Thursday, February 4, 2010

Identity and Psychological Well-Being

Psychologist James Hillman understandably insists that we have to recover a glimpse of our true destiny from the deadening materialistic ways we usually interpret our lives:

“We dull our lives by the way we conceive then…By accepting the idea that I am the effect of…hereditary and social forces, I reduce myself to a result. The more my life is accounted for by what already occurred in my chromosomes, by what my parents did or didn’t do, and by my early years now long past, the more my biography is the story of a victim. I am living a plot written by my genetic code, ancestral heredity, traumatic occasions, parental unconsciousness, societal accidents.” (The Soul’s Code: In Search of Character and Calling, Random House, 6)

Hillman so clearly recognizes the emptiness of a life built upon merely genetics and “societal accidents” and reminded me of my own self-despair. Years of psychotherapy had stripped me of any conception of dignity, meaning, honor, value, or purpose. I had become nothing more than a result, and the only source of value or purpose left open to me was that of enjoying my now painful and dysfunctional life, something far outside of my grasp.

Although my Jewishness seemed to give me some sense of meaning, I couldn’t identify how! Was my connection to the Jewish people merely a matter of being a part of a long-persecuted people? Did Hitler make me feel Jewish? And should I allow Hitler to have the privilege in shaping my identity? Wasn’t this pathological, and wasn’t I supposed to be aiming towards a wellness-identity? Certainly my Jewishness transcended my own pathetic circumstances and connected me to 4000 years of history, but everyone else’s ethnic history took them back this far. Although they might not be able to attach a name to their ethnicity as I could, I seemed to be no better off for it. An ancient pedigree might mean a lot to a brewery, but how would this help me?

Hillman’s own answer points beyond this life:

“As explained by the greatest of later Platonists, Plotinus, we selected the body, the parents, the place, and the circumstances that suited the soul…This suggests that the circumstances, including my body and my parents whom I may curse, are my soul’s own choice.” (p. 8)

Is this biography or identity an improvement over the genetic and “societal accidents” biography most of us are stuck with? I don’t think so. Although it might broaden the scope of our lives chronologically, it fails to broaden them meaningfully. Life, identity, and biography are still centered upon the depressing and bungling god of self! Instead, our deepest longing envisions a connection to something greater than self, to the Source of all meaning and truth, to a Place where we can find rest for our weary souls:

"Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you and learn from me, for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls”
(Matthew 11:28-30).

It was the Master of all creation who promised to give me rest. This was the missing link, the piece that enabled me to take my eyes off my inadequate self and to attach them to a fully adequate and loving Savior. When we fail to find true identity in Christ, we condemn ourselves to an endless cycle of trying to refurbish our identity by chasing after the autographs of the rich and famous, or by affiliating with the in-groups, or by recovering our “past lives,” because our present one just ain’t enough.

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