Self-help, self-improvement, self-actualization, self-worth, Self Magazine, self-love. There is even a Self-Help Credit Union and books about self-massage. And don’t even get started on seminars and classes one can take for any of these endeavors. Oprah, Deepak, Covey, Maxwell, Robbins, Dr. Phil and a plethora of others make a fortune every year from our need to “find ourselves” . . . as if you cannot look in a mirror and say, “Oh, there I am.”
The first thing to recognize about the “self” phenomenon that began in the 1970s is this foolish idea that we need “to learn to love ourselves.” That’s as absurd as “trying to figure out if I am a man or woman.” Hey, follow the “science” and look in your pants. This is like trying to figure out if the sun is bright or if rain is wet. The sun IS bright by its nature; by the way it was created and what it was created to be. The rain IS wet because it is made of water, and by definition you cannot use water in “dry-cleaning;” otherwise the cleaning would be wet-cleaning.
Just as the sun is bright and rain is wet, we love ourselves. This first principle is in Ephesians 5:29. You can no more hate yourself than the rain can be dry. So how do we understand negative thoughts and self-deprecation we often encounter? We are always of two minds, and the “self-love” gurus never seem to understand this.
If the Bible is correct, and I would (and do) stake my life on it, we need to reorient our thinking to correctly assess what we understand to be self-hate. I love myself, but sometimes I do things that I know are not good for me or others. (See Romans 7:15-20.) And the more I love myself AND understand that the thing I do is not good for me, the more I will hate what I do. Too much of our pop psychology from the 1960s on to the present time misreads this spite for what I do as spite for my self, demonstrating a lack of critical analysis skills. It also shows a significant misconstruction of the human mind. Many professional psychiatrists and psychologists now have been fed lies about self-hate and graduated with this misunderstanding.
The social and cultural revolution that occurred in the 1960s carried over into the 70s with what Tom Wolfe called the “Me Generation” that was focused on examining our own belly buttons to the point that we lost sight of what it was to be a person. And it has not become any better for newer generations. Stare at the sun long enough and you will not see it anymore. Stare at your own reflection in a mirror and you will lose sight of what really matters . . . for yourself and for others.
The saddest part of this is that some of the “self-help” stuff is right. If you read some blogs or scan the web about self-love, there are some excellent guidelines for caring for others or living at peace, eating better food or disavowing racism. Do these things and, yes, you will find yourself happier, more fulfilled and living healthier and better than ever. But the question comes, is being happy the ultimate goal of my life? “People who are entirely wrapped up in themselves make pretty small packages.” (Harry Emerson Fosdick, 1942)
The key consideration is motive. Why do we do the things we do? The Son of Man did not come to do His own will, but the will of His Father who had sent Him. (John 6:38) God does not look on outward appearances as we do (1 Samuel 16:7), but looks at our motives. When I indulge in self-help because it is good for ME, my motive is sinful, even if the action is good. Even action that is self-sacrificial or self-deprecating is nothing more than banging a gong if the motive is only for me. (1 Corinthians 13:1-3) Even writing a brilliant blog (🙄) is of no value to the Kingdom of God if all I want is more followers and accolades of readers.
Separating our “selves” from what we do is almost impossible for us. The concept is easy enough to understand: consider when you look at a beautiful painting or the Grand Canyon; when you smell a delicious New England Boiled Dinner about ready to be served; when you feel the warmth of a loving embrace; when you hear a philharmonic orchestra play a Beethoven symphony perfectly. In all of these occasions we are somehow transported “out of ourselves” to a point of delight without focus on us. Ideally, this is how we should live! Not as a Buddhist in “absorption into the infinite” nor in a state of impersonal nirvana, and certainly not with a focus on how much “I enjoy” this.
Rather, there is a position of satisfaction in savoring something without “self-consciousness.” It is not a place of hating oneself or of putting oneself down; nor is it a place of exalting oneself, of loving and caring for yourself over concern for others. It is simply NOT thinking about yourself.
There is also a place of discomfort where we are concerned for someone else, worried for another’s well-being, hopeful for something for someone besides ourselves. This is also a field of UN-self-consiousness.
So where does that leave us? Always coming before the Creator with humility and repentance for being less than He created us to be. C.S. Lewis commented somewhere that we are either repenting of a sin, contemplating a sin, or committing a sin, this being our constant habit. It would seem rather dismal except that whenever we are in that place of repentance, God lifts us out of our “selves” and gives us joy for the moments that we are UN-self-conscious. And this comes because of His grace to us, His unmerited favor that the Holy God of the universe lavishes on us who are so unholy.
So give up reading on “how to be happy,” forget about “finding yourself,” or “realizing your potential.” No need to “Run The World.” Most of all, lose any misconception about a need to love yourself more or more perfectly. You can no more improve on your love for yourself than you can make rain any wetter.
Instead focus on Him, on His Presence, on His purposes. Learn to know Him, not as an abstract idea or philosophy, but know Him as a person. Granted, an infinite and undefinable person, but He is here and He is not silent. It is NOT all about me . . . or you.