I’m sitting in a university center as I write. Bright young students are eating, relaxing, watching TV, and chatting. According to the university admissions material, each one of them is preparing to be a leader in some part of life, developing skills necessary to take their place, suceed, and influence the world. It’s a student-centered, thriving university that concentrates tremendous resources on the student “experience.” Kinda makes me wish I was 18 again.
While sipping my Starbucks, having just completed my Freshens froyo, I catch the show on the flat screen mounted on the wall offering visual white noise in an always stimulated environment. The cut-from-one-cloth afternoon talkshow called “Bethanny” is on, with short segment after short segment designed to appeal to an afternoon audience of mostly housewives. The first segment has a panel of three young and beautiful personalities (each a mom) helping Bethanny answer the perennial question, “Can women have it all?” The earnest but upbeat debate includes audience members too. Most of then don’t look quite as designed as the women on stage, nor as able to afford nannies. No conclusion is offered before the fashion segment comes on except the implicit one that’s been there all along, that of you don’t “have it all” you are somehow deficient, incomplete, and less.
Peter Block calls it the fundamental message of the “empire” (call it “the system,” “consumer culture,” “modern life”). It’s the cultural message said without being said, that none of us “has it all,” and that if we want it all we have to develop ourselves and our situation to get it all. And we’re somehow less of a person if we don’t: we don’t have enough and we aren’t enough. It’s an economy of scarcity and deficiency invading all aspects of human life, including our very understanding of ourselves. And it keeps us watching the shows, in one form or another, hoping to find company in our lack, and hoping to find advice in our striving.
Of course, the message that we need is hardly new. It’s essential to religion and to the cultures religions have created. But the difference now is that our need is no longer a transcendent truth to which we find accessible resources within the cycles and rituals of faith or in the patterns of family and community. Our need is existential and personal, and solely within our own power, or our own luck, to fill. “Self-development” has become the hallmark of a good life well lived. Any problem is an “opportunity” for self-development, and any opportunity for self-development is equally an opening for the industry of self-development to make a buck.
We are perennially insufficient, unsatisfied, incomplete, undone, and inadequate. And enough of us is never enough for us. We’re too young, too old, too poor, too depressed, too anxious, too deficit of attention, too heavy, too thin, too dumb, too unskilled, too lonely, too unhappy. We might be one or another of those things now and then and want to tend with them, but it seems that no matter our circumstance or condition of life we’ve absorbed a message that we’re always all of these deficiencies (or at least almost all), no matter what. We’re never enough for the moment.
Why? Well let me try a dollar’s worth of philosophy. It seems that in a world in which the idea of a divine presence is an optional opinion, not all that different from what political beliefs you might hold, the human move to the center of human consciousness. But the human moves into the center for only a moment, and then it pretty quickly disappears. Or to put it better, the human person disappears. What’s left is a bundle of temporal human desires understood as needs, and a changing group of strategies to temporarily meet those needs.
At least in the Christian tradition, the idea of a person has been understood differently. It’s been understood not in relation to lack, but in relationship to some presence, or realm, or truth that is independent of human existence. And by that I don’t just mean nature, or our bodies, or time. I mean a presence, or realm, or truth that is part of a triangular relationship that is mutually limiting and mutually enhancing—the human, the divine, and nature (being). The person is the self who says “I” and “you” within the broad and given drama of that triangular relationship. When that triangle is flattened, that person disappears. It becomes a “me” and not an “I,” cobbled together from a bundle of needs within a marketplace of negotiated and achieved meanings. And those meanings, and the identities that come with them, become like possessions of the self that are developed over time through various techniques. In those areas of life where we have resources and freedom, I choose the techniques I use to become a “me” for myself. Where I lack resources or freedom, I use the tools given me. But in either case, the “me” I establish is self-referential, purposed to achieve an illusive happiness or self-satisfaction.
This is, of course, the great gambit of the Liberal tradition when it insists that individuals should not need to accept any defining relationships or identities that they do not choose for themselves. Choice unconstrains the self and for a moment allows a new and even robust self-expression. But eventually, the self that is expressed disappears from view. And now a couple of hundred years into the Liberal gambit we’re left with only a marketplace over against which we can define our selves, or our personhood. And that’s a pretty loose definition of self. Family, marriage, role, work, ideology, belief, self, and narratives about what “is” are liquid, to use Zygmut Bauman’s term. Or to quote Marx, all that is solid does melt into air.
Even time is liquid. We can “cheat” it (another market term) by buying a new body, achieving a new attitude, starting a new life, and letting go of all that’s gone before. We purchase knowledge, and coaching, to help us meet that need. This is not renewal or recreation as has been understood by Christians historically, but rather a “rebooting.” It’s an achievement of victory over reality, rather than gracious living within what is. For, after all, we’re never enough.
A superficial interpretation of all of this would blame it on the Christian idea of original sin, that we are inherently broken and that there is something essentially amiss about the human person. If we’d only accept that we are all born pure, and whole, and that everyone is okay we’d be free of this Christian guilt and self-hatred that has so bound us and has so inhibited self-development.
Such an interpretation would be quite off the mark. For the Christian idea of original sin is the theological idea that opens up that flat line to a triangle, that brings us into a full and living, not just instrumental relationship with what is outside of us—be that a human other who we can never fully know, a divine other who we can also never fully know in our limited understanding, or a natural realm in which we also participate with limited power and partial awareness.
If we are humbled by God, we seek peace in reconciliation.
If we are humiliated by human failure with no God, we seek solace (not peace) in possession or accomplishment. We shape community through shame and competition, and we misinterpret the Christian claim so profoundly that we force it to become a caricature of itself. And that is a profound distortion of the rhythm of humble realization, deep confession, gracious acceptance, repentance, reparation, return, new acceptance, and thanksgiving that the idea of original sin entails. Original sin suggests that if left to ourselves we will destroy ourselves, but it is asserted within a narrative of life in which we are not, in the end, left to ourselves at all.
In an economy of need, we are alone and so must create some approximation of happiness with others in a competitive drama of self-development. In an economy of grace, we are not alone and so may take a place within a shared drama of reconciliation that is both temporal and eternal (profane and sacred).
The question “Can we have it all?” is the question of self-development. It’s not the question of human personhood. My hope for the students sitting around me, so tuned and encouraged by the university in their self-development, would never be that they learn how to have it all. My hope would be that they learn what is enough, and what it means to be a person in relationship with God, world, and themselves.