The Genesee Diary: Our sense of self

The self. Self-esteem. We hear a lot about it in various forms of media. Society tells us that everyone should feel special, unique and loved. Yet, there is so much in society that drags us down.

In order to have a good sense of self, according to the world's standards, we must have the right things, wear the right clothes, have cool shoes, surround ourselves with the right people, say what is politically correct, be thin, be athletic, have a tan, be gorgeous, have a designer home, et cetera, et cetera, et cetera.

If you do not have all of those things, you are a loser plain and simple, with a capital "L".

Here is another pressure expressed in society:

"Don't live down to expectations.Go out there and do something remarkable."

~Wendy Wasserstein, American playwright

Everyone is taught nowadays that they must not only be unique, well-spoken, materially supplied, dressed right and popular, but we must also do something remarkable. If you are not doing something remarkable, something that will make you well known and popular, you are a loser with a capital "L" and you are throwing your life away. You are a waste of oxygen. You are one of the faceless minions who depend on all of the other people who are doing something remarkable.

There is nothing wrong with setting high, but realistic, goals for ourselves. There is nothing wrong with having a healthy view of ourselves either. What we need to do is ask ourselves, however, is why we do what we do. Is it for God's glory or mine? Am I doing something to fulfill a deep need within myself? Am I filling empty space inside myself? Am I doing it for approval? Am I trying to measure up to the world's standard of winning? Who wants to be a loser with a capital "L"?

During his time in a Trappist monastery, Henri Nouwen wrote down his thoughts. They are published in "The Genesee Diary." In his diary, Nouwen admitted to having evil thoughts and feelings of loneliness. He also struggled with the desire for approval and his vision of himself. The abbot of the monastery, John Eudes, advised Nouwen to "explore the wounds, to pay attention to the feelings, which are often embarrassing and shameful, and follow them to their roots."

"In the contemplative life every conflict, inner or outer, small or large, can be seen as the tip of an iceberg, the expressive part of something deeper and larger. It is worthwhile, even necessary, to explore that which is underneath the surface of our daily actions, thoughts, and feelings," Nouwen wrote.

"He (Eudes) keeps telling me not to push away disturbing daydreams or hostile meanderings of the mind but to allow them to exist and explore them with care. Do not panic, do not start running but take a careful look,"  Nouwen wrote. This is part of what is called discernment of spirits and it is something that every Christian must do in his or her life if he or she is to grow in Christ.

We must ask ourselves ... "Why do I do what I do?"

The closer you get to Christ, the more time you spend in silence and meditation, the more sensitive you become to the Holy Spirit's voice whispering deep within your soul. Recently, I felt some anxiety over a sudden decision I had made. I usually do not like to make sudden decisions, but at the time I felt like it was necessary and prompted by the Holy Spirit. I felt like I was to obey immediately. So why was there such anxiety afterward? 

After thinking and praying about it, I realized that I longed for approval from people. I yearned for popularity and 'fame.'  I wanted people to think that I was doing something remarkable. Something within tells me that if I were truly a successful person I would have written a book by now; that my Etsy store would be wildly popular, that people would seek me out to spend time with me. I finally recognized this as a voice ingrained within me by the culture. My sinful self - or carnal nature, as we Nazarenes are fond of saying - lapped up the world's definition of self-worth. My spiritual side was experiencing conflict. 

The conflict is good. If there is conflict that means that the Lord is working. Perhaps now I will learn what the Lord's idea of success is for me and run with it. 

"The spiritual life does not consist of any special thoughts, ideas, or feelings  but is contained in the most simple ordinary experiences of everyday living," wrote Nouwen. 

I'll close with this thought from Nouwen that I received in an e-mail from the Henri Nouwen Society: 

The great paradox of life is that those who lose their lives will gain them.  This paradox becomes visible in very ordinary situations.  If we cling to our friends, we may lose them, but when we are nonpossessive in our relationships, we will make many friends.  When fame is what we seek and desire, it often vanishes as soon as we acquire it, but when we have no need to be known, we might be remembered long after our deaths.  When we want to be in the center, we easily end up on the margins, but when we are free enough to be wherever we must be, we find ourselves often in the center. Giving away our lives for others is the greatest of all human arts.  This will gain us our lives.