I read this article the other day from a prominent Christian author who, within a span of a few months, had divorced her husband, come out as a lesbian and had her partner move into her home with her children. I’ve done a lot of studying on the issue of homosexuality and Christianity, but it’s not the issue I really want to write about.
What was most interesting to me was her strong rhetoric about being 'your true self', which is what she feels she is doing. There was so much positive encouragement for her on social media, as this was the brave thing to do in the eyes of her readers, and it was. But that was what intrigued me, unrelated to her sexual orientation I was most interested in the bravery theme. I haven't got the foggiest idea what it must be like to be this woman so I'm not making a value judgement about her choices - you do you - ya know? But it's always interesting to review our culture's narrative and direction.
I find this 'be your true self' language to be very interesting. It is very clearly culture’s soundtrack right now and there are elements in this way of thinking that can be truly liberating for people. The pendulum is swinging from the days of suppression, of keep calm and carry on, of immovable moral and behavioral structures, to something meant to be more honest. So, now we are in a time where the highest thing we can do is be true to who we are.
I see why culture prizes the true self and I applaud those who have made difficult counter-cultural decisions to be honest. I suppose it’s an issue of defining terms though. If we actually mean our 'true selves', the truest thing about us is the person we are meant to form and grow into, it is our best self. But my suspicion is that when people say, “true self” what they mean is, "do what feels right," the phrases have become almost interchangeable.
With the latter understanding of the phrase as "do what feels right," it is interesting to me how powerful this message is in religious communities. I generally think that doing what feels right is rather simple to do. Most of the time it’s not brave, it’s easy. And although bravery is really important, especially when instilled in children to combat all those school age expectations, but it has to be lived out in tension with other values. From my understanding of Christianity there is a belief that we are broken and made for more, if so, then I think what we should be striving for is our best self. Of course there is grace for the fact that we'll never truly arrive, and we need to be sure that our best self is formed from true heart change and not suppression and behavior modification, but I think we should all be aiming for something better, not the depravity of our basic being.
I would imagine this 'true self' grows out of our therapeutic culture that bases all understanding of the self on feelings. They are the dominant theme of talk therapy. This is my field, but I was trained to think differently and after years of experience I agree with my professors. When feelings drive decision-making we can value the easy choice over the discerning choice, our desires over true wisdom, and often times the self over the other. This isn’t to say emotions don’t matter and that sometimes they lead us to the right decision, they do. We need to understand our emotions, recognize them, utilize and listen to them, sometimes set them aside and sometimes work to adjust them. But that’s just the point, we can’t always take our emotions at face value as being true wisdom, they very rarely are.
My sister and I were talking about her parenting the other day. She teaches her kids to have self-control over their emotions. We talked about the balance of suppression and self-control and how we can teach children to understand their emotions and yet not be solely driven by them. We can teach them self-efficacy and to embrace who they are even when it doesn’t fit the cultural square, and yet to teach them to be truly good we teach them how to change, we teach them to do what is right not just what feels right.
I’m reading the book Bringing up Bebe by Pamela Druckerman right now. Druckerman is a journalist who moved to Paris with her husband and later had children there. After living in the country for so long she has been able to make some interesting distinctions between common parenting themes in America vs. France. It’s a great book, but what I found most interesting was how few French women she interviewed were able to articulate why they parent the way they do, even though they all carry the same strong themes. I gather that this is the case because it's very difficult to critique the culture we are immersed in. When we’re outsiders or foreigners themes are so clear, and yet when we’re within, our norms are unseen like the blue of the sky. It’s good for us to review the background noise sometimes, if for nothing but to stop and listen to what we are hearing.