“The greatest hazard of all, losing one’s self, can occur very quietly in the world, as if it were nothing at all. No other loss can occur so quietly; any other loss – an arm, a leg, five dollars, a wife, etc. – is sure to be noticed.”― Søren Kierkegaard, The Sickness Unto Death: A Christian Psychological Exposition for Upbuilding and Awakening
At first glance Kierkegaard’s words seem to fit comfortably into today’s “woke” mantras about being true to one’s “self” and doing what makes us happy. But unlike the shallow comforting words of modern culture, Kierkegaard shines light on a deep and profound truth. And the difference rests in the understanding of the self; modern culture thinks that you are who you are and being true to your self is being true to your current thoughts and feelings. The deepest levels of Christian thought say you are not who you currently are, the true self is the one perfected by God. These differing points of reference have a major outcome on what it means to “lose oneself”. Yes, there can be overlap in the two reference points, even enough overlap that one could confuse the meaning of Christianity with current culture, but the two remain different. The modern conception of the “self” is a completely autonomous being adrift in the world, because one is autonomous one is guided only by one’s own good. Thus if you are not “happy” you have lost yourself and let others define who you are. The only remedy is to become more assertive and to take back your place in the world. There are elements of this philosophy that have truth in them, which is exactly why Kierkegaard warns that losing one’s self is a quiet process, no one thinks they are losing themselves while it is happening. But the reality is that though we are each independent beings on some level, we are each dependent and interconnected on another level, meaning there is no possibility of completely detaching from others. If you have ever watched Les Miserables think of Jean Valjean’s struggle in singing Who Am I?; in this song he wrestles with his identity and is tormented by the fact that his place in society is in conflict with his own interests. Valjean has to is trying not to lose his self, but his self is not the person he is, his understanding of self is the person he wants to be. But Valjean only understands this after he is confronted by the priest.
The Christian understanding of the “self” is the person in harmony with God and neighbor; we find our identity not by looking for the good inside, but by looking to God. The implication is that I do not even know who I am, I do not my self. This is precisely why losing our self can happen so quietly, we do not know in full what our “self” is and so we cannot easily recognize it slipping away. Just like Valjean realizing that his “self” involves responsibilities to people around him, so I must recognize my “self” involves others. Who am I? I am a husband, father, friend, role-model and the list goes on. And yet, I do not know how to be any of these people. My “self” is bound up in my responsibilities to others in a way for which I am not prepared and cannot be on my own. This is the aspect of the human self that modern culture often misses, we say, “be true to yourself” without recognizing what the full self implies. In focusing on the parts of the self I enjoy– those things which bring me pleasure– I can actually deny the “self” I am truly supposed to be and let it slip away, lost forever.
Our modern culture wants us to limit our “self” to only include those elements we find most enjoyable in the moment and then as we age we find our “self” to be woefully incomplete. Being true to the “self” includes working on the areas of our “self” that are weak. Even secular leadership gurus will say that working on our shadow-side is important to being a complete person, implying that the prevailing cultural maxims about the self do not work in the real world. Being one’s true self is about working as though you are the person you are supposed to be rather than the person you currently are. But to even have this recognition is to recognize, like Valjean, “My soul belongs to God, I know, I made that bargain long ago…”. Whether that bargain was implicit or explicit, recognizing that your true self is dictated by forces outside your control at minimum shows you are not the center of the world and your desires do not make you, you. There must be a higher consideration to your “self” something that guides you, a Platonic ideal version of yourself (so to speak). But this ideal becomes difficult because without a solid grounding for the “self” the idealized self simply becomes one’s own desires. The self in Christianity finds its grounding outside the person and in the Bible and community which at their best interpret the mind of God for each of us. This grounding provides us with a more clearly understood definition of who we are as individuals– the self. With this grounding we are constantly forced to correct the course we are taking, forced to discover the true self and unable to allow it to slip away. We each need this constant remind of who we are, not the present form of us, but the person we are called to be. When we have this reminder in our lives we do not forget our “self” and we are made whole.