Dear Ones: Glory to Jesus Christ!
For the past few weeks we have been studying The Eight Vices, from the writings of St. John Cassian in "The Philokalia" This past Sunday, we arrived at #7—self esteem. Here's what we talked about:
THE WHAT AND HOW OF SELF ESTEEM
Properly understood, Christians can hold self-esteem, but whether it's a vice depends on what is being esteemed and how.
Every human being can look at themselves as "individual" or "person," expressed as "individuality" and "personhood." The two are very different aspects of human life leading us in different directions.
"Individuality" is about our characteristics: color of eyes, color of hair, tone of voice and accent, mode of dress, pretty or not so, smart or not so, likes and dislikes, tastes. preferences, etc. Honoring these things in ourselves, or obsessing over them, is a vice which distorts our self-understanding. Criticism of these things can cause fits of hot anger.
"Personhood" is about our real life at its core. It is based on the facts that we are intentional creations of the living God; we each have a unique and unrepeatable soul; we are made in the likeness and image of God; there is godly purpose to our existence. Honoring these things in our selves can lead us to life as intended by our Creator.
The difference between living as an individual and living as a person is enormous. Individuality links our distinctive humanity—our worth—with relatively unimportant and certainly transitory concerns. Esteem, based on honoring and expecting approval from others for individual characteristics, is equally unimportant. It leads us on an unending, expensive and dangerous quest for "approval" and can breed a sense of superiority over others by the creation of competitive distinctions. It is a state in which, for example, my car and "me" become synonymous. I am defined by my car, and because cars go out of style, "me" is always mutating and increasingly unstable seeking the approval of an unstable world. Worst of all, purely individualistic life is a state in which God, Church, Truth and Mysteries are totally unnecessary, even bothersome, because these things neither procure for me the transitory things of life or honor my individualism. Individualism in the Church community can be disastrous.
The second kind of life, "personhood," is where our real worth and distinctiveness exist, and what can never become outdated. My personhood is the real me. Therefore real life begins with a constant awareness of our creation by God, our soul, God's image in us, and the overarching need to fulfill His Will for us. The approval we seek is God's approval. We change, but in God's direction, to become more like Him. These are things that should be most precious to us, which we honor with a constant state of gratitude. It is our personhood which must positively affect our individuality if we desire a godly life. A life in which the false needs and assumptions of individualism control our personhood can quickly become a shipwreck requiring intoxicants. Most importantly, the man or woman who seeks to live in "personhood" knows how irreplaceable the things of God and the Church are for real human life. The Church feeds the soul and helps renew the Image of God in us, Unfortunately, the world around us obscures the facts of soul and image in the human being with an avalanche of distractions.
We noted than many or most people in our culture have no idea of personhood, caring only about their individuality—even the "rugged" kind. Only the exterior is important; one's personal ideas cannot be challenged; one's behavior is, of course, perfect and beyond correction; life is all about being properly decorated, reducing the human being to a sort of empty bag which needs only to be adorned and satisfied on its own terms.
We noted the current need for many to be tattooed or to have their bodies pierced (in what have to be the most uncomfortable of places). Our best research has revealed that this "need' comes from a desire to make a personal statement of our distinctive individuality—a sort of contest based on being more bizarre than the other. What a reduction of the human being from the distinction and dignity with which we were created!
Only the Holy Spirit and the Church can help us understand and remember that we are persons with souls, God's image, and purpose. Every prayer and liturgical service reminds us of this reality, saving us the frustration of trying to be important by embracing the unimportant. If our need for God and the Church is weak; if we are apathetic toward them; if, after a lifetime in the Church we are still wondering what it's all about and looking at our watches more than at our souls, we should begin, right now, to live as persons who possess God's gifts instead of individuals running after meaningless ones.