Thursday, March 2, 2017

The Empty Promise of Self-Actualization

March 2, 2017

It was in college that I first heard the phrase, "self-actualization." In this, I was probably not much different than most folks. High schoolers don't tend to even know about such things, much less, talk about them. Abraham Maslow coined the term, referring to what he considered the highest level of human needs. Over the years, it has become somewhat of a buzzword in academic and political circles, and has undergone a multitude of mutations along the way. Whatever we call it, the concept has become an unquestioned goal towards which all human activity is supposed to point. Whether it's Old Blue Eyes crooning "I did it my way," a hippie in the '60's trekking into the desert and eating hallucinogenic mushrooms in a quest to find himself, or the suburban teeny-bopper wailing "I have to be me," the broad outlines are the same: for life to be meaningful, everything centers on me.

For the Christian, this poses a problem. Life for the Christian is supposed to be centered on Jesus Christ, not oneself. I say "supposed to be" because all too often, there is little if anything to distinguish the average Christian from his or her utterly pagan, but civilized, neighbor. We've equated Christianity with being nice, forgetting that Christ died "not to make bad men good, but to make dead men live." I put that in quotes because I wasn't the one who thought it up, and don't want to have to take the flak for the sexist language. I'm just reporting like Sergeant Friday: "Just the facts, ma'am. Just the facts."

So what if, as Christians affirm, we do not become our authentic and truest selves by focusing on our desires and needs? What if we were made for more than this? The season of Lent is one time honored way we can test this out. In it, we change life's focus from self-actualization to self-denial, believing that as Jesus and St. Francis said, it is in losing our lives that we truly find them.

And if that is true, then the quest for self-actualization in reality takes us further and further from our true selves. I've been toying with a story line for this, in which each time the protagonist lies, each time he chooses self over others, each time he secretly sneaks a look at pornography or ignores the cry of the poor, he fades just a little, until one day he completely disappears. That's what sin does to us; we lose more of our authentic selves until there is nothing left but a hollow shell that looks like the persons we used to be, but are empty inside. I am grateful tonight for this season that urges me to look deeply into my soul, but also for the forgiveness, healing, and cleansing offered to all who repent and believe the Gospel.

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