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Healing Ourselves to Death
Drowning in self-help & the return of Christianity
First, we wanted work-life balance. Then came the great resignation: Young professionals across industries quit their jobs to focus on self-actualization. Self-help blogs exploded. Mental health awareness skyrocketed. Self-care content spread like a virus. Yet, despite all this, we’re more anxious, idolatrous, and directionless than ever. Healing, in the modern self-help context, may just be our next harmful passion.
Psychoanalysis, following religion, was the first school of thought to suggest that we aren’t masters of our own houses; rather than being the pilots in the cockpit, we’re like marionettes dangling on strings. The perceived ‘self’ is an amalgamation shaped by quasi-independent personalities influenced by genetics, upbringing, memories, and trauma. Much of our behavior is driven by animalistic passions and irrepressible emotions.
And I think that’s what we hate: We hate not being the boss of our own heads. We hate not being in control. The puppet wishes to overpower the strings—parts of her own body—that keep her upright and sensible.
So, in ushered the era of personal sovereignty and neo-Nietzschean will to power, where everything and everyone can be optimized. With catchy titles (e.g., The Subtle Art of Not Giving a F*ck), singable rules (e.g., the 30-30-30 rule in the 4-Hour Body), and recycled ancient wisdom (e.g., Daily Stoic), new philosophers are leading the next step in our obsession with fixing ourselves until there is nothing left to fix. Now that we’ve exhausted humanistic psychology concepts like the “hierarchy of needs”, we’re left to exploit our own psyches in the name of productivity and self-esteem. Still, the Übermensch is nowhere to be found. Instead, psychic maladies like burnout and existential despair define our times.
Self-help is futile because it implies self-deficiency, and what’s incomplete can not complete itself.
Girard told us that imitation is the texture of the human experience, that we are constantly orchestrated by desires, and that we are fluid beings who are always becoming more like who we look up to. So, in this light, trying to become the best version of yourself creates an impossible loop: You need the best version of yourself to exist so you know what to strive for in order to become it, but the best version of you can not exist if you do not become it first. Chicken and egg.
Therefore, the marionette can not be its own puppeteer; that would be a paradox. Trying to improve the self is like Narcissus staring at his reflection: Neither you nor your reflection—who you want to be—changes. You can not improve yourself by staring back at yourself in the same way that a mirror can not become a portrait.1 Self-deficiency implies that external help is needed. You are imperfect at best. You can not produce something from nothing, multiply without a multiplier, or draw straight with crooked lines.
The best of men are just men at best. —Alistair Begg
This is my guess as to why Christianity—in all its rituals and calls to worship—is on the rise. How can we, a creature that did not create itself, help itself in times of crises that are bigger than itself? As Narcissus demonstrates, the end of the self-help death spiral ends in drowning. For the Christian, life begins after drowning (i.e., baptism and its symbol of one’s death and burial with Christ).2 I think it’s no coincidence that many adult converts are those who, after extensive self-discovery, discover that the depths of their inner selves are hollow.
Some believe that the leap of faith is made by those who have naively abandoned their introspective search for truth. However, it’s more likely that those taking the leap have rummaged so thoroughly within themselves that they’ve hit rock bottom and felt disappointed. Humility, not ignorance, marks the beginning of wisdom and true learning.
Perhaps we were never meant to be somebody; we were meant to know Somebody.3 Instead of self-fulfillment or self-actualization, perhaps we are meant to self-deny so we can make room for a Savior. The reason is in its name: Christ-ian, meaning Christ-like, suggests that we shouldn’t be imitating or striving to be some imaginative best-version-of-myself, but rather, someone completely external and objectively Good to the perfect degree.
In the end, the self can not help itself.
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