Expressive Individualism and the Embarrassing Problem of Belly Buttons

I was present at the birth of all three of our children, one daughter and twin sons. In all three cases, each child had to be physically disconnected from their mother. The umbilical cord had to be cut for them to enter the world. Once the cord was cut, then they were free, able to make their way in the world and assert their independence.

Sort of but not quite. Yes, they were (and are!) very much their own individuals. But to say that they are entirely independent isn’t as accurate. Inter-dependent, to be sure, but not independent in the sense that they are free to create themselves and their world as they see fit.

Not one of us chose to enter the life and world that we inhabit. We are born already having a family, a community, a place, a name, and, yes, even a gender. However imperfect our setting and circumstances are at birth, none of it is something we determined. Who we are, certainly at the outset of our lives, is something we are given and therefore something we receive. So while, no doubt, we grow to become more independent, more able to take on responsibility for our own well-being, to take our place in our family and community, that’s only because of factors that we had no say in whatsoever.

I’ve just finished reading Peter J. Leithart’s book, The Ten Commandments: A Guide to the Perfect Law of Liberty. It’s part of the Christian Essentials series published by Lexham Press. You can find more information about the series here. Reading a book on the Ten Commandments is interesting in itself, given that it presumes a source of wisdom and moral order outside of ourselves. That is, there is Someone else who has the authority to issue commands and to expect obedience from us. And Leithart, in the chapter on the fifth commandment, “Honor Thy Father and Mother,” he makes this comment:

We believe in the self-made man, the buffered self, the isolated individual. Every man is an Adam who has molded himself from the dust, embarrassed by the belly button that bespeaks dependence.

We live in an age of the buffered self, of expressive individualism, where who we feel we are is who we are. No one else can or should infringe my intrinsic right to self-determination. Descartes once said, “I think therefore I am.” Today it would be more apropos to say “I feel therefore I am.” No God and therefore certainly no other human being can tell me what to do or who I am. Not even my actual biology determines my identity in any way. Human identity and purpose are like a package of unshaped clay, ready to be formed according to my desires and perception.

But yet we each have a belly button, a physical reminder that each of us was once tethered to another, to a mother (not simply a pregnant person) on whom we depended pretty much entirely. And that is a reminder that we are preceded by generations of familial history. Our lives are embedded within a larger story that didn’t begin with us and will not end with us — unless the so-called anti-natalists have their way!

The fifth commandment is a reminder of all of this. To honor our mothers and fathers, the generations who have come before us, means paying attention to that belly button we each have. Because it’s a sign that we are not islands unto ourselves. We didn’t decide to be born, nor were we created to determine the date of our death (though thanks to a growing culture of death in my country, this is getting a lot easier). To think otherwise, to believe, and to assert independence to the degree, that I get to mold myself according to my whims, is to deny where I come from and to whom I belong.

As the psalmist says:

Acknowledge that the Lord is God.
He made us, and we are his—
his people, the sheep of his pasture.

Psalm 100:3

In other words, we don’t have to be embarrassed by our belly buttons. Instead, they are a reminder of where we come from, who we are, and who we were created to be.

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