Finding the True Self

In his classic book on the contemplative life, New Seeds of Contemplation, Thomas Merton writes: “In order to become myself I must cease to be what I always thought I wanted to be, and in order to find myself, I must go out of myself, and in order to live I have to die. The reason for this is that I am born in selfishness and therefore my natural efforts to make myself more real and more myself, make me less real and less myself, because they revolve around a lie.”

Merton goes on to say that because we are born with a self-centered disposition, we go on pursuing “life” in ways that destroy us even though our world and our foolish understanding of life tells us we are building a life. This is reflected in what Jesus said about “losing your life in order to find it” and “if you try to protect our life (i.e., selfishly consume), we will lose it.” Jesus’ words were not about how to enter relationship with God (that is not of our effort but the gift of God’s grace) but how to experience that relationship. Relationship with God is the very essence of who we are and the lie that Merton speaks of is the lie that we subtly accept that our lives are “about us.” Certainly, we would almost never say that “life is about us”, but we often end up living that way. Consider how often “things don’t go our way” or “someone doesn’t meet our expectations.” These are subtle yet clear reminders that there is much of self-centeredness that lingers in us.

Merton develops his thoughts with this: “People … whose lives are centered on themselves, imagine that they can only find themselves by asserting their own desires and ambitions and appetites in a struggle with the rest of the world. They try to become real by imposing themselves on other people, by appropriating for themselves some share of the limited supply of created goods and thus emphasizing the difference between themselves and the other men who have less than they, or nothing at all. They can only conceive of one way of becoming real: cutting themselves off from other people and building a barrier of contrast and distinction between themselves and other men. They don’t know that reality is to be sought not in division but in unity.”

A clear test of where we are is this: do I focus on the ways that I am either better off or worse off than others? Do I focus on distinctions and differences? The false self measures itself by what it has, what it does, and the opinion of others.

The true self is not aware of measurements but simply identifies as a child of God who follows His lead into all things … into the lives of others with a love that is free from distinctions. We were created to live, not for self, but to love others and we are never free to love as long as we are pursuing the false self. Pursuing the false self and love cannot co-exist. However, as we become aware of that tension between what we long for (the true self that identifies with Christ) and the struggles to pursue the false self, this tension can push us to a deep reliance upon the Spirit. Living in that tension is the key to finding and living the true self.

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~ by Ted Wueste on August 9, 2011.

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