So, forewarning, this post is going to have relatively little to do directly with writing. I do think that the topics I want to pursue can and should have a significant impact not only on the way we write, but on what we write and why we write. However, this post is intended to directly benefit you as an individual, not your write specifically.
There is a portion of the Postmodern movement (and this term covers a broad and vaguely defined group of ideas, philosophies, movements, and cultural changes) that puts a very heavy emphasis on authenticity. Some version of the phrase, ‘be yourself’ has become common. Of course, as always happens, there has also been a strong conservative counter-movement that emphasizes duties, responsibilities, etc and argues that the ‘be yourself’ movement is essentially an excuse for selfishness. Of course, the be yourselfers respond to this counter-movement as though it were a load of hypocritical hogwash, and generally very few people actually change their minds in any substantive way. I have, for some time, been convinced that there is value in the focus on authenticity exemplified in the ‘be yourself’ movement. However, both sides of this argument come at the problem with fundamentally flawed presuppositions.
The often unstated, though it is becoming more explicit, addendum to ‘be yourself’ is ‘you’re good enough.’ The idea presented is that I should be my authentic self, whoever that is, and should be satisfied with who I am, rather than being embarrassed or ashamed of who I am. This can be evidenced in the growing number of ‘______ Pride’ campaigns. Regardless of who I am: jock, ugly, dork, beauty queen, nerd, sadomasichist, tranny, rich, homeless, gay, Christian, Muslim, Atheist, etc, I should be proud of that rather than feeling judged, unworthy, or incapable. The idea is that whatever I am, I am good enough as I am. However, this is patently false. What if the authentic me is, for example, a pedophile and a cannibal? Should we have told Jeffrey Dahmer that he was good enough as he was and really didn’t need to change? Of course not.
That being said, the opposite is equally untrue. Jeffrey Dahmer shouldn’t have pretended that he wasn’t a pedophile and a cannibal. And the simple fact is that the be yourselfers are often exactly right in their response to the counter-movement: it is fundamentally hypocritical hogwash. If I am a nerd, jock, dork, beauty queen, rich, homeless, etc then pretending that I’m not isn’t actually going to change anything. All it will do is isolate me even further from the community that I desperately need. Further, if I do face judgment, lack of acceptance and love, etc then I am even more likely to keep pretending in the hopes that something that fundamentally cannot make a difference somehow will make a difference. I will pretend to be ‘normal’ (whatever the hell that means) as I continue to become more isolated, miserable, and convinced of my own inadequacies.
Do you see the problem with each of these? The first response justifies inadequacies while the second sublimates and ignores them. Neither response actually deals with the inadequacies to make them adequate. Now, the purpose of this post is not to identify specific inadequacies that people should deal with, and so if you see something on the list above and say ‘that’s not a problem, that really is a good thing’ then my response is: YOUR MISSING THE POINT! The simple fact is that we are all inadequate. None of us is perfect, none of us is ‘good enough’ as we are. We all have weaknesses, flaws, etc. This is a simple fact of human nature. From a Christian point of view, this is a fact of human nature because of the fall. Regardless of whether you believe in a historical Adam, the fall was when sin entered the human soul.* This fall deformed the image of God that was present in man.
Imagine a man born with no arms or legs. Now imagine seriously telling him that he’s exactly the same as everyone else… he would laugh in your face. I know this because I once unwisely tried to convince a friend of mine who’d been born crippled that he was exactly the same as everyone else and he did laugh in my face. This is a claim that is obviously untrue, and the crippled man knows that. My friend was crippled, he wasn’t an idiot. He knew he had the same value as everyone else, but he also knew that he didn’t have the same capabilities as everyone else (he was confined to a wheel chair for one). Now consider: the entire human race has been born crippled. We are not what we should be. Even if you don’t subscribe to religion, it is still obviously true that people, all people, are less than perfect… generally far less.
Now, from the Christian perspective restoration of our vertical relationship (with God) requires salvation. As deformed human beings we 1) have a deformed nature that is inclined to sin, and 2) commit individual sins on a daily basis and thus we must 1) have a new nature and 2) have the debt for our sins paid. This was a part of the purpose of Christ’s sacrifice on the cross. He died for three clear reasons: 1) the goal: to glorify God, 2) the first means: to pay the debt for our sins, and 3) the second means: to give us a new nature.
Some Christians will also argue that the restoration of our horizontal relationships (with other humans, with culture, with creation) also requires salvation. There is some truth to this. If human natures are fundamentally deformed, and actually being a better person (i.e. more like God) requires the restoration of that deformed nature, then salvation is required. However, this argument can be taken to mean that being more like God is equivalent with being kinder, more compassionate, braver, etc. This, I am not convinced of. Augustine pointed out the difference between having virtues (i.e. courage, wisdom, compassion, temperance, etc) and being good (i.e. being like God) – the latter will necessarily include the former, but the former won’t necessarily include the latter. If we define being good as being like God, then being good and being virtuous aren’t necessarily the same, precisely because I can be virtuous for my own purposes (for instance, being nice to others makes me feel better about myself) that have nothing to do with glorifying or resembling God. Augustine called these ‘vicious virtues’ or ‘splendid vices.’ I happen to agree with him. Further, it should be remembered that while Christians might have a new nature, they don’t necessarily follow that nature, which means that a Christian who is able to be like God, but fails to actually be like God might be less virtuous than a pagan. You must be a Christian to renew a right relationship with God. However, you don’t need to be a Christian to be less of a rat-bastard to your neighbors. I speak from experience, because for a long time both before and after I chose to follow Christ, I was a rat-bastard to my friends and neighbors, so please don’t think that I’m simply being insulting.
So, what does this mean for you? 1) Get to know Yourself: Stop trying to hide who you are. Stop pretending to have it all together. You know you don’t, I know you don’t. Take a good, hard look at yourself and figure out who you are – the good, the bad, the ugly, and the weird. The only way to figure out what needs to change is to look at what’s there. 2) Get over yourself: I know of an addiction recovery program that speaks consistently of ‘hurts, habits, and hang-ups.’ Personally, I am not a fan of this language. I think that it is much more accurate to speak of our deformaties and deficiancies. I am deformed by my intrinsic nature (for instance, I may have a genetic predisposition for alcoholism… that is not okay). I am deformed by my enviroment (let’s face it, the world can be a sucky place sometimes and we’ve all been screwed before). And I am deformed by my own bad choices (… remember the last time you got wasted? Looked at porn? Were rude to a neighbor/friend/co-worker? …CHOICE!). Accept that you make your own decisions and that some of them (let’s be honest, probably a lot of them) are bad. Stop minimizing your flaws and justifying your wrongs. 3) Accept Yourself: The victim mindset is a killer. It’s easy for us to use the excuse: “I’m just a loser. I’ll never be worth anything. I can’t change.” That’s not true. It takes courage, endurance, hard work, and a willingness to sacrifice, but if you want to be more virtuous, you can. That doesn’t mean that you’ll change completely and be perfect, but it does mean that you’ll change. You might be a bad person, but that doesn’t mean that you can’t be a better person. Give yourself some forgiveness and some love, but also take the responsibility to acknowledge when you do something wrong and ask for forgiveness – that’s what salvation is in the Christian mindset, by the way. It begins with the simple acknowledgement that I am not what I should be in nature or in deed, and I need God’s forgiveness for my wrongs. 4) Change Yourself: identify those areas that need to change, and decide how to work on them. It isn’t going to be easy, and it isn’t going to be fast. Mengzi spent his entire life trying to be better: he said that at 70 he finally became a good man. It takes time, effort, and aid to become better, but it’s worth doing.
If we reject authenticity entirely, as some seem to want to do, then we lose any possibility for personal or moral growth. However, if we simply ‘be ourselves’ because we are inherently ‘good enough’ then we also lose any possibility for personal or moral growth. This is the problem that the ‘be yourself’ movement and its counter-movement seem to have missed. The goal isn’t to pretend to be a better person, nor is it to justify your own flaws and convince others that they are really ‘a good thing.’ The goal also isn’t to feel better about yourself. The goal is to actually be a better person. Now, it is worth saying that if you actually are a better person then you won’t have to pretend and you will feel better about yourself, so those are both nice little benefits. However, focus on the goal.
*Iraneaus argued that before the fall humans were innocent because they had no concept of good and evil, but simply acted on instinct… this is a conception of the fall that certainly fits better with modern evolutionary theory, though I don’t subscribe to it myself.