Thursday, December 17, 2020

All By My Self

Back in the 1970s, the cool (or possibly groovy or far out) thing to do was to drop out of the system, tune in to drugs, and get with “the scene”. Whether it was to a flophouse in Soho or a park bench in Paris, young people went wandering.

When their bewildered parents pressed them for the logic of this sort of wild fit of lifestyle experimentation, the stock answer from the younger generation was this: “Sorry, Mom … Dad … I’ve got to find myself.”

The Integrated Self

It wasn’t a great explanation, but it did make a sort of sense. After all, traditionally, people have believed that each of us has a kind of core of integrity, a basic “self”, an essential identity to which we owe fidelity. That “self” was not so much a thing one was simply born with as a thing one uncovered through a process. This uncovering was fostered through experiences like being educated, making good choices, taking opportunities, learning from hardship and mistakes, learning to prefer the good of others and one’s community to one’s immediate interests, and above all, of consistently standing for principles one genuinely believed to be true.

Through this process, one became what was called “a person of integrity”. Or as we might put it, one had a self worth having. One became increasingly predictable as to what one would and would not do on a moral or practical level, and thus became a more and more respectable and reliable member of the human race. And our common language came to reflect this common understanding of selfhood, through phrases like:
  • “Be true to yourself”
  • “You can always count on him”
  • “What you see is what you get”
  • “She’s authentic”
  • “I want my friends to know the real me”
  • “I’ve got to be me”
  • “I did it my way”
and so on.

What the 70s generation was telling their parents, then, was that they felt the need to seek out a kind of personhood, a kind of self to which the young person could feel allegiance … to locate a set of values by which to orient the life decisions that turn a grown child into a full-on young adult … to become, in some dimly understood sense, the person they were meant to be.

The Shape-Shifter Self

But actually, maybe the 70s was the last time that idea really had any currency. Welcome to the 80s, and the return to more materialistic values; and then to the 90s, with the introduction of popular computing and with it the decline of any integrated sense of “self”.

By the early 2000’s, sociologists were hailing the appearance of the new man, the “Protean person”, as they dubbed it. Writers like W.T. Anderson, Kenneth Gergen and Zygmunt Bauman published elaborate theses on how, in the postmodern era, human psychology was moving beyond all possibility of any integrated “self”. We have too many roles, they said, in today’s world; and in each role we play — as student, child, friend, coworker, parent, congregant, consumer, husband or wife, entertainer, teammate or any of the other myriad roles now pressed upon us from all sides, we adopt a different set of values, employ a different language, respond to different imperatives, and in short, become a different “self”. Which one of these roles is the “real” one? Who can say? All and none of them, we must suppose.

The Perplexed Self

Nowadays, as even the traditional markers of ethnicity (as per Rachel Dolezal) or gender (as per Bruce Jenner) are any longer considered binding, who is to say who anyone else is? What is an authentic person, a person of integrity, when there is no single, stable feature to which any of us can point to prove our authenticity or integrity? A human being is whatever that human being wants to be — or so goes the logic of the day — and no one owes anyone to be faithful to any version of himself.

But the language of integrity has not really gone away. Have you noticed that all the passionate justifications for identity reassignment — like Jenner’s self-mutilation or Dolezal’s chameleon skin — are based on it? On the one hand, we are told that these people must be allowed to change to whatever they want to be because none of us has a right to say what anybody else really is: that right is reserved for the person him- or herself. But at the same time, we are soon told a second reason why they must be allowed to do as they please: because “it’s who they really are”, or that we ought not to prevent them from “being who they really ought to be”, or even that we ought to admire them for being so bravely “authentic”. Thus two incoherent things are asserted: first, that people can be whatever they want to be, and yet that when they do whatever they want they have achieved the sort of “self-finding” that deserves our support or even our admiration.

You just can’t have it both ways.

The Facebook Self

Now, interestingly, Mark Zuckerberg has thrown his hat into the ring on this issue. That’s right: the inventor of Facebook. He now thinks he knows something about genuine selfhood: “You have one identity”, says he. “The days of you having a different image for your friends or co-workers and for the other people you know are probably coming to an end pretty quickly.” In fact, he continues, “Having two identities for yourself is an example of a lack of integrity.”

I suppose he has in mind the “integrity” of the Facebook page. No doubt it serves his personal and financial interests to have people now believe that that one “face” is something important and stable, something to which they should have deep and lasting personal commitment. But someone should point out to Zuckerberg how his little toy actually gets used. It’s not some sort of truthful catalog of one’s real personality, but rather a tightly edited composition of a “self” one wishes to present to the outside world. At best, it’s an overly-sunny portrayal of all one’s best qualities and experiences. (Ask yourself how many people include their great personal faults or embarrassing mistakes in their Facebook profile, or how many put up pictures of their most shocking moral failings.)

At worst, Facebook is just a plaything for people “trying out” identities that were never really theirs in the first place. That is, in fact, what my students assure me they use it for: not for honest self-revelation, but a public stage for the trying out of new identities they’re toying around with taking on. They tell me that they very often cannot even recognize their own friends in their Facebook portrayals. That’s pretty telling.

After all, it is just a face book. And in this world, “faces” are more often false than true.

Prototypical Selfhood

So what is a real person nowadays? Who has integrity? Do I owe myself (or God) to be anyone in particular, or is it all now a matter of choice? And if it’s that, how do I make good choices if there are no guidelines as to what constitutes a good choice?

The world may not know: but we have an advantage that they do not. We can look to the example of the perfect Man to tell us whether a “self” ought to be a stable core or a mere composite of transient roles. So how did Christ comport himself during his stay on earth, and what did he say of the nature of his identity?

What we find when we ask this question is this: he always knew exactly where he came from and where he was going to. And from the womb to ascension, he knew exactly what his central role was to be. At every phase of his life, he was perfectly himself, perfectly what Robert Bolt famously called “a man for all seasons”: the weather around him might change, but he never did. Even his childhood was uniformly marked by service to the will of God. He was the perfect “man of integrity” we have always been wondering if we ourselves should be.

Authentic Us

And we should be. For like him, we have but one mission: that as the Father sent him, so we should be sent. And because he has told us, we should know from where we have come, and to where we are going. In between, we know what sort of character he requires of us. The difficulty for us is not in knowing what we ought to be: it’s in being it. Yet we have his Spirit to help us in our weakness, and his power to support us in the doing of the Father’s will. So we too know what we are and what we should be: we ought to walk with the integrity and authenticity with which he walked. We are at core not a bunch of unspecified roles, nor a core of self-will, the world’s “self-made man”: we are integrated, defined selves destined to become what he made us to become.

Our goal, then, is not to be “authentic” merely to some concept of ourselves that we choose, nor to be “authentic” as the world understands authenticity, but in each particular situation of our lives, to become essentially “Christ doing that”. We are members of the body of which he is the Head. And as he is, so are we in this world.

The (Post)modern Problem

The reason we cannot “find ourselves” today is that we are simply looking in the wrong place. Some of us are looking to the world, looking to the expectations of those outside of us, or sorting among the various transient roles we play in life, hoping to find, somewhere in the middle of that tangle, some kind of identity. Conversely, others of us are looking inward to our empty hearts, searching there for some answer to the question of who we are now and who we ought to become. But in neither place are we finding a stable answer.

Yes, we are called to be authentic. But authenticity is only possible when we shed our natural desire to define that for ourselves, and instead ask our Creator what we were created to be, then call upon him to transform us from what we were born into what he always intended us to become. Paradoxically, when we give up the independent search for the “self”, we find all the fulfillment, all the sense of authentic life (what the world has called “self-actualization”) that we could ever want.

At the end of the day, the way we “find ourselves” is by our relationship to God through his Son. The emptiness and sense of inauthenticity that the world is experiencing is a product of its being lost — of it being populated by those who now have no view of their true distance from the Creator, who have no map or direction for growth, and who have no power to do anything about it. Yet it is easy for a Christian who is living in this world to absorb this attitude “through the skin”, so to speak, if not consciously; and thus to become just as bewildered, unanchored and confused about how to “find himself” as the world is.

But there is no need for this, and no good reason for it. We have all we need for life and godliness through our progressive knowledge of the Son of God. By knowing Christ, we locate ourselves in relation to God; and in growing to know him more, we become more authentically ourselves … for this was always the purpose of our design, and it is the ultimate location of our destiny.

If today’s Christians remain at all confused about how to be authentic, how to discover personal integrity, or how to find out who they really are, there can only really be one question: Are you growing in knowing Jesus Christ?

For genuine human selfhood is not a property that can be discovered in isolation; it is a relational property, one produced by the dynamics of one’s living connection with the Son. What we need to do, then, is spend less time searching our own souls, and no time at all searching the world for answers; and instead, to enter more deeply into our relationship with Christ.

That’s how we find ourselves.

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