True to One’s Self?

Two weekends ago, I was on vacation in Colorado. More specifically, I was at the Planet Bluegrass Folks Festival. It was a beautiful end to a restful week in my home state. Good food, good beer, good music, good friends and family. And, during the lazy afternoons at the music festival, time to read a good book.

One of the two books I brought along on vacation was Peace Be With You: Monastic Wisdom for a Terror-Filled World. David Carlson, the author, shares throughout the book stories of visits he made to Christian monasteries in America, interviewing monks and nuns and see how they responded to September 11th. Carlson was searching for, and found, examples of more Christlike responses to 9/11 than were ever heard in the American media in the wake of the attack. I’ll save the message on loving our enemies for later. For now I’m concerned about one particular quote from one of the visits (which, incidentally, was with an artist, and not a monk).

Sitting in the afternoon sun at the Folks Festival, I read about Carlson’s encounter with Richard Bresnahan, a potter who was then working in a studio at the Benedictine affiliated St. John’s College in Minnesota.  Recalling Bresnahan’s comments on the American lifestyle, Carlson wrote:

As evidence of our falsity, he cited the modern preoccupation of being “true to one’s self,” a goal far different from the traditional understanding of integrity.  “If you’re going to be ‘true to yourself.’ that’s that hollow voice yelling in a soundless cave. If you’re going to be true to others, your self is understood.” For Bresnahan, integrity is not being loyal to one’s own narcissistic whims, but being loyal to that which brings balance to human community life. (pp. 192-193)

I was struck by Bresnahan’s insight that integrity is about being faithful to others, not being “true to one’s self.” Though the book doesn’t portrays his religious views as explicitly Christian, Bresnahan was articulating a fundamental Christian truth. Our selves are frankly deceitful. As the Biblical prophet Jeremiah says, “The heart is more deceitful than all else, and is desperately sick; who can understand it? (Jeremiah 17:9 NASB). Because we’re naturally given to self-interest and self-preservation, being “true to ourselves” may just be a euphemism for “being selfish.” If this deceitful heart is the “self” to which we should be true, how will we ever survive the fickleness of our emotions?

How should our “self” is defined: in an individualistic way, or in terms of social relationships?  Should I, as Chris, seek to be “true to Chris”? That sounds vague because it is vague.  It gives no way to determine what integrity looks like apart from a general appeal to my own feelings. A better way of defining who I am is through my commitments to others: I should be true to who I am as a husband, a (soon-to-be) father, a pastor, a writer, a friend, a son, etc. That gives concrete meaning to what integrity should look like in my life. And it means that a faithful search for integrity should include a healthy measure of self-doubt, humility, and willingness to submit to those to whom I’m committed. When our vision of integrity is about being true to our own subjective definitions of our selves, we’re little more than slaves to our own desires. But if our “self” is defined by virtue of our real relationships to others, and the gifts we’ve been given for the sake of loving and serving others, then being true to our selves is the same as being true to others.

But too often in our culture, being true to one’s self is reduced to obedience to one’s own emotions or desires. Back at the Folks Festival, later that night, I heard a different message through the loudspeakers at the festival.  Lyle Lovett was singing “Isn’t That So”, a song whose chorus goes, “Isn’t that so / Tell me, isn’t that so / You got to go when your heart says go / Isn’t that so.”  I enjoy listening to Lyle, but I get sad when the song says “Let that line of least resistance lead me on.”  The line of least resistance is usually the line which tells us to follow our own fleshly desires. And those desires are exactly what the song calls us to indulge: “Well, he [God] knew what he was doin’ / When he put eyes into my head / If he didn’t want me to lookin’ at them pretty little women / He’d’a left my ol’ eyeballs dead.”

Yes, God gave us the gifts of beauty and the sight to apprehend beauty. But to turn recognition of such gifts into a theological justification of lust is the sort of demonic distortion of the good which lies behind all sin. Jesus, who knew what He was doing in giving sight to the blind, had different words to say about the promiscuity of our eyes: “Everyone who looks at a woman with lust for her has already committed adultery with her in his heart. If your right eye causes you to stumble, tear it out and throw it from you; for it is better for you to lose one of the parts of your body than for your whole body to be thrown into hell” (Matthew 5:28-29). I do not hear Jesus calling us to “go when our hearts say go.” But I do hear Jesus calling us to a radical commitment to integrity, defined not by our own whims, but by submission to His Lordship and fidelity to the relationships in which He’s placed us.  “The gate is small and the way is narrow that leads to life, and there are few who find it” (Matthew 7:14).

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