezekiel 18:20).
But God also expects that our individual stories will submit themselves to His greater community. The righteousness we require can only be found by joining the body of Christ. We are built together into a temple whose only foundation is Jesus’ death on the cross. And once we become a member of His family our “religion” is supposed to place the needs of the weak before our own: “Religion that God our Father accepts as pure and faultless is this: to look after orphans and widows in their distress and to keep oneself from being polluted by the world” (James 1:27).
Phurba Tashi, key character in the documentary, Sherpa, has summited Mount Everest an incredible 21 times. At the time of filming, if he climbed Everest one more time, he would hold the record for the most ascents in human history
What does that mean for our tales of individual triumph? Let’s go back to Everest for a moment . . .
This month, Australian cinemas will play host to a mountain-top adventure of a different kind. The documentary Sherpa tells the story of the Nepalese natives who have been assisting Westerners to fulfil their Himalayan dreams since Tenzing Norgay helped Sir Edmund Hillary become the first European to top Everest.
During it we learn that Sherpa is not a job description but a people group who hold deeply religious convictions about the mountain they call Chomolungma. One of the film’s key characters is Phurba Tashi, a Sherpa who has summited Everest an incredible 21 times. His mother explains the constant fear his wife and family live in as, year after year, Tashi joins countless Western expeditions: “It is shameful to god—he should be scared of god.”
The Sherpas perceive an arrogance in the way Westerners approach the top of the world and fear for those who associate themselves with it.
The year is 2014 and if Tashi climbs Everest one more time he will hold the record for the most ascents in human history. But it soon becomes clear that the Nepalese father is not motivated by any Western sense of individual glory.
Each year, the climbing expeditions come to Everest offering to employ the impoverished Sherpas to set up ladders and safety lines, and transport the increasing number of creature comforts required by increasingly inexperienced climbers. Each Sherpa ascends the deadly Khumbu Icefall as many as 30 times to transport chairs, heaters and shelters; the climbers will make the journey only two or three times.
In eight weeks Sherpas like Tashi will earn enough money to feed their families for a year; the climbers will gain their “achievement of a lifetime.” Jamling Tenzing Norgay, the son of Edmund Hillary’s guide, describes the vast distance between the Sherpas’ experience of the mountain and the adventure-seeking Westerners who force them again and again into the death zone:
“Western people approach it as a physical challenge to see how close they can get to death. What is the moral justification for that? What is the purpose for playing what is essentially a game of Russian roulette?”
What justification indeed, especially when the gun is pointed at other people? Sherpa is resplendent with vapid Westerners whose reasons for climbing Everest range from physical thrills to spiritual enlightenment, but who need little encouragement to place their personal goals over the very lives of others.
When an avalanche hits the Khumbu Icefall, killing 16 Sherpas and injuring another nine, the immorality of their individualism comes into sharp focus. Unwilling to risk their lives further or tramp over the graves of their friends, the Sherpas go on strike, putting the entire climbing season in jeopardy. Rather than admit to the immorality of their position, the tour operators explain away their objections as the ranting of a few bad apples. The Western climbers are deeply upset, but mostly by their lost opportunity.
This is the high point of individualism, the philosophy that celebrates the individual mountain climber but overlooks those who died to put him on the summit. The individualist’s care and respect for others only extend as far as their needs and beliefs aligning with his or her goals.
Jesus never saw greatness as something to be gained by climbing over the backs of the many. When His disciples pushed their agendas for personal fulfilment, He responded by teaching them the up-is-down philosophy of the kingdom of heaven.
“Sitting down, Jesus called the Twelve and said, ‘Anyone who wants to be first must be the very last, and the servant of all’ ” (Mark 9:35).
God’s way is to serve the many and so follow the path of His Son, who surrendered His greatness and died that we might live. Why can’t someone who champions individualism accept this approach? Because they believe that there is no-one who will look out for them if they do not look out for themselves.
But the Christian in this case has more in common with the Hindu Tashi than the Western individualist. By the end of the documentary the Sherpa has decided to resign from being a guide, one climb short of the world record. Why? Because he has understood that it is better to serve than to be served.
“I would rather not hold the record, and live with a happy family,” he said.