Religion helps us discover our true self
A frequently heard observation is the following:
“In my experience, religion functions best at key social events in our life: at weddings, christenings, funerals and memorial services. The Church supplies beautiful ceremonies for such occasions. I don’t see how it can help me succeed as a person.”
It is true, religion provides beautiful services for social events. They are only meaningful if what they express externally, corresponds to internal realities. All ceremonies ultimately revolve round our self, our person. Baptism means: we belong to God and to God’s community. A wedding unites two individuals in a special bond of love. The funeral affirms the person’s continued existence in God’s embrace.
Our most precious possession in life is our own self. Money, power, success and pleasure can never fully satisfy us. They cannot guarantee happiness. True human happiness arises from a sense of well-being deep within us, from being happy to be ourselves. What we possess is not the same as who we are.
Jesus Christ is recorded as having said:
“What will a person gain by winning the whole world at the cost of his/her true self?
Or what can a person give that will buy that self back?”
Gospel of Matthew 16,26
It may be that Jesus referred here to the example of Alexander the Great who had been, for a few years, the most powerful man on earth. He had conquered Persia, Egypt and part of India. But he died, after a prolonged drinking bout, young and unhappy. According to a legend known to Jesus’ contemporaries, Alexander had been buried with his hands dangling, empty, outside his coffin.
Notice that for Jesus, Alexander was a failure not because he died, but because he betrayed his true self. Death is not the worst thing that can happen. Missing out on our true self is.
What is our true self?
It is easy to grasp that our self is not the same as what we own. It is more difficult to grasp that our self is more than our social identity. That is because we often confuse the two.
We can all imagine a rich and successful woman losing everything she owns because of, let us say, a war. She still is herself. Or is she? Of course, she still possesses her social identity. But that is not what we mean when we say that she is still herself. We can affirm that she still is herself if she has managed to maintain her dignity and self esteem in spite of losing all she owned.
Our social identity is the sum total of all the external circumstances that make a person unique. They include: our nationality, our place and date of birth, the identity of our parents, male or female gender, the appearance of our face, marks on our body, our fingerprints, our name. They are the kind of things immigration officials put on our passport. “This is so-and-so. You can recognise him or her by these signs.”
Our self is the sum total of all our our personal searchings, our convictions, our decisions, our habits, the character traits we have developed, the trials we have faced up to, our experiences of growth: in short, everything inside us that makes us who we are.
We cannot change our identity, but we have to make our own self. Even though we do this with the help of others, the quality of our self depends on how much we have invested in terms of risk, commitment and even suffering.
There are people whose selves remain underdeveloped. They do not think for themselves. They copy convention in everything they do. They are afraid to face up to uncertainty, doubts, problems. They have never had the courage to live up to their real convictions; as Sydney Carter expressed it in this cynical song:
“I wore the mask of a baby.
Teddy bear and curly hair.
Wore the mask of a baby
for everyone to see.”
He then goes on to describe how he wears successively the mask of a school boy, of a soldier, of a man in love and of a married man. It all ends in a correct social funeral.
“Go ring the bell for a dead man!
Go bury the mask! That’s all I ask!
Bury the mask of a dead man.
You’ll never bury ME . . . . “
There are many reasons why we may not have cultivated our own selves. In some families, creativity and personal growth are not encouraged. Some cultural traditions stress blind belief and unquestioning obedience rather than our own search and forming our own conscience. Peer groups at school, in college and at work try to impose ideologies, customs and conventions.
For our self to survive and to grow into a unique distinctive personality, we often have to fight, to hurt, to seek our own way, to face up to threat and to risk adventure. There is no shortcut to becoming ourselves. It is part of our social birth as a mature person.
Facing our true self, with all its potential and its weaknesses, is the highest challenge of religion. For we can survive our social encounters by wearing a mask; we cannot become a self without, consciously or unconsciously, coming face to face with Ultimate Reality.
The text in this chapter is from How to Make Sense of God by John Wijngaards, Sheed & Ward, Kansas City 1995. Tom Adcock designed the cartoons. The Catholic Press Association of the United States and Canada awarded the book a prize on 25 May 1996.
View the following film on the meaning of religion