By John Rieping | Published 18 Sept 2014 in The Madera Tribune | All rights reserved |
“A man was meant to be doubtful about himself but undoubting about the truth: this has been exactly reversed. ... For the old humility made a man doubtful about his efforts, which might make him work harder. But the new humility makes a man doubtful about his aims, which will make him stop working altogether.”
— Journalist and author G.K. Chesterton
A strange phrase we take for granted today is that of “finding one’s self.” One would think that the “self” is the one inseparable asset one has.
I can imagine easily losing my keys, but if I truly lost my head I would expect an axe or guillotine to be involved — far from a painless loss. The “self” is no less intrinsic. So how is it one can lose it?
A lazy glance at the Oxford American Dictionary reveals the self as “a person’s essential being that distinguishes them from others.” In other words, it is the core of one’s human nature as a unique person. As such, it clearly isn’t something we lose so much as forget or contradict.
In this, and other ways, our heart becomes a battlefield in which our very life is at stake. Can there be a more intimate war than one waged within?
In ancient times, I suspect, two popular strategies for “winning” this war dominated. One looked within or at humanity. The other turned to an ideal, divinity, or belief deemed greater than the self. Both have merits.
The human-centered methods of self-reflection or social discovery both help one to locate the self.
By introspection, we open our eyes to what feelings and thoughts drive our action and inaction. Once exposed, they find it harder to ambush us and lead us astray. With sustained effort, we may even learn to somewhat tame these otherwise wild horses within.
By social interactions, we reveal by our behavior many truths about ourselves that may not match our self-image. Virtues and vices cannot hide in the light. If we prefer the dark and so stubbornly close our eyes to them, then the hard consequences of some of our acts may yet reach us.
In contrast, the god-centered methods of devotion to a higher purpose or power can aid one in transcending or uplifting the self. After all, why focus on the self only to be limited to it like a prison? Instead the self becomes not the destination but the start of a personal quest. Through self-sacrifice and discipline, some claim to find enlightenment, fulfillment, tranquility, divinization, or an escape from the tyranny of the self. By losing one’s self in such ways, some paradoxically find it.
These human and god centered methods of finding the self are often kept separate, and even in opposition, to each other. Hence we may see philosophy at odds with theology, science vs. religion, pragmatism against idealism, and so on.
This is not ultimately the position of Christianity however. Nor could it be. A central claim of this oddball religion is that the one God and creator of all chose to also become a genuine man of a particular time and place. By doing so, Christians claim, he showed to us both God and a perfect human.
As a result, the Christian way of finding one’s self is simultaneously human and god centered. Within, around, and above should be the focus of believers, Christianity claims, and without all three we will be lacking (1 John 4:20).
The incarnation of God as a man, as believed by Christians, was not only to present an example or teacher however. The God-man also came as a perfect sacrifice to satisfy the demands of justice for each of us so that humanity could receive the offer of forgiveness, healing, and a glorious life after death. To sum it up in one word: mercy.
I think then we will never find ourselves without it.
“The quality of mercy is not strain’d. / It droppeth as the gentle rain from heaven / upon the place beneath. It is twice blest: / It blesseth him that gives, and him that takes... / It is enthroned in the heart of kings; / It is an attribute to God himself; / And earthly power does then show like God’s / When mercy seasons justice.” (William Shakespeare, “The Quality of Mercy”)