So far, this series on vocation has focused exclusively on general vocation, the things we are all called to do and be in the world by virtue of our shared humanity. We’ve seen that this human vocation is a birthright but also something we need to grow into. But there’s a paradox at work here: The more we grow into this shared human vocation — which is to become like God as revealed in the man Jesus for the life of the world — the more we simultaneously become more truly ourselves, more authentically differentiated from those around us. As Howard Thurman put it, “The religious experience … seems to swing wide the door, not merely into Life but into lives” (The Luminous Darkness, 111). We are all called to incarnate the image of God according to which we were made, but we incarnate that one image uniquely, according to our historical, social, and economic contexts, genetics, abilities, and interests.
In a world that loves its champions and heroes, it’s easy to see in such ‘great’ individuals an image of what we might want for ourselves, or what we should want for ourselves. But that’s a dangerous road. I am not Rosa Parks, nor am I James Baldwin, or Lester B. Pearson or Jürgen Moltmann. As much as I may respect the lives they lived, their accomplishments, and the values from within which they operated, those are their lives, not mine. And I would make a tremendous mistake if I confused their vocations for my own. As Nicholas Pearce has put it,
The blessing of having role models living out their calling is that you see it can be done. But at the same time, the danger of seeing role models living our their calling is that you want to emulate what they’re doing instead of emulating their relentless pursuit of their calling. The danger lies in wanting to run someone else’s race. (The Purpose Path)
The same issue can come into play when we come up against strong family expectations; as much as our parents may want us to be ‘chips off the old block’, we aren’t going to be called to replicate their lives. The acorn may not fall far from the tree, but it still needs to grow up and become its own tree. The point is, when we authentically grow in life and faith, we will grow up into ourselves and no one else. As the eighteenth-century figure known as Rabbi Zusya put it: “In the coming world, they will not ask me: `Why were you not Moses?’ They will ask me: Why were you not Zusya?”‘ The call of God is not to be something other than who we are, but to grow into our fullest, most authentic selves.
Because of this aspect of calling, I am convinced that true holiness and healing opens us up and frees us to be more fully ourselves, the ‘self’ we are deep down, beneath all the facades, ‘shoulds’, conformity, people-pleasing, and fear that get in our way and keep us from being less than we were created to be. While this has not been a big part of traditional Christian spirituality, over the past century, it has been becoming increasingly common. Detractors say this is simply Christian spirituality being co-opted by our culture’s hyper-focus on the individual, but I believe it’s more about Christian spirituality coming to terms with human personhood healthily within our broader cultural focus on individuality. To put it another way, if the Christian tradition was at a ‘0’ when it comes to the human person and our society is at a ‘100’, what recent spirituality has tried to do is find the healthy sweet spot in between. And as the discussion below will demonstrate, it has done this in full alignment with secular research into healthy human growth and development.
This idea that holiness does not negate the self but frees it was popularized by the mid-century monastic writer Thomas Merton, whose book New Seeds of Contemplation explored a balanced theory of the true and false self that is well worth considering. Merton affirmed that each created thing finds its perfection not merely in how well it conforms to “an abstract type” (e.g., ‘oakness,’ ‘doghood,’ or ‘humanity’) but primarily in “its own individual identity with itself” (29). The barrier to this communion with oneself and God is the ‘false self’, through which “we alienate ourselves from reality and from God,” and “turn our relationship to [things and people] into a corrupt and sinful relationship” (21). And so the journey to right relationships involves “finding out who I am” (31): “Our vocation is not simply to be, but to work together with God in the creation of our own life, our own identity, our own destiny” (32). The process of becoming more and more united to God in Christ reveals our true self (41).
Over the past half-century, this idea has been taken up and developed by spiritual writers across a wide spectrum of Christian perspectives. Ignatian writer Wilkie Au notes that ideas of God that reject human personal development have more in common with Zeus, who punished Prometheus for giving humanity fire, than it does with the God revealed in Jesus, and insists that “we must develop images of God that accentuate the loving generosity of a personal God who not only gifts people with life, but is ever present as a support for the development of that life” (By Way of the Heart, 64f). Likewise, Quaker writer Parker Palmer writes:
Discovering vocation does not mean scrambling toward some prize just beyond my reach but accepting the treasure of true self I already possess. Vocation does not come from a voice ‘out there’ calling me to become something I am not. It comes from a voice ‘in here’ calling me to be the person I was born to be, to fulfill the original selfhood given me at birth by God.” (Let Your Life Speak)
Episcopalian (Anglican) Bishop Michael Curry similarly notes: “The call of God, the love that bids us welcome, is always a call to become the true you” (Love is the Way). And the Christian psychologist David G. Benner adds:
God meets us in our individuality because God wants to fulfill that individuality. God wants us to follow and serve in and through that individuality. God doesn’t seek to annihilate our uniqueness as we follow Christ. Rather, Christ-following leads us to our truest self. (The Gift of Being Yourself)
Either way, I am far from alone in suggesting that authentic Christian growth is simultaneously a growth into Christlikeness and a growth into our true selves. God doesn’t want us to be small and insignificant; after all, God created us to bear God’s own image and likeness in and for the world! For this reason, Thomas Keating, a Trappist monk and a major force in the recovery of contemplative prayer in Western Christianity, defined the true self as: “The image of God in which every human being is created; our participation in the divine life manifested in our uniqueness” (An Invitation to Love, 148).
Parker Palmer likewise roots the call to be ourselves in the nature of God:
This is the God who, when asked by Moses for a name, responded, “I Am who I Am” (Exodus 3:14), an answer that has less to do with the moral rules for which Moses made God famous than with elemental “isness” and selfhood. If, as I believe, we are all made in God’s image, we could all give the same answer when asked who we are: “I Am who I Am.” One dwells with God by being faithful to one’s nature. (Parker Palmer, Let Your Life Speak)
I can’t help but think again of Jesus here. More than any other figure, to my mind, he embodied this “elemental ‘isness’ and selfhood.” He knew exactly who he was and what the implications of that were, and he was not about to let anyone get in the way of living out his vocation as fully as possible. He was who he was. I see the same type of confident personhood at play in so many of the great saints of history, from St. Maximus the Confessor, Julian of Norwich and St. Francis of Assisi in the Middle Ages, to St. Elisabeth the New Martyr, to Martin Luther King, Jr. and Oscar Romero in the last century. Those who truly follow the way of Jesus always know who they are.
But, for most of us, this aspect of vocation is the work of a lifetime. Why is it so hard? Why does a ‘false self ‘emerge at all? To put it bluntly, because of sin. We are born and raised in a world that is rarely safe, as angry people lash out and the greedy plunder, as families and communities tell us our belonging is dependent on ‘fitting in’, and even as those who love us try to shelter and protect us from harm. All of these experiences deform us, causing us to build facades and walls, to make ourselves small in order to fit in, and express ourselves inauthentically. David Benner lists the following characteristics of the false self:
- Security and significance are achieved by what we have, what we can do, and what others think of us
- Happiness is sought in unhealthy attachment to people or things
- Identity is achieved by means of pretense and practice and maintained by effort and control
- We embrace illusion. (The Gift of Being Yourself)
By contrast, in authentic selfhood:
- Security and significance exist by virtue of being deeply loved by God
- Fulfillment is found in surrender to God and living our vocation
- Identity is who we are — and are becoming — in Christ, and is received as a gift with gratitude and maintained by grace
- We embrace reality as the place of meeting and being transformed by God.
In some ways, the story of Jesus’s standoff with the devil in the wilderness is a great example of the battle between the false and true self. Each of the three temptations — the temptation to make food for himself, to test God’s care for him by throwing himself off a building, and to become king of the world’s nations — was a twisting of the true self and therefore an appeal to the false self. He had just been confirmed in his identity as God’s Son and now the implications of that identity are put to the test. As I’ve previously noted about this:
Jesus sees through these temptations, knowing that, as the maxim from depth psychology would have it, “It’s not about what it’s about.” It’s not really a question of bread, but a question of trust. It’s not really a question of demonstrating God’s care, but a question of entitlement. It’s not really a question of ruling (for he is the King anyway), but of the nature of his Kingdom.
But such talk about being one’s authentic self is often suspect in Christianity, for our tradition has a healthy respect for our tendency towards delusion, self-justification, and ego-driven self-aggrandizement. But such things are not the purview of the authentic self we’re talking about. Again quoting Palmer:
This is not the ego self that wants to inflate us (or deflate us, another form of self-distortion), not the intellectual self that wants to hover above the mess of life in clear but ungrounded ideas, not the ethical self that wants to live by some abstract moral code. It is the self planted in us by the God who made us in God’s own image-the self that wants nothing more, or less, than for us to be who we were created to be. (Let Your Life Speak)
Because we’re talking about healthy personality development here, we find ourselves in the realm of developmental and depth psychology. These are worth looking at, because even in these secular disciplines, the common Christian caricature of growth of the ‘self’ as inherently egotistical and selfish is shown to be inaccurate.
In developmental psychology, ‘coming to true self’ is called self-actualization, a term coined by Abraham Maslow. He noted four major characteristics of self-actualizing people:
- Self-knowledge, self-awareness, and self-acceptance
- Ongoing pursuit of potentials, capacities, and talents
- Trend towards integration within the person, and
- Guided by a sense of personal vocation and mission.
This is far from the selfish stereotypes many Christians like to throw around about it! Self-actualization has less to do with selfishness than self-acceptance as a means of self-transcendence: it’s a deep acceptance of who one is and who one is not and living into that without being hindered by fear of failure or rejection. Again, we see that this process is not about puffing up the ego, but shaking it up, integrating it, and taking it less seriously. Other developmental psychologists have described this stage with words like the “post-self” or “catalyst.” I particularly like the last of these terms, because it captures the sense that the more we grow into the fullest expressions of ourselves, the more we will empower others to do the same.
The focus outward contribution as a natural result of inner growth is also seen in Jungian psychology, where this process of becoming our true selves is called “individuation.” Individuation occurs when we uncover and integrate the pieces of ourselves hidden away in the shadow. The shadow in Jungian terms is about alienation from the self. It contains not just ‘bad’ things — like anger or greed or prejudice — but also the ‘good’ things we have for one reason or another cut off from our identities — things that could include our emotions, need for connection, nurturing tendencies, or leadership skills. Individuation happens as we integrate these broken-off pieces of ourselves into our personalities. But once again, this process is not, ultimately, self-centred, but rather frees us to bring more of our authentic fully into the world. As James Hollis writes, “Individuation means we contribute our idiosyncratic, eccentric, not-fitting-in-fully selves to this world.” He adds, “One is not thereby granted permission to narcissistic self-indulgence … but rather to the sacrifice that genuine vocation so typically requires” (James Hollis, Living an Examined Life).
I mention all of this because, in fact, every single exploration of healthy and mature human personhood I’ve looked at from the realms of developmental psychology, depth psychology, positive psychology, and even that much maligned discipline of life coaching, has insisted — with the Christian tradition — that the fullest expression of life is not selfish, but focused on service to others.
In the next post, we will turn specifically to this aspect of vocation — about which our tradition has a lot to say. But for today, the lesson is simply this: no matter how we are called to serve others, it will be rooted in who we are. I’ll let David Benner have the last word about this, since he put it better than I ever could:
Our vocation is a call to serve God and our fellow humans in the distinctive way that fits the shape of our being. In one way or another, Christian calling will always involve the care of God’s creation and people. (The Gift of Being Yourself)