The Search for Self: It’s Not About You…Until It Is

Hire Me, College GraduatesIn a recent column for the New York Times, David Brooks does a fine job examining the overall condition of today’s rising generation(s), describing them as a lot of self-absorbed, egotistical wanderers in need of what was once known as calling.

Brooks is dead on in his explanation of why individuals should set their sights outward, onward, and upward, rather than merely inward:

Most successful young people don’t look inside and then plan a life. They look outside and find a problem, which summons their life. A relative suffers from Alzheimer’s and a young woman feels called to help cure that disease. A young man works under a miserable boss and must develop management skills so his department can function. Another young woman finds herself confronted by an opportunity she never thought of in a job category she never imagined. This wasn’t in her plans, but this is where she can make her contribution.

Brooks places a good deal of emphasis on the value of the self to the other — how we as individuals can align our passions, courses, dreams, and inward searches properly and thus make a significant contribution to those around us. If you’re a Christian, this consists of syncing up your plans with God’s purposes, something the Apostle Paul called “pressing toward the mark.”

Brooks is also clear about the danger of what some might call “atomic” individualism, through which the self is only interested in his own (supposed) gain and thus rejects God or the other altogether:

If you sample some of the commencement addresses being broadcast on C-Span these days, you see that many graduates are told to: Follow your passion, chart your own course, march to the beat of your own drummer, follow your dreams and find yourself. This is the litany of expressive individualism, which is still the dominant note in American culture. But, of course, this mantra misleads on nearly every front.

Yet Brooks is less clear, though still cognizant, about the value of the other to the self. Yes, he thinks our callings should be based in a specific pursuit aligned to external value. But will that process also produce value in our own lives? The closest he gets to this is in his statement about the self being “constructed gradually” by one’s calling. Toward the end of the piece, he also talks about fulfillment being “a byproduct of how people engage their tasks.” Indeed, “byproduct” is precisely the word I would use.

But these subtleties need to be emphasized further, particularly for the Christian. For us, the personal benefits of sacrifice go well beyond having our material needs met or even achieving emotional or psychological stability (Brooks speaks of our distorted views of “happiness”). We Christians move beyond such physical benefits, believing that proper sacrifice and overarching obedience leads to a fundamental, transcendent rebirth of our more basic spiritual core.

Understanding the importance of loss for the sake of gain is critical if we are to correctly discern what is loss and gain. The Gospel message is not zero-sum stuff, as Paul kindly pointed out in his letter to the Philippians:

But whatever gain I had, I counted as loss for the sake of Christ. Indeed, I count everything as loss because of the surpassing worth of knowing Christ Jesus my Lord. For his sake I have suffered the loss of all things and count them as rubbish, in order that I may gain Christ and be found in him, not having a righteousness of my own that comes from the law, but that which comes through faith in Christ, the righteousness from God that depends on faith— that I may know him and the power of his resurrection, and may share his sufferings, becoming like him in his death, that by any means possible I may attain the resurrection from the dead.

Brooks closes the piece by saying, “The purpose in life is not to find yourself. It’s to lose yourself,” which is where I fear the confusion may strike. After all, the purpose in life is both. Finding ourselves is deeply important — yes, to our neighbors, but ultimately, to God. It is only by losing our lives that such a search and such a contribution can be both successful and sustainable. It is not either-or but rather first-and-next. (Didn’t I hear that in a song somewhere?)

Such a framework may be what Brooks intends to convey, and if so, bravo. But I believe the distinctions need to be sharper still, if not in his piece, than here. For when they are misunderstood, as they currently are in much of modern-day Christianity, we Christians tend to shun the personal benefits of God’s grace and, in turn, diminish his overwhelming love and benevolence.

There is nothing wrong with our passion, our course, our drummer, our dreams, or our pursuit of the self, as long as our perception and orientation of the self is rooted in and directed by the Love of God. Preach that at college commencement, and we might actually see what Brooks is craving.

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  • Remnant Culture

    David Brooks wrote a marvelous piece on irrational self-interest. I use it as an opportunity to encourage the other kind.

  • Common Sense Concept

    David Brooks wrote a marvelous piece on irrational self-interest. I use it as an opportunity to encourage the other kind.

  • Remnant Culture

    Why do we pose the pursuit of self against the denial of self? (calling David Brooks) — We need a new paradigm.