The Center of Our Own World
He may have been the hardest person I ever counseled. He was self-assured and controlling. He argued for the rightfulness of everything he had ever done. He acted like the victim when in fact he was the victimizer. He had crushed his marriage and alienated his children. He loved himself and had a wonderful plan for his life. It was his will in his way at his time. He made everyone a slave to his plan or he drove them out of his life.
He made incredible sacrifices to get what he wanted but chafed against the sacrifices God called him to make. But in a moment of grace I will never forget, he quit fighting, controlling, and defending. He asked me to stop talking and said: “Paul, I get it. I have been so busy being God that I have had little time or interest in serving God.” It was one of the most accurate moments of self-diagnosis I had ever experienced. He was right.No sooner had the words come out of his mouth than he began to weep like I had never seen a man weep. His body shook with grief as grace began its work of freeing him from his bondage to himself.
But my friend was not unique. If you’re a parent, you know that your children are collections of self-sovereignty. All a child really wants is his own way. He doesn’t want to be told what to eat, what to wear, when to go to bed, how to steward his possessions, or how to treat others. He wants to be in the center of his own little world and to write his own set of rules.
And he is surprised that you have the audacity to tell him what to do. But it isn’t just children. Sin causes this self-sovereignty to live in all of us. We tend to want more control than we are wise enough or strong enough to handle. We want people to follow our way and stay out of our way. But when we wish for these things, we are forgetting who we are, who God is, and what grace has blessed us with. We are always either mourning the fact that we aren’t getting our way or celebrating that grace welcomes us to a new and better way.
The Center of the Universe?
Here is just one example of the total wrongness of something I tend to be automatically sure of: everything in my own immediate experience supports my deep belief that I am the absolute center of the universe; the realist, most vivid and important person in existence. We rarely think about this sort of natural, basic self-centeredness because it’s so socially repulsive. But it’s pretty much the same for all of us. It is our default setting, hard-wired into our boards at birth.
Think about it: there is no experience you have had that you are not the absolute center of. The world as you experience it is there in front of YOU or behind YOU, to the left or right of YOU, on YOUR TV or YOUR monitor. And so on. Other people’s thoughts and feelings have to be communicated to you somehow, but your own are so immediate, urgent, real.
David Foster Wallace, Kenyon College Commencement Speech.
The Center of the World
Former Archbishop of Canterbury William Temple describing original sin:
I am the centre of the world I see; where the horizon is depends on where I stand…Education may make my self-centeredness less disastrous by widening my horizon of interest; so far it is like climbing a tower, which widens the horizon for physical vision, while leaving me still the centre and standard of reference.
Christianity and Social Order, 1942; SCM Press edition, 1950, pp. 36–37.
The Contemplation of a Puny Subject
On the “ribbon of highway” that stretches “from California to the New York Island”—the great American Main Street—the mass of people seem completely self-absorbed. One hundred and fifty years ago Alexis De Tocqueville visited America from France and wrote: “Each citizen is habitually engaged in contemplation of a very puny object, namely himself.”
In a century and a half things have not improved. For all the diverse and attractive, buzzing and mysterious reality that is everywhere evident, no one and no thing interrupt people more than momentarily from obsessive preoccupation with themselves.
The Christian Self-Actualization Plan
In her excellent book on following Jesus in the suburbs, Ashley Hales describes one of the ways in which our discipleship has been influenced by modern secular trends such as the desire for self-actualization:
There’s also a particularly Christian version of the self-actualization narrative: it’s found in hearing how the salvation story revolved around me and God’s wonderful plan for my life. This story wound its way around us so that mission trips were validations for the goodness of a soul. It grew a vocabulary around a person’s seriousness about living for Jesus, and a subsequent call to “change the world” by doing big, exotic things.
This story found a liturgy in the hours of personal Bible study and puritanical evaluation of the dark nights of the soul. It’s not that these activities are wrong but that Christian piety, belief, and practice continue to be wrapped up in a narrative of the self, where the I is the key to unlocking faith.
God does have a wonderful plan for your life, but blessedly that is not the point. Redemption is not, in fact, all about you. Freedom is not about you at all. It is not a freedom from—an “escape from the constraints of community” (Berry again)—but a freedom for. Freedom is a far grander story than a suburban bootstrapperism, where your worth is measured in square footage.
Taken from Finding Holy in the Suburbs: Living Faithfully in the Land of Too Much by Ashley Hales Copyright (c) 2009 by Ashley Hales. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Danger of Selfies
Selfies have been proven to be far more than a threat to civility and sacred spaces. They can undermine our health and well-being. Selfies can be dangerous. A Spanish man was gored to death when he tried to take a selfie amid the running of the bulls in Pamplona. A fifteen-year-old in India photographing himself holding his father’s gun died when he accidentally pulled the trigger instead of pushing the photo button.
Two Polish parents taking a selfie stepped off ocean cliffs in Portugal and tumbled to their deaths in front of their children. We can get cut off from our surroundings, lose focus, and suspend judgment in pursuit of the perfect picture. It was widely reported that in 2015 more people died from taking selfies than from shark attacks.
How much risk will you assume to get the ultimate selfie on a mountaintop, in front of a train, or with a wild animal? The blind pursuit of the perfect image, ignoring our surroundings and context, can have grave consequences.
Enough About Me
There’s a Groucho Marx skit that I love because I relate to it so much. In the skit, Groucho is having a conversation with a friend, in which he goes on and on (and on and on …) about himself. In the course of his continual chatter about himself, he slips into a brief moment of self-awareness and apologizes to his friend for talking so much about himself. He politely says to his friend, “Well. Enough about me. Let’s talk about you. What do you think about me?”
Extending Ourselves into the World
Those who insist we are even more self-centered today might point to how the titles and focus of our popular magazines have shifted, as photographer Fred Ritchin notes: “I always use a quote by Paul Stookey (of the singing group Peter, Paul and Mary) about popular magazines. They used to be called Life (about life), then it was People (not about life, but just about people), then it was Us (not even about all people, but just about us), then it was Self (not even about us). It’s a question of how we extend ourselves into the world.”
As we have focused further on our own image and needs, we may have lost fundamental notions of what “we the people” means. My anecdotal experience of teens suggests that they may not inherently want an education, a church, and a media that is “all about them.” Yet those who’ve come before us have increasingly asked, What’s your status?
At the end of our efforts to self-actualize has arisen an identity crisis. Our ability to update our profile pictures ad nauseam hasn’t resulted in more security. Instead, it has riddled us with questions: How do I look? Do people like me? Does anybody care?
From We to Me
Over the next few years I collected data to suggest that we have seen a broad shift from a culture of humility to the culture of what you might call the Big Me, from a culture that encouraged people to think humbly of themselves to a culture that encouraged people to see themselves as the center of the universe. It wasn’t hard to find such data. For example, between 1948 and 1954, psychologists asked more than 10,000 adolescents whether they considered themselves to be a very important person. At that point, 12 percent said yes.
The same question was revisited in 1989, and this time it wasn’t 12 percent who considered themselves very important, it was 80 percent of boys and 77 percent of girls. Psychologists have a thing called the narcissism test. They read people statements and ask if the statements apply to them. Statements such as “I like to be the center of attention…I show off if I get the chance because I am extraordinary…Somebody should write a biography about me.” The median narcissism score has risen 30 percent in the last two decades.
Ninety-three percent of young people score higher than the middle score just twenty years ago.4 The largest gains have been in the number of people who agree with the statements “I am an extraordinary person” and “I like to look at my body.”
On the Side?
In his thoughtful book, Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes, Jonathan K. Dodson shares a funny, yet poingnant encounter with a man who wanted to keep religion private:
I had the crazy idea that going on a five-hour field trip to NASA with fifty fifth-graders would be a good idea. As a chaperone to three kids, I was tasked with not letting them out of my sight. On the way to NASA, one of them told me about a summer camp he went to.
He said, “I didn’t really like it because they made us sing to God every night and listen to someone talk about him. I mean, I believe in God, but I just think you should keep him on the side.”
I thought about what he said and replied, “If God is the most important person in the world, don’t you think he should be more than ‘on the side’?” He stared at me blankly for a moment, then looked away and said, “I guess.” When we sideline God, something has to take his place. Up sprouts the Big Me.
Taken from Our Good Crisis: Overcoming Moral Chaos with the Beatitudes by Jonathan K. Dodson Copyright (c) 2020 by Jonathan K. Dodson. Published by InterVarsity Press, Downers Grove, IL. www.ivpress.com
The Secret Formula for Writing a Bestselling Book
I recently found, hidden in plain sight, the secret formula for writing a bestselling book. Yes, you read that right. My discovery created a surge of power that I could hardly handle. It felt like learning the winning lottery numbers before the tickets had even been sold. Everything in my life was about to change. Okay, I might’ve overstated a bit. It’s bad form to begin with a lie, so I confess that I didn’t actually find the secret sauce of publishing. But what I did discover is that many of the bestselling books have three things in common—three characteristics that undoubtedly help them climb bestseller lists and empty our wallets.
Because I love books, I’m going to share my findings with you—just in case you want to write a bestseller one day. First, use provocative language in your title—swearing is best. I could give some examples, but you get the idea. Second, write a self-help book. People seem to like learning about themselves and finding ways to make themselves better. Go figure! Third, include something about “the good life” in your title or subtitle.
Those three words grouped together, in that order, seem to have a magical power. After all, isn’t that what we all want? The good life. If the good life could be turned into a product, everyone would want a piece of it. Nothing would be more profitable. Can you imagine selling such a thing? “Get your good life and find everything humankind has wanted since the beginning of time. Adam missed it. Plato couldn’t find it. Nietzsche tried his best to give it words. The good life slipped through their fingers, but today you can have yours for a deal of a price!”
Shifting Our Focus
By shifting the focus away from myself and onto Christ and his love for me, I have noticed that everything comes into view. When Martin Luther was suffering under the weight of guilt, his spiritual director, Johannes Staupitz, said, “Martin, quit looking at your sin and start looking at Jesus.”
Still Looking for inspiration?
Consider checking out our quotes page on being Self-Centered. Don’t forget, sometimes a great quote is an illustration in itself!