BY JOEY LI
PHOTOGRAPHY BY MELANIE PARK
“Just be yourself” is one of those phrases that has become common parlance for a mode of living. The idea is often attributed to Oscar Wilde (1854-1900) in the quote, “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken.” Wilde likely did not say this quote verbatim, though he espoused similar ideas in his work. The earliest recorded usage of “Be yourself. Everyone else is already taken” appeared in 1999.1 It is almost universal among movie genres: for rom-coms, the protagonist just needs to be himself/herself to be attractive, for action movies, the protagonist just needs to be himself/herself while blowing up bridges, and for documentaries, people are literally supposed to just be themselves. I haven’t figured out horror yet, but if that’s your thing, well, be yourself. The phrase seems so common and hackneyed as to be devoid of meaning. Yet, its significance is great, in large part because it expresses a yearning for authenticity and identity with which people resonate.
Self-actualization is the common pursuit of our generation. Generally, when people say to our generation, “Just be yourself,” they mean two things: discover what life means for you and people should love you for who you are. They mean nobody else can or should tell you how to live. We should set out on our own journey. Ultimately, we will reach the mountaintop. There, through self-knowledge and self-assuredness we will transcend anxiety and doubt in our self-expression.
These words ring true, but ideologically, the implications of casting self-actualization as the ultimate good can be difficult to mediate. Because self-actualization is inherently defined in terms of individual goals, a fundamental issue arises: what do we do when the individual freedoms of two people come into conflict?
As a stupid example, suppose I really like grinding my teeth loudly; it just gives me comfort. If I sit in a room with another person, who really hates the noise of teeth on teeth, whose self-actualization takes precedence? What if there are multiple people in the room who really hate the noise I make? Where is the tipping point? If each of us is to have our own way, there is only one way: part ways. Somebody has to find another room to sit in.
This is a stupid example, but when blown up to a macro scale with more polarizing issues such as free speech, it becomes a picture of the American political scene. The main difference is that, on the national level, it is not so easy to “move to another room.” Thus, while I resonate with the allure of self-actualization, this quest also feels lacking. The attitude of “just be yourself” seems naively to undervalue the very real way in which being human requires being in relationship with other humans. For me, the clarifying factor in how I view identity and freedom comes from a surprising place: the Gospel.
The Alternative is Christianity
At first glance, the Bible says some scary things about the individual that can be hard to swallow even for Christians. It views people as sinful and broken, and correspondingly, is highly concerned with how we live our lives. Jesus tells his disciples, “Whoever wants to be my disciple must deny themselves and take up their cross and follow me” (Matthew 16:24, NIV). As Paul puts it to the church in Galatia, “I have been crucified with Christ, and I no longer live, but Christ lives in me. The life I now live in the body, I live by faith in the Son of God, who loved me and gave himself for me” (Galatians 2:20, NIV). In fact, the Apostle Paul states that God’s goal for his people is this: “to be conformed to the image of [God’s] Son” (Romans 8:29, NIV). There’s not a lot of room for pursuing our own meaning of life when we are denying ourselves, choosing to be crucified, and being conformed to someone else’s image.
Moreover, Scripture also tells us to live for others. As Paul also says, “I have made myself a slave to everyone, to win as many as possible. To the Jews I became like a Jew…To those under the law I became like one under the law…To the weak I became weak…I have become all things to all people so that by all possible means I might save some” (1 Corinthians 9:19-23, NIV). Paul gives of himself to others in hopes that they may see clearly the Gospel of Christ. Per Paul, the Christian must commit the ultimate heresy of modern America: living life for someone else. Reading this description of the Christian life, you might wonder to yourself, why is anyone a Christian? It does not seem very freeing or fulfilling. To explain, I turn to an analogy.
Think about your closest relationships and how they shaped who you are as a person. In some way, every significant relationship you have influences your own identity, and the closer the relationship is, the more your life will change in response. My pastor put it this way: “Being in a relationship should change you. Before I married, I used to live with a bunch of guys. It would be really weird if, after I married, I didn’t want to live in a house with my wife and still just lived with all of my guy friends.” We understand that deep relationships demand deep sacrifice, both of our freedom and, at times, even parts of our own identity. I can’t live the single guy lifestyle and be married at the same time. Yet, though it involves sacrifice of a change of lifestyle, we sacrifice and submit our wills and commitments to another in marriage anyway because we also know the rewards are great.
Christianity should be viewed in this lens. Fundamentally, Christian living is built on a relationship with God. If God is real and the Bible is true2, then I have an obligation to serve Him: He created me and has a right to control my life. There’s more, though: when I believe and submit to Him, I also discover a source of love and joy that I could never establish on my own. For the God of the Bible declares to me that He is my Father. The relationship between God and I, then, is not just one of obligation, but love. As pastor Francis Chan put it, “There is nothing better than giving up everything and stepping into a passionate love relationship with God, the God of the universe who made galaxies, leaves, laughter, and me and you.”3
How does this all come back to the problems of freedom and identity? What makes the tagline “just be yourself” so appealing is the implicit encouragement that if you persevere, you can be loved for who you really are. The message of the Gospel goes a step further: God already loves you as you are, and He calls you to find deeper fulfillment in Him. As with any other relationship, this will require sacrifice and will produce fulfillment, except, in relationship with God, both of these are absolute. Picking up your cross and following will be difficult at times, and from where you are standing, may seem absurd. Yet, in a way that can only be understood through experience, this way of life offers joy and peace that dwarf the happiness of self-actualization. There is only one way to find out.
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