Friday, December 16, 2011

Finding Your Best True Self

Over the last few days, I've punched down two more of the eight books I've got to read by the end of the month for my D.Min. program.  They were pretty radically different, on the surface of it.  One was called Primal Leadership.  Despite the title, this did not recommend whacking folks over the head with wildebeest femurs, although I do find that gets folks more quickly to consensus.  It was sustained argument for social/emotional awareness in leadership, written by some Harvard Business School types.   The other, entitled Open Hearted Ministry, was an exploration of reclaiming a sense of play in ministry.  It was written by the professor who'll be teaching the course.

That second one?  By my...ahem...professor?  Um.    It was better than Cats.  I will read it again and again.

One theme that was shared between the two books was the concept of seeking your "Best Self" or your "True Self."  For the Harvard Guys, this was something that leaders of organizations should accomplish as a way of finding their identity as a visionary leader.   They had a multi-step process and exercises for true-self identification, which included things like visualizing where you'd most like to be in 15 years.   I did some of that, although I still hang up a bit when it comes to figuring out where I'll get that robot army.

For the play-theory professor, your true self is found...surprise surprise...through play.  I'm pleased to hear this, although I'm a bit surprised to discover that my true self is currently a level 18 Orc, who aimlessly wanders the land of Skyrim with his common-law witch wife, crunching bandits with a massive enchanted warhammer.

The "seek your true self" concept is a familiar one.   In the writings of Scottish mystic George MacDonald, the idea of being defined by the pursuit of that optimally joyous aspect of your own identity is a strong and recurring theme.  He describes it as seeking the White Stone, upon which is written the "name" that God has given you.  The pursuit of that name and the ordering of your life around living into that identity is the purpose of faith.

The challenge in this concept, as I see it, is in how we get around to defining "Best."  Who is that person that we direct ourselves towards?   How do we get to that sense of identity?

For the well meaning soul bent on Being The Best They Can Be, there are real pitfalls in orienting yourself towards who you think you should be.   The first and most obvious lies in the external forces that can shape who we think we should be.   Our vision of our "best self" can be defined by all manner of cultural inputs, which place higher value on certain vocations/identities/careers.   We're convinced we need to be Lil' Wayne, or that we need to be the best in the world at the sport of our choosing, or that we're meant to aspire to being one of the countless lights in the reality television universe.  This makes for a rather sad life for countless thousands, who overlook who they are in favor of what they are told they should be.

Our image of our best self is so colored by the values of our culture....but is that "best?"   When we're told to live our best life now, does that necessarily mean that we're making the choices that will shower us with material wealth and the acclaim and adulation of others?

There are, after all, competing sets of values that claim to establish purpose and value in our lives.

Best can mean pursuing whatever is most gratifying in the right now, whatever activates our lizard brain to give the most pleasure in this very instant.  That ends badly.  You don't always find yourself toothless in the fleshpots of Bangkok, but it does always end badly.

According to Joel Osteen, our Best Life Now involves getting what we want, because faith is the thing that brings us big houses and gets us choice parking spaces at the mall during the Getmas Season.  Our best self is our shiniest golden consumer self, by the marketized metric of the Name-It-And-Claim-It Gospel.

"Best" can mean most ferociously nationalistic, or most rigorously devoted to an absolutist understanding of a religious tradition.  Or, as in the case of Michelle Bachmann/Mahmoud Ahmedinajad, both at the same time.  Those two need to just get a room already.

If we step back, though, allowing ourselves to transcend our personal and collective hungers for power, the shine falls off these values.   The pursuit of me-oriented competitive consumption leads to a world out of balance and impoverished, best for a tiny minority, and a grasping, struggling hell for the rest.  Nationalism and fundamentalism?  They lead to the same place they have always lead over the thousands of years of human history.   To war and hatred, as they blind us to the Other.

Which is why faith and the core teachings of our Rabbi guide us to a place where "best" is not defined by individual selfishness, or the selfishness of collectives, but by the selfless love that burns like a fire at the heart of all things.

That is, without question, what is best in life.