Tuesday, July 31, 2012

The Worship of Self

Many people today would teach that in order to be your "real self," in order to be "authentic," you have to pursue those things that make you unique, or that make you the most satisfied with where you are (defined as happiness, most of the time.) This philosophy has become so commonplace that it is often taken as a given. It is said that being your "authentic self" is the most important pursuit we could undertake.

But it is deceptive.

This is why there is such a disconnect of understanding between those who are spiritually religious and those who are culturally religious. (And note that I do not include those who are non-religious, because everyone has a religion of some sort, whether they realize it or not. Even the atheists. Sometimes, especially the atheists.)

There have been times in my life when I was presented with a clear choice, to be "myself" or to choose some other path. Because of this, I know that there are more important things than the pursuit of ephemeral "authenticity."

We all label ourselves. Madeline L'Engle in "A Wind in the Door" explored the concept of Naming. One of the first things that Adam did was to name. Naming gives us power over the thing named. When we name something, such as a "rose," through experience, we are given the ability to categorize different traits associated with that rose. This allows our minds to neatly file concepts, and to learn more quickly as we can draw comparisons to a group of concepts, rather than individually.

When we name ourselves, we often don't realize how much baggage we are bringing with that label. If we are "Democrat" that carries a certain expectation of beliefs, from political to personal to religious. If we are "female" that means certain things different than "male." Though we aren't limited to the category when we choose to wear a label, we are certainly affected by it, either embracing the contingent meaning or constantly fighting against the assumptions of others.

We are also affected because we begin socializing differently with others who wear the same label than we do with those who do not. Much like a decorator crab, being surrounded by people who are likeminded in one thing, but different in others, often leads us to either completely reject the label, or to gradually take on the principles of our environment with which we did not originally agree. I have seen this happen as friends of mine have labeled themselves with a political party because they see one good principle, and then gradually become more and more involved in the groupthink, usually without realizing it.

Therefore, if we look at a small part of ourselves and label it, we give it power to define other aspects of who we are. If we take a part of who we are, whether it is the color of our hair, sexuality, height, handedness, or any other intrinsic and true quality and turn it into a label, we tend to limit ourselves to the choices we perceive being associated with that label.

It goes a step farther than that. Often, we choose to accept a particular label because it gives us PERMISSION to behave in certain ways that we otherwise would not allow ourselves. For example, if I name myself a "teenager," I then buy myself cultural leeway to behave like a spoiled child, despite my ability to do better. If I tell people I have "PMS" then I allow myself to be rude to others with no apparent reason.

So then, if I take a label and do not behave according to the agree-upon standard of behavior for that label, I make enemies of those who have chosen the label to give themselves more permission to behave a certain way.

Take a controversial example in Josh Weed. He has chosen to label himself as "gay." He has also chosen to fight against the parallel baggage, and has proclaimed himself happily married to a woman. This threatens others who think of themselves as gay, because it makes them less able to excuse their choices. Now, rather than categorizing their choices under the label of "gay," and no longer having to explain or justify themselves for their choices, they are threatened by this fellow who parades in and co-opts their label.

The same pattern is seen in those members of the LDS Church who resent those Fundamentalists or those who agitate for the LDS Church to change who call themselves "Mormon." It destroys their group identity, and muddies their line of safety.

Now I'm not advocating that all labels be dispensed with. As I mentioned in the beginning, they are useful to us. They simplify our thought processes and speed our learning. But I do think we should be cautious in how we use labels, both in maintaining our own boundaries and in demanding that others change theirs. Because they are so powerful, they are also dangerous.

One of the most dangerous aspects of labeling is in how we define our "authentic self." We love to tell people that they need to "be themselves" and "be true to themselves." But how do we decide we know what or who their "true self" is? Well, by labels. We assume that because someone has accepted a particular label for one reason or other, that ALL reasons apply to them. And that is almost never true.

The authentic self is the self that can cut through labels to make choices, that can search their heart and decide what is most important to them. To someone like Josh Weed, the relationship He has built with divinity is more of a defining characteristic than his sexual orientation. That is a choice that every person who is truly spiritually religious has had to make. It might not always be sexual orientation, but it is invariably something that makes up the very foundation of who they are, and how they see themselves.

In my experiences with divinity, I have had to constantly rebuild my fundamental definition of self. I was once a girl who would not make a good mother, a young women who could do anything she put her mind to, a woman who would never give up on her husband. All of those things have been destroyed, and in the last several years, I have been rebuilding that foundation.

Hopefully more accurate to the plans of God than they were before. Hopefully, based on humility, recognition that I can't do it all, can never be perfect, and an understanding that neither can anyone else.

We should be compassionate to others of our brothers and sisters who are struggling with their labels. We should show them that they are more than the names they put upon themselves, and the names they have allowed others to put on them. We should give them room to find their own "authentic selves," to choose for themselves whether or not and to what extent God is included in that self. Because in the end, only they will have to stand before Him and make an accounting of what they have done with their lives.

In the end, the label that will matter most is "child of God."


  1. A person's potential oneness with God is limited by their psychological inauthenticity.

  2. I welcome meaningful comments, Howard, but open-ended one-sentence tropes are not welcome. Please elaborate on your intended meaning, or refrain from commenting.

  3. Sure, no trope intended. I mean the pursuit of authenticity supports and facilitates spirituality. I think this is more apparent the way I worded it above; A person's potential oneness with God is limited by their psychological inauthenticity. I worded it this way because the inverse is often less apparent to many because the path often leads to selfishness first which they reject. But if one remains on the path beyond selfishness they transcend it and one's spirituality benefits from the reduction in psychological dissonance and the increase in authenticity and autonomy which only then may be willingly laid down for God because prior to that one did not actually possess it to be able to give it up.

  4. SilverRain, I enjoyed reading your post. And I agree with you that we all struggle with these labels. It's a double-edged sword, as you suggested: labels can be very useful to us. They can also slice us in half.

  5. Ma'am. Well worded and thoughtful as always. Thanks for your wonderful blog.

  6. I totally get what you mean! I am probably one of the happiest, most well adjusted depressed people you will ever meet, but just because by body has a chemical imbalance I don't let that define or label me. Of course I could never do it without my Savior, Jesus Christ!

  7. It is always interesting to hear responses when they ask about my politics, and I respond that I am in affiliated. They generally say that it means I am an independent. I say no, Oregon allows me to vote without being attached to any party, including the Independent party. Usually it makes people very uncomfortable to have someone who is politically active, but doesn't fall into a particular "box."

    I think that the label I wear proudly is that I am a disciple of Christ. Beyond that, I see myself as someone who listens, tries to create bridges between people, and is constantly learning and growing.


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