One of the questions asked to most teenagers and young adults (something I am still asked very often being 24) is: “What are you going to do when you grow up?” “Who do you want to be when you grow up?” The life of every pre-young adult and young adult is built upon this, or, as Richard Rohr has wonderfully called it, “building your tower.” We’re building our identity. Building our empire. We list a myriad of objectives, and we don’t stop until we get them. We must get a degree, start a career, get married, begin a family, buy a house. We do this to find out somehow that we’re good people, that we have great self-worth. We don’t stop until we are successful and we have the proper ego and personal success in place. This world is a very fun one to live in (but painful as well). It is built around our desires of falling in love, finding success, and building our own personal significance. Although this time is very exciting, it is also a very strong lie. Thomas Merton called this personal lie, the false self. Merton says of this false self:
This is the man I want myself to be but who cannot exist because God does not know anything about him. And to be unknown of God is altogether too much privacy.
My false and private self is the one who wants to exist outside the reach of God’s will and God’s love . . . outside of reality and outside of life. And such a self cannot help but be an illusion.
For most people in the world, there is no greater subjective reality than this false self of theirs, which cannot exist. A life devoted to the cult of this shadow is what is called a life of sin.
All sin starts from the assumption that my false self, the self that exists only in my own egocentric desires, is the fundamental reality to which everything else is ordered. There I use up my life in the desire for pleasures and the thirst for experience, for power, honor, knowledge and love to clothe this false self and construct its nothingness into something objectively real. And I wind experiences around myself and cover myself with pleasures and glory like bandages in order to make myself perceptible to myself and to the world, as if I were an invisible body that could become visible only when something visible covered its surface.
In order to avoid sounding to negative, the false self is a necessary part of the journey. You can’t discover what’s true until you have discovered what is a lie. You can’t tear a tower down before you build it. The life of people in their prelude to and current beginning adulthood is filled with a lot of pleasurable lies. Just this week I helped someone through a hard time and my thoughts went to, “Mike, you are so wonderful for helping others through their difficulties.” Then I laughed at it, because I know it’s a lie, but it’s a part of the journey. The ultimate reality that we strive for is not for me to define myself, but to find ultimate fulfillment in letting God define me. It’s when we can trust and be rooted in our true self. The self that knows it is loved and worthy, because God says that of me. The true self can utter the words of Richard Rohr without hesitation, “There is nothing to prove and nothing to protect. I am who I am and it’s enough.”