Monday, January 6, 2014

Is there a 'real' me waiting to be unmasked?

In my last post, I provided a link to a sermon I gave at Christmas. In it, I said “ step on the journey is to start living as if we trusted because, like most things, if we practice long enough then eventually it will become second nature, and shape who we become.”

Someone wrote to me and asked:

You have said that in behaving like you already believe something, you eventually found you did believe in it. When I try to do that, part of me feels like I'm not being honest. Is it possible to be true to yourself, to the ‘real’, ‘unmasked’ person you are, and yet act out another persona totally? I really don't understand how one can. To me, it seems that in order to act the way one ‘should’, one is suppressing how one really feels, thinks and even believes - and so is not being the ‘real’, ‘unmasked’ person at all. I'd really like to know how you came to understand this as a way of changing, and maybe even ask if the questions I raise with myself are ones you have already raised and resolved.

Perhaps others have similar questions, so here is my response.


You raise some really good questions, fundamental to what we believe a human being is, because behind your questions is a big assumption that our culture makes: that there is a ‘real’ person underneath, waiting to be ‘unmasked’. There may have been some confusion in the sermon, as I suggested there are ways to unmask or reveal the light that is already shining within us, and you may have assumed this meant the ‘real’ person. However, I was calling for the continuing revelation of the divine spark within us, the gift from God. This spark is a part of us, but it is not some ‘real’ us.

As for some ‘real’ us, well, I don’t buy the myth that if we all did enough psychotherapy or drumming rituals then we’d know who we really are. How we live reveals exactly who we really are: our values, our histories, our wounds, our beliefs, our choices. How we choose to live, how we respond to what life dishes out, whether we value our wounds or our healing and so on makes it clear who we are, what we hold dear, and what values we prioritise.

Our society venerates ideas like ‘being true to oneself’ and ‘authentic ways of living’, but when I observe people who base their lives on these concepts, I often see very selfish and dishonest behaviours. For example, I think of people I know who have justified extra-marital affairs because they claim that by expressing the passion they feel for their lover they are being true to themselves. They cannot admit the dishonesty they engaged in when they allowed their heart to stray so far from someone to whom they have pledged faithfulness, nor the dishonesty they practiced when they met covertly with their lover.

More personally, I think that if I had lived in a way that was ‘true to myself’, you would have seen a wounded little girl who sought refuge and comfort in sex and alcohol, and who tried to feel powerful through hurting others. Those, at least, have been my instincts; but I never wanted to be that sort of person, so I haven’t had affairs or drunk way too much way too often; and I have practiced holding my tongue and learning some self-control and gentleness. After a decade or two of these disciplines, the little girl has grown up a lot and her wounds are healing; she no longer needs to be destructive to feel powerful.

Instead of being true to myself, then, I try to be true to my Christian calling. Sometimes the expression of this will look like being true to myself, or ‘finding’ myself; other times, it will look and feel like the very opposite, as I engage in the hard and painful drudgery of learning to be faithful. The times when it appears that I have found or recognised something essential about myself are often the result of years of patient, tedious, largely invisible practices which, through repetition, have altered my approach to other people and the world, shaping which values I live out and what sort of person I have become.

Being true to the Christian calling won’t ever require me to act out an entirely different persona; but it will require that I take a good hard look at my persona and work on the bits that aren’t Christian. Christianity – like any faith discipline – is like a rock tumbler: what goes in is a rock, what comes out is a rock; it’s the same thing, only all the rough edges have been knocked off and it is now something beautiful. And the rough edges are knocked off our persona by practicing the disciplines of faith.

Professional athletes and musicians and cooks practice their passion for hours every day. They learn to change a grip or a posture or a habit, and at first it feels unnatural; but then it becomes second nature and part of how they do what they do. Faith is the same. If it’s our passion, we practice it every day, yet there will always be habits that feel uncomfortable and ‘fake’ because faith is so countercultural. For example, when I decided to be Christian, I felt very fake going to church, singing, praying and talking to members of the congregation, but I identified these disciplines as part of the tradition that I wanted to belong to, I practiced them, and eventually they became second nature. So too with trust and all the other disciplines of faith. They feel fake, then they feel real because they have become part of the person we are becoming, part of the mix of choices and habits and practices and beliefs and attitudes that constitute our growing and maturing selves.

I hope this answers your questions – and maybe raises a few more!


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