Stuck With Ourselves

How Do You Reconcile Who You Are with Who You Want to Be?

Sam Bush / 1.21.22

A few years ago, there was a period in which finding ways to spice up one’s marriage was all the rage. Going out on dates or reading the same book together were suggested ways to help keep the flame alive. Today, the general consensus is that it’s perfectly fine to get take-out and watch Netflix and leave it at that. To that end, the pandemic has impacted our culture to an unrecognizable degree. Instead of “Whatever doesn’t kill you makes you stronger,” we now say, “Whatever gets you through.” Most of me rejoices in this cultural sea change. For once in our lives, we are not hell bent on self-improvement in a way that resembles self-hatred. In so many ways, lowering the bar on one’s ability to develop as a person can be an extension of grace.

On the other hand … is this it? Are we just going to get take-out, watch Netflix and chill for the rest of our lives? While the pressure to constantly improve oneself is gone, we are still stuck with ourselves — a fact that, for many of us, is problematic.  As much as I want to advocate for self-acceptance, there is danger of it turning into forlorn resignation (or self righteousness!).

In last week’s delightfully titled Atlantic article, “You Can’t Simply Decide to Be a Different Person,” Amanda Mull considers how her father took up jogging one day without fully committing to the idea. Thirty years later, at the age of seventy-five, he still jogs daily. “One day he wasn’t a jogger, and the next day he was, even if he didn’t know at the time that the change was indeed permanent,” she writes. He wasn’t training for anything in particular. He didn’t have a goal in mind. He simply started running four or five miles every day and has been doing so for three decades. Mull, on the other hand, has tried numerous exercise habits, but to no avail. She’s bought equipment, she’s made plans, she’s committed herself to workout routines, but nothing has ever stuck long-term. Her conclusion is that we are not defined by our habits. Even if she started jogging regularly, Mull would not become her father. 

Figuring out how to do something a little less or a little more is likely to yield the best results for most people, even if it’s not going to turn you into a different human. Before you do any of this, though, or before you decide you’ve failed, it’s probably worth making peace with who you are as a person. My irregular exercise habits don’t really bother me anymore, mostly because I do not take myself as seriously as I used to. I figure that I am who I am, give or take a reasonable capacity for marginal change. I have exercise equipment in my apartment that I could use more often, but I simply do not feel like it. I have never once felt like it, even if I have often wanted to be a person who does.

Like Amanda Mull, you may start waking up earlier or eating healthier, but those things are ultimately the same as what bandages are for ischaemic heart disease. In other words, people don’t get divorced because they haven’t been to the gym in a while. The aspects of ourselves that make life the most difficult are things that can’t be fixed with new habits. And no amount of self-acceptance can mitigate one’s self-destructive tendencies. Thanks to Covid, we are now aware that the little tweaks we make along the way may help us feel better for a time, but they are window dressing in the grand scheme of things. The problem with ourselves runs infinitely deeper than our surface level problems and solutions.

Where self-help leads to self-delusion and self-acceptance leads to self-resignation, Christianity offers true freedom by running in the opposite direction of the self entirely. It first recognizes that you, despite your best efforts, are a problem. A problem so serious that you will always be powerless to solve it. It then provides real, lasting hope in the love of Christ. It recognizes that the only fundamental form love can take has to involve forgiveness. Lasting, eternal change does not rest in the resolution of bad habits, but in the remission of sins. As Martin Luther once wrote, “The love of God does not find, but creates, that which is pleasing to it.” We are loved by a God who is not concerned with our habits, but our hearts. The ability to accept ourselves and accept each other depends entirely on the fact that God has accepted us.

I remember being frustrated as a boy that whenever I would pray before bed, I would fall asleep mid-prayer. Even at the age of ten, I felt embarrassed for not being able to exert more self-control, as if God would be displeased for not signing off properly. When confessing this to my dad, he said, “Huh. Well, maybe God wants you to sleep even more than He wants you to pray.” At that moment, a weight was lifted from me. It was the first time I realized that God’s love wasn’t controlled by my virtue or lack thereof. As the embodiment of virtue itself, he had little need of mine. His chief concern was not his need at all, but my own. To my surprise, what I needed is exactly what He gave me: rest.

My ten year old self thought his biggest problem was falling asleep when praying (which is basically the Christian equivalent of not exercising enough). Twenty-five years later, I realize that this was the least of my worries. I am now aware of a host of other vices far too entrenched in my psyche to escape to the point where I now have to pray. It’s the only place I can turn.

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