Last week, I wrote about discovering who you are and living authentically. After coming across the New York Times Magazine article “How ‘You Do You’ Perfectly Captures Our Narcissistic Culture,” I realized that advice like “Be yourself” and “You do you” can indeed encourage a very self-centered and selfish outlook on life, especially for the growing number of people who remain religiously unaffiliated. The Times article poses this question: “What if…your you is not so good?” Hmmm. Good point.
So let me hasten to add that the search for our authentic selves should never be separated from God’s moral and spiritual Truth. I said in my last post that we can pray to the Holy Spirit for more self-awareness. I should’ve said — more assertively — that this is an essential component of the process.
The short book Becoming Who You Are: Insights on the True Self from Thomas Merton and Other Saints by Jesuit priest Fr. James Martin, S.J., can help us understand how to ground our quest for self-discovery in spiritual exercise. Fr. Martin says that the most important spiritual insight he has encountered is the concept of the “true self” described by Trappist monk and author Thomas Merton. The true self, Merton believed, is “the person we are before God and the person we are meant to be.”
Finding this true self requires confronting the “false self.” Fr. Martin describes his own false self as “this persona, this other self, which I thought would be pleasing to everyone: to my family, my friends, my professors.” This false self is “who we think we are,” and it can be far away from our true desires. Fr. Martin’s false self led him, as a young man, to a career in business and a job at General Electric, where he would sit at his desk and write “I hate my life” over and over again. More years would pass him by before he realized that he was spending his life creating and feeding a life he didn’t want.
Most of us probably have our own version of that story. Trying to be someone I wasn’t, I, too, have taken quite a few wrong turns in life — wrong jobs, wrong relationships, wrong spiritual paths, wrong goals, and so on. At age 53, I believe I’ve finally gotten them all aligned with the real me. It took a while.
Fr. Martin says that, eventually, he too was able to let go of his need to be someone else. He realized that God just wanted him to be himself. God wanted him to value and use the gifts and talents he’d been given. And once we find and embrace our true selves, we can never go back to our old superficial ways of life.
Dr. Parker Palmer put it this way: one of the most fundamental decisions a human being can make is the decision to live “divided no more.” This choice, said Palmer, is “to no longer act differently on the outside than one knows one’s truth to be on the inside.” I would add that it also means not dividing spiritual Truth from the rest of our lives.
It takes courage to live like that, but, as usual, Jesus is our role model. According to Fr. Martin, “The life of Christ is…a metaphor for the Christian journey to the true self. All of us are called to meditate deeply on our own true selves, to embrace the reality of our vocations, and to let God transform our true selves into sources of new life for others.”