a heart divided – the myth of “just be yourself”
I decide to do good, but I don’t really do it; I decide not to do bad, but then I do it anyway. My decisions, such as they are, don’t result in actions. Something has gone wrong deep within me and gets the better of me every time. (from Romans 7, The Message)
St. Paul’s confusion is ours, too. Something has gone wrong deep within. Our soul is at war – with itself. Think your wife is the issue? Think a better boss might solve the problem? What if the problem is you?
Part of me wants to relax into writing this blog. Another part of me is tense, running through the things I’ve forgotten to pack for vacation tomorrow. Still another is quietly processing returning to our home of 13 years, mulling over the best and worst memories. Yet another is tuned into the needs of people I’m seeing for counseling, as I leave for two weeks and become unavailable to care directly for them. You see what I’m driving at, right? Sorting through the wishes of all members of this “inner family” is important, and it requires time and wisdom. Without some patient self-understanding, I might just find myself living reactively out of one of these parts.
Yet, that’s often what we do, isn’t it? We live reactively out of one part of ourselves. A recent example of this might help. A woman who had been through some long-term counseling called me, inquiring about my new life in San Francisco. Having been through therapy, she declared enthusiastically, “I think I’d fit in great in San Fran. I used to be so bottled up because of my parents, but now I’m free. I feel more real than I’ve ever felt. I get pissed at people, and just tell them what I’m feeling. I do what I want to do, say what I want to say, and wear what I want to wear. It’s incredible to just be yourself.”
This woman was saying, in essence, “I’ve attained maturity. I’m myself now.” In fact, she cited the praises of her counselor, who said she was finished, and ready to let the world hear her roar. I gulped. And then I spoke.
“I’m not sure I’d agree with your counselor. Sounds to me like you’re still pretty angry,” I said.
“Yes, but I’m in touch with my anger, and able to speak it. It’s not bottled up anymore,” she responded.
“OK, that’s great. But are you your anger?”
“No, I’m me. I’m just being real.”
“No, you’re being Anger. You’ve traded one extreme part of you that you were living out of for another. You’ve switched from Bottled Up to Angry, but you’re still not living with freedom. Now you’re enslaved to another part of you.”
“But it feels so free.”
“No, it’s just a more airy jail cell.”
“So, I’ve got more work to do?” she says, with a sigh.
“Yes, you do…but it’s time to re-think what counseling is, and what you’re looking to become.”
I’m amazed at what we call freedom. Sometimes, it really ends up becoming another form of slavery. Jack made a boat load of money in the market back in the late 90’s, and told me, “Now I’ve got the means to really live my life. Before I was enslaved. Now I’m free to become everything I’ve dreamed of.” Really? In the days after finding his ‘freedom’, Jack started living out of another part that we called The Narcissist. His wife left him. He lost his family. He now longs for those earlier, simpler days when life wasn’t so complicated, and when he wasn’t so enslaved to alimony payments, boat payments, lawsuits, creepy friends, and clingy girlfriends.
But we’re not left without some sense of what ‘freedom’ really is, what being fully human (being ourselves) looks like. St. Paul goes on to talk about characteristics like patience and self-control, love and joy, peace and goodness, gentleness, faithfulness, and kindness. Too often, however, the cliche “just be yourself” manifests in a person who looks less self-controlled and gentle, and more enraged and harshly honest. It can look like the cocky arrogance of the Pharisee, or the cocky arrogance of the Prodigal. In other words, those who buy into the “just be yourself” Gospel won’t necessarily use that language, with all of its modern therapeutic nuancing. Instead, some of these people will translate it into their own dogma:
I’m a Fundamentalist!
I’m a Liberal!
I’m a Progressive!
I’m a Confessionalist!
I’m a Conservative!
I’m an Activist!
I’m an Independent!
“Just be yourself,” in other words, comes as a kind of self-justification for all kinds of things we baptize with self-certainty. Many of us seem to have figured out what “being yourself” is supposed to look like, and we’ve created all kinds of pressure for others to measure up.
Yet, I suspect only one person could ever claim to have lived authentically – just being Himself. If Jesus was and is the most fully human person, He defines Self. And His life embodied St. Paul’s characteristics of full humanity. And I suspect that with no other person in history could you ever come and feel, well, like yourself – absent pressure, absent moralistic standards, absent therapeutic maxims, absent internal conflict. Into the presence of Jesus, we can come and become…
And so, let’s end with my friend’s story. She went back to the drawing board. She started seeing a new therapist, and meeting with a trusted spiritual director, and listening a bit more to St. Paul’s designs on full humanity. She called me later, saying, “It’s like I used to find what I didn’t like about myself, and become the exact opposite…and call that ‘being-myself’. And yet, I’d become just as paralyzed. But something different is happening inside now. It’s like this inner cacaphony is becoming an inner harmony, that the voices that once competed have spoken their desires for me, but that, with Christ, I’ve set the agenda for maturity. It feels really, really good.”
More than this, the people around her could tell the difference. One friend said, “First you were repressed. And then you got really, really angry. And now, you seem to give and receive love with such freedom and abandon. It makes me want to live more fully.”
The ancient pastor St. Iranaeus once said, “The glory of God is man fully alive.” What it means to be “alive” can be confused, as we set our own agendas and define our own ‘freedom’. Yet, real freedom is mapped out on the road to Jesus took, paved with suffering, manifesting in love, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control, and unmitigated Joy. May this be the road we journey on, as well. Maybe then, as we lose the ‘selves’ constructed on our own roads, we’ll discover our-selves* on His.
(*For my theologically-interested friends…This, I think, is what Michael Gorman in his fine work on Cruciformity and Theosis is getting at.)