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THE VERTICAL SELF
By MARK SAYERS
Thomas NelsonCopyright © 2010 Mark Sayers
All right reserved.
Chapter OneModern Identity
PICK YOUR PERSONALITY
In front of me I have a catalog for cell phones. The front cover of the catalog does not feature a phone or any image at all. There is nothing to show that this catalog is even selling phones. All there is on the cover is one simple word that sums up our age: me.
As I open the catalog, I discover that each page extols the virtues of the latest models of phones for the coming season. Each page features a model or models who in some way attempt to match the "personality" of the phone. The first personality I encounter is the image of a beautiful young woman lounging on a piece of rustic outdoor furniture. Behind her is a lake, complete with untouched forest in the distance. Her hair is long and parted down the middle. She is wearing a pair of bell-bottoms; she could have been transported from Woodstock, although she looks slightly more groomed and tanned. The copy at the bottom of the page uses words such as relaxed and spacious living. I move on from this twenty-first-century hippie with her eco-chic style and bohemian peace and turn the page.
The next ad is in black and white, this one featuring a ruggedly handsome man probably in his early thirties. He wears a largevintage belt buckle and leans on a dirty-looking SUV. He is unshaven, and his clothes look as though they have been lived in. His thumbs are plunged into his pockets-a sign that body-language experts tell us represents sexual aggression-and he is gazing wistfully off into the distance. With his worn jeans and dirty white T-shirt, he could be James Dean's grandson. He is giving off social signals that, when communicated together, are labeled "cool" in our culture.
Another page, another personality. This time it's two young girls on a dance floor. One has a cheeky or naughty expression on her face. The story accompanying the picture tells us that this particular new phone, with its Internet capabilities, is a great way to juggle multiple boyfriends at the same time. The copy features modern-day mantras such as "right now," "sort it out on the fly," "life is random," and the obligatory "social life." The girls look like international models, but one of them, as she looks at the mobile phone, inexplicably seems to be in the midst of sexual ecstasy. The suggestive body language, the clothes, the way one girl looks into the camera seductively, the way the other looks as if she can only be turned on by a cell phone-these all speak of another ubiquitous contemporary personality, the personality of "sexy." I leave behind the pleasure-loving party girls and turn the page.
The picture and feel are different yet again. A young woman stands in the middle of what looks like a Hollywood cocktail party, a city skyline twinkling in the background. She wears a dress that would fit in on the red carpet at the Oscars. She looks like Grace Kelly. In contrast to the people around her, she lights up. Behind her, a stylish and beautiful woman shoots her a glance of envy. She is the epitome of the mysterious quality we label glamorous. The ad copy features terms such as fabulous, daring, stand out, and demand attention.
I turn the page and this time look upon another handsome man, this one in his early forties. He is wearing a suit and sits back confidently at his desk, which overlooks a cityscape. He has the look of power on his face. The text accompanying the picture uses the terms control, command situations, grab opportunities, powerful, and anything is possible.
Welcome to the twenty-first century, where we can now purchase and change personalities the way we can clothes, depending on mood or circumstance. Welcome to the world in which we are told we can be anyone we want to be, where identity is no longer based in a sense of self but rather in the imagery we choose at any particular moment.
Try this experiment. In three to four sentences, describe what makes someone (a) cool, (b) sexy, (c) glamorous.
How did you do? It's a lot harder than you think, yet many people around the globe use these words to create identities for themselves. How many people use these media-created masks to give off the sense that they have captured these esoteric qualities? Think how many millions, if not trillions of dollars are spent each year on products, clothes, experiences, even property so that people can convince themselves and others that these adjectives describe them and that they are, therefore, valuable members of our society. Cool, sexy, glamorous: these are the new social virtues.
Social virtues existed in the past. Society in the Middle Ages valued chivalry and saintliness. The culture of the early modern period upheld the concept of gentlemanliness. Jewish culture celebrated the mensch-a fair and good person. Social virtues have existed in almost every culture on earth, but now our social virtues have become these disposable masks: cool, sexy, bohemian, cosmopolitan, tough ... the list goes on. We have gotten to this point because we have lost a sense of self. All we can do now is act; we deal in superficial imagery rather than in our God-given image. We have lost our identities and don't know how to get them back.
HOW DID WE BEGIN TO LOSE OUR IDENTITIES?
Peter went backpacking in Thailand to find himself. Patricia's new relationship has made her feel centered. Since Dave got that new job, he seems grounded. What do these statements really mean? Had Peter lost himself the way one loses his keys? What was Patricia when she was single-de-centered? What on earth was going on with Dave? Was he stuck in lunar orbit before he became grounded? The ways we describe ourselves today are indications that we have become unstuck; we have lost our sense of ourselves. We are at a unique time in history. Our world has gone through intense political, economic, social, and technological change. But we often forget that at a personal level we have gone through intense changes in the way we process identity. Our understanding of self and the way we construct a sense of identity are unprecedented in human history.
In the year 1863, my great-great-grandfather Hermann Carl Franz Huth emigrated to Australia from the province of Prussia in what is today eastern Germany. My mother recently found some photos of him and my great-grandmother looking ancient with many of my other German forebears. In the photo they are having a picnic in the Aussie bush. Now, the area in which this picnic is taking place is quite hot even in winter, yet there they are in their immaculate outfits-suits, waistcoats, and so on. Today if we were going to have a picnic in such a place, the choice of attire would be shorts, tank tops, T-shirts, flip-flops, and plenty of sunscreen. Even in shorts we would probably be dripping with sweat, yet here are these people from a different time with their different values and clothing and mannerisms. Even the way they sit and lounge seems more formal, and the children seem more adult. Theirs was a completely different way of looking at life and the world; it was a different way of relating to and interacting with the culture around them. Such formality is almost unknown to us today; back then formality and convention were keys to developing an identity. We've changed a lot since then.
If you lived one hundred years ago, you would have had a very different set of social expectations placed upon you. Your social success would be determined by a number of factors, such as how ethically you conducted yourself in business and in family matters and how you related to your friends, neighbors, and relatives. These things were determinative of how well you would get on in life. Treating someone badly, committing adultery, or cheating on your taxes was such a serious breach of community life that you would most likely be shunned into shame by your loved ones. In other words, your social success was directly connected to your character and community involvement.
Such a way of understanding ourselves is almost unimaginable to us today. Back then everyone knew the rules, and their self-understanding came from fitting into a cultural order. Yet these social rules didn't help everyone. If you were of the wrong race, gender, or class, your community might have given you a sense of identity that you didn't exactly want. For the last one hundred years, we have been slowly rejecting the social institutions of our forebears. The dream was for the individual to be truly free from constraining cultural expectations. And for better or worse, we got what we hoped for: today individualism reigns. We no longer look to social institutions and community to find our sense of self; rather, we seek to "be free," to "express ourselves," and to "be happy with ourselves." But how do we achieve these things? We have unprecedented personal freedom, but our freedom is accompanied by a haunting sense of being lost. This sense comes in part from the way we understand our lives today.
To find a real sense of self, to discover who we really are, we first must work out how we got in the position we are in. We must discover the ways in which our sense of self has become infected and unstuck. We must seek to understand how we have moved away from basing our identities in our God-given image and toward simply adopting identities from the culture around us.
Chapter TwoFrom Image of God to Public Image
In the past, people didn't seem to struggle with the question of identity in the way we do today. Other questions were at the forefront of their minds, and they derived a sense of self from a commonly held standard. We have only to look at church history to see how this is true.
THE IMAGE OF GOD
John Bunyan wrote Pilgrim's Progress while imprisoned for his Puritan beliefs in 1678. The book is his spiritual biography told through allegory, and it is considered not only a Christian classic but a classic of English literature. It has been read for centuries by people who are interested in understanding the concept of spiritual growth.
At the beginning of Bunyan's tale, we find the hero of the book, named Christian, in a spiritual depression. Bunyan writes that Christian is "greatly distressed"; he cries out, "What must I do to be saved?" Bunyan's story has had such resonance with readers since its writing because the character Christian's struggle to find a sense of connection with God, to deal with his guilt and his burden of sin, has been the same struggle of Bunyan's readers. Such concerns about forming a relationship with God and dealing with the personal burden of sin were also foremost on the mind of the young Martin Luther, the father of Protestantism, as he decided to break away from the Roman Catholic Church and begin a new stream of Christianity. You don't have to read much history to see that, for millions of people who have lived in Christian cultures since the birth of the early church, the question of connecting with God and dealing with the burden of sin took precedence over questions of personal identity. This is because people living in Christian cultures in the past believed the book of Genesis when it told them they were created in God's image.
Now, I don't for one second want to paint a sanitized version of the past. Christian cultures have often failed to see the image of God in other cultures and, sadly, sometimes committed abominable actions in the name of Christ; but on the whole, the idea of God-given identity was foundational to a person's sense of self. The belief that humans were created in the image of God was the center point of an understanding of self. It was the cornerstone upon which identity was built.
GREEKS BEARING GOODNESS
Christianity was not the only influence, however, on Western culture. The philosophy of the ancient Greeks also molded the way individuals felt about their lives. The Greeks were obsessed with the ideas of virtue and goodness. The giant of Greek philosophy, Socrates, believed that if humans came to understand what was good, they would act in a way that was good, and therefore their lives would be happy. The Greeks looked to a greater good, an essence or standard of good, to define their lives. Thus, a desire to act in ways that are moral or good is embedded in Western culture, and our identity has been linked closely to our ability to live in a virtuous manner.
THE VERTICAL SELF
This framework of identity, with its Judeo-Christian belief in God-given identity and a Greek belief in virtuous living, can be described as "the vertical self." The vertical self explains the way that identity is developed by being part of a greater order.
At the top of this vertical order is God. Above us, therefore, albeit symbolically, is also a belief in an eternal reward and a greater spiritual reality. Humans develop a sense of self by looking upward, looking to the belief that they are created in God's image to be his ambassadors:
Then God said, "Let us make human beings in our image, in our likeness, so that they may rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky, over the livestock, and all the wild animals, and over all the creatures that move along the ground." So God created human beings in his own image, in the image of God he created him; male and female he created them. God blessed them and said to them, "Be fruitful and increase in number; fill the earth and subdue it. Rule over the fish in the sea and the birds in the sky and over every living creature that moves on the ground." (Gen. 1:26-28)
Humans also look upward to measure their behavior against a greater moral good.
In the middle of this order is earth, creation. Looking downward, humans view creation to see how they are different from it. We see that we have a divine imprint that does not exist in the animal kingdom. However, humans are also challenged to be stewards of creation, to cultivate and tend nature and the environment.
In a realm below nature we find the concepts of eternal punishment for sin, spiritual consequence, and evil. This level reminds us that there are eternal ramifications to our actions in this life, that we have the freedom to accept our God-given identity but we also have the freedom to reject this gift-and to choose a future separate from God with all of the horror that choice brings.
The vertical self is defined by being part of a greater reality. This worldview leads to a belief in the eternal, the desire to cultivate one's spirituality so that one moves upward on the path toward becoming more like God. The vertical self has been the dominant influence on Western culture's understanding of self since the birth of the church. But things have changed.
BLOWING UP THE PAST
A mere nine years after John Bunyan had published Pilgrim's Progress, the citizens of Athens found themselves under attack by the navy of Venice. To protect themselves from harm, they hid in their temple, the Parthenon. The temple represented the heights of Greek culture and thought. When Greece converted to Christianity, the temple had been turned into Athens's cathedral. The citizens of Athens thought the Parthenon was a good hiding place because they believed the Venetian invaders would never fire upon this symbol of both Christian piety and the heights of Greek thought. They were wrong. A mortar shell was fired at the temple, and the building became the ruins that we see on tourist postcards today.
Although no one realized it at the time, it was a deeply symbolic moment. For centuries Western culture had looked backward, but now a new period in history had begun. Humans began to look forward; we had entered the modern age. The modern age would create a whirlwind of change that would touch many elements of human existence-especially the way in which we view our lives.
THE LIFE SMOOTHIE
The way you see yourself and understand your identity is not unique. You feel the way you do because you are a product of a culture that has shaped you to process the world in a particular way. If you are to have a life that is rich and rewarding, it is essential that you understand this formation process. No longer do we understand ourselves and our identities through the lens of the vertical self; things have radically shifted. Now the way we see ourselves is the result of a mishmash of influences. It's kind of like a smoothie-all kinds of ingredients and influences have been put into a food processor, the button has been pushed, and everything has been mashed up and served to you as your identity. Without turning this into Sociology 101, let's take a quick tour of the influences that make you see yourself the way you do.
Excerpted from THE VERTICAL SELF by MARK SAYERS Copyright © 2010 by Mark Sayers. Excerpted by permission.
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