Three Damning Problems with Self-Assertion ~ BitterSweetLife

Thursday, March 29, 2007

Three Damning Problems with Self-Assertion

Trying Hard to Be Ourselves

When I met up with C.S. Lewis, it was almost too late. I had already spent a double-fistful of years honing a skill we call "self-assertion" on our side of the pond. But Lewis had been there and done that. He brought up the subject more or less in this way: "Be yourself? In God's name, no!" (See God in the Dock, page 286.)

To which I replied, "Well, there goes 20 years of my life. But I think you have a point."

Of course, this exchange took place long, long ago. It definitely happened before last Friday. And since then, I've continued to think about the phantom goodness of self-assertion. What I've discovered is horrifying (or it would be, if I hadn't already given my pride habit the boot).

Consider, for example: Trying hard to be yourself is an inherently self-defeating pastime--like trying hard to make a layup or trying hard to be the life of the party. Cornelius Plantinga Jr. points out, "Much of what we want in the way of happiness, wisdom, and general self-actualization cannot be gotten by trying for it (Not the Way It's Supposed to Be). Why is this so? One reason may be obvious: As the woman who has just dropped $10,000 on psychoanalysis explains, "We don't really know who we are."

Our personalities are rife with facades. We are all sincerely deluded, to varying degrees, about what we are like and how our lives should be shaped. Only God knows what it looks like for us to be ourselves.

Interestingly, personality assessments weigh in very low on God's list of priorities for humans. Rather than telling us to embark on a mystic journey of self-discovery, He orders us to love him with all of our heart, soul, mind, and strength. The foremost benefit of obedience is that we discover the inexpressible glory of Christ himself.

A side benefit,
becoming ourselves, is mentioned somewhere in the small print. In the end, we will emerge as the full-grown children of God with Christ as our older brother. But we don't get there via self-improvement. God is tricky this way. He keeps narcissists from getting what they want.

This is one reason why "self-assertion" is a bad idea. Like post players trying to be point guards, we end up asserting our imaginary selves, sometimes with disastrous results. Another obvious reason is that our true selves are not really worth asserting. Or, to put it in more hopeful and more accurate language, we do not yet have full access to our true selves, and the selves we do have are not the type of person you would want to meet in a dark alley. The presence of sin in our lives, this evil resident alien, sabotages self-assertion in at least two ways.

A) Sin ensures that the selves we eagerly push on the world are contaminated, lined with faults, delusions and biases like wormy meat. 2) Sin ensures that the parts of us we think are most worth asserting are, more than likely, the parts that we should keep to ourselves, e.g., we work hard to be confident, while in fact we're just being stuck up. Upshot: Love Jesus and be humble.

But there's one more factor to be taken into account: The origins of our pretensions concerning self-hood. Ironically, the twin brother of vain insistency is weak pretending. Both rise from the same source. We are unsure of ourselves--"unstable" or "restless," as Augustine would put it. It happens at birth and as years go by, the world does what it can to make it worse. Ultimately, the cause is spiritual, but the people and circumstances of our lives lend a helping hand. We are "not at home" down here, and it colors everything we do and say.

When we fail to habitually turn to Christ for our stability and rest, this inner awkwardness emerges in viciously divergent forms. We assert ourselves and then we trash ourselves. We put on a brash show and later, we flop in our favorite sins, desperately and weakly. We overcompensate for our insecurity. We think we are all that and we suspect we are fools. Only Christ's grace can get us out of this dilemma.

Where does this leave us? With open eyes, I hope. But God is compassionate; he doesn't intend to keep us in the dark forever. Down here, our role is to obey God, to love and enjoy him like loyal children, and these commands will guide our adventures. But there is hope for our fractured selves. One day, Christ will put us together. C.S. Lewis says it well.

Your real, new self (which is Christ's and also yours, and yours just because it is His) will not come as long as you are looking for it. It will come when you are looking for Him. Does that sound strange? ... The principle runs through all life from top to bottom. Give yourself up, and you will find your real self. Lose your life and you will save it. - Mere Christianity

We will find ourselves in the end, but not by self-assertion--which is a chancy inner game of spin the bottle. Instead, as we obey Christ more freely, we will become, with blessed effortlessness, more free to be who we are. In Heaven, there will be no need for self-assertion; we will, simply and joyously, be ourselves. On earth, it is futile and even dangerous; self-assertion is a little devil.

Flashbacks: Mystery & Personality in Heaven
The Mystery of Personality

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Tim said...

Thanks for this Ariel; I think I'll be ordering this book tonight if I get the chance.

personality assessments weigh in very low on God's list of priorities for humans.

I really like this! We live in a culture obsessed with movies and stories; I happen to be obsessed with stories too, but a danger that may come with such an obsession is that we are constantly bombarded with actors who play a part in a particular attractive way, I imagine that this "acting" is something that many people do in daily life. They may strive to put on the right persona for each situation and end up falling further and further away from who they may be in Christ.

Interestingly enough popular culture has taken an even stronger path that is contradictory to what Plantinga describes as ideal. I have in mind the recent absurd phenomenon The Secret. One of my friends just quit her job do to the company foisting Secret Agitprop on all the employees. Enough for now I suppose...

Will Robison said...

I joined the Navy to find myself, and instead I found God. Strange what you can find when you aren't looking.


Culture. Photos. Life's nagging questions. - BitterSweetLife