Experience – Individual & Collective

We hear so much about “experience” being an “authority” in our lives – we use experience to justify all manner of things. It often trumps all other authorities as if my own personal experiences can determine the right or the wrong, proper or improper, acceptable behavior or unacceptable behavior, right thinking or wrong, etc. I’m just not “all that,” as if I am competent to always make sound judgments all on my own.
There are two sides of experience, I think. Well, actually many sides, but these two are the particular ones I am thinking about right now.
First, there is the healthy aspect of personal experience that does inform our understanding of things. Most certainly our personal experiences lead us to and away from many things – thoughts, ideas, behaviors, places, etc. – often depending on whether our past experiences of those things brought harm or enjoyment to our lives. We are not, however, islands unto ourselves.
There is also a very unhealthy aspect of person experience due to the fact that we are creatures who so easily engage in self-deception. “If it feels good, do it” is not really a good motto to live by, despite what so many ’60’s generation baby-boomers want to believe. Sex, for example, in free-love with anyone we want any time we want does not bring us sexual-freedom or long-term fulfillment, does not contribute to healthy relationships where we are able to love and be loved in an environment of trust and vulnerability, does not contribute to healthy families in which children are raised to have a good sense of self-worth and self-respect, but it does help created isolation, lack of concern for the wellbeing of the other, and contributes to unwanted pregnancies, STD’s, and HIV infection. Is titillation really the best consideration? The same can be said for drugs, pornography, money, and so many other things. We are very creative in the ways we justify our self-destructive/deceptive behaviors and ways of thinking – and we compel others to join us.
It isn’t a question of whether sex (or any thing else in-and-of itself) is a good thing or not – of course it can be, is! The question is always about the responsible experience of such things, which brings me to my second thought about experience – our collective experience.
A better judge of what is good for us and what is not is the collective experience of many people over many generations. This may also be termed, “Tradition.” Because we are prone to self-deception within our own narrow bounds of maturity, education, and understanding, we will be wise to consider tradition regardless of whether it agrees with what we want to be or do at any given time.
There must be a balance between individual experience and collective experience – tradition. The ’60’s generation has made an art of elevating personal experience over collective experience and declares it a most important “authority” in our judgment of what is right or wrong for us individually and for society. Later generations have followed along, with corrections as they move from Modernity to Post-Modernity and rebel against the conventional doings of the preceding generation. And, of course, we Americans have so little regard for tradition. Well, we also are losing our ability to think collectively as our society fragments into individualistic isolationism – rugged individualism run amuck.
The tradition is not always right. Sometimes correction must be made, and it is a very messy time when correction takes place. We must avoid the pendulum swings that move us too far into individualism or too far into collectivism. There are times when I (we) must yield to tradition and the collective wisdom, because I am limited and narrow and inexperienced. There are other times when I (we) recognize something isn’t right and fight the majority opinion found in the tradition. Again, balance and a realization that my own opinion is not paramount are needed.
It is funny how the hard-conservatives and hard-liberals both rely upon extreme individualism when making their claims. We see the result in the polarization of our politics and in the culture-wars, which have intruded upon the Church. It seems that individual experience speaks to the authorities we use to make judgements, in relationship with tradition, but is not an authority all by itself.