The most commonly offered advice today from parents to children is simple, seemingly profound, and almost universally unchallenged: “Be Yourself.”
In The Road to Character, David Brooks muses on this. He highlights the recent prevalence of societal self-love doctrine:
As Ellen DeGeneres put it in a 2009 commencement address, “My advice to you is to be true to yourself and everything will be fine.” Celebrity chef Mario Batali advised graduates to follow “your own truth, expressed consistently by you.” Anna Quindlen urged another audience to have the courage to “honor your character, your intellect, your inclinations, and, yes, your soul by listening to its clean clear voice instead of following muddied messages of a timid world.” … “In her mega-selling book Eat, Pray, Love, Elizabeth Gilbert wrote that God manifested himself through “my own voice from within my own self….God dwells within you as you yourself, exactly the way you are.” (Road to Character, Brooks, pg. 7)
For many years, Americans have been converting to this doctrine of self-trust.
But it now appears the tide on this advice might be turning. Adam Grant, in perhaps my favorite article from last year, wrote a fantastic piece in the NY Times called “Unless You’re Oprah, ‘Be Yourself’ is Terrible Advice.” Grant writes:
If I can be authentic for a moment: Nobody wants to see your true self. We all have thoughts and feelings that we believe are fundamental to our lives, but that are better left unspoken.
And he concludes:
Next time people say, “just be yourself,” stop them in their tracks. No one wants to hear everything that’s in your head. They just want you to live up to what comes out of your mouth.
Grant offers examples of individuals who have conducted a dangerous social experiment – doing everything they felt they wanted to do. This included the story of an author who tried for several weeks to live a completely “authentic life,” stating everything that he felt was true of himself. This meant that he told a colleague that he would have sex with her if she were single. He told his nanny that he would ask her out on a date if his wife left him. He exposed his daughter to the harsh, cold realities about the death of pets. He told his in-laws they were boring. That author eventually conceded defeat and concluded, “Deceit makes our world go round.”
Deceit as the driving force of life not only sounds sad, but I believe it’s untrue. Personal restraint and willful deception aren’t the same animal.
From a biblical perspective, it’s certainly true that encouraging “authentic selves,” i.e. unfiltering ourselves, is like streaming pure oxygen in front of a blow torch. “The mind governed by the flesh is hostile to God; it does not submit to God’s law, nor can it do so.” (Rom. 8:7) The most basic of God’s commands is to love God above all and love your neighbor as yourself. (Matt. 22:37-39) If you encourage your natural self, you will unquestionably nurture a “me first” self that is disrespectful to God and detrimental to humanity. A Christian, by definition, cannot practice a purely “be myself” philosophy.
And, as stated, even the secular world is beginning to admit that a level of what psychologists call “self-monitoring” is necessary, beneficial, and healthy. In fact, civilization is predicated on the idea of a collective people group who are willing to compromise some amount of self for the sake of the greater communal good. So, if you’re a bit of a lead foot, don’t be yourself in heavy traffic. If you love loud music, don’t be yourself late at night in your apartment complex. If you’re kind of a bully, please, by all means, pretend to be anybody else on the playground. Just don’t be yourself. Furthermore, as Grant points out, studies seem to suggest that high self-monitors – people who are constantly scanning their environments for social cues and adapting – generally are more likely to receive promotions, higher status, and responsibility in the corporate world. We’re beginning to understand that, to some extent, we must restrain and repress the natural self.
But how do you do this without deceit? If you have an innate desire to be me-focused, but you pretend that you are, by nature, other-focused, does that not make you an inauthentic hypocrite?
Again, the biblical perspective offers tremendous resource. The solution is not to pretend to be something you’re not (hypocrisy & deception) nor to merely “be yourself” (radical authenticity & acceptance of yourself in your current state). The secret comes in recognizing that God, by grace, has accepted you as the person the Father created, the Son redeemed, and the Holy Spirit now empowers you to be. And that person is not an authentic, independent individual per se, but an important part of the body of Christ.
Here’s the kicker. To truly be in the body, to truly become alive, you MUST die to yourself. In Christianity, life only comes after death. Resurrection only comes after burial. This is not an optional part of Christianity. It’s essential. And it’s completely alien to modern western individualism. “If you try to hang on to your life, you will lose it. But if you give up your life for my sake, you will save it.” (Matt. 16:25 NLT) The path to the life that really is life does not come from embracing the natural self, but killing it.
You want authenticity? Christians should be the first in line to transparently broadcast their frailties, their weaknesses, their struggles, their regrets. And yet this doesn’t psychologically break them, because their identity doesn’t come from their self-love, but in a greater verdict – the permanent love of God himself.
What kind of stability would we possess if, like John the Baptist, we were able to say, “Lord, my only pursuit is to know you and walk with you and serve you and be closer to you. I want to lose myself in you. I want to become less and you become greater. I want to fall into you, that your light would burn brighter” (cf. John 3:30)?
Furthermore, if we recognized that we are not yet finished products this side of heaven, but children whose hearts the Holy Spirit continues to operate on, we wouldn’t insist on the world accepting us (and our shortcomings) while being cut by our rough edges. Instead, we’d humbly offer our best, apologize for our faults, and demonstrate grace at the flaws of others.
It appears as though we’ve got a generational divide that still requires gospel healing. Millennials tend to perceive Boomers as deceptive, two-faced, living for appearances and hypocritically pretending to be something they’re not. Boomers tend to perceive Millennials as little monsters “being themselves” and demanding that the world think they’re wonderful. But regardless of generation or ideology, in Christianity the proud become humbled and the lowly become emboldened, because God sees every bit of your life and yet accepts you, not because you are yourself, but because he is himself.