Wednesday, July 16, 2014

Sweden and the Costs of Self-Promotion

When trying to prove that atheism is fruitful, atheists appeal to the “atheistic” country of Sweden for support. (Obviously, they can’t invoke the militant atheistic communist nations!) That’s why I was delighted to meet an engaging Swedish woman at a hostel in Krakow, Poland, who I assaulted with a series of questions.

She quickly dismissed that assertion that Sweden was atheistic, affirming that most Swedes believe in God even though they aren’t church-goers. Nevertheless, she acknowledged that the Christian faith was continuing to shrink away from the Swedish public arena. Even though not a Christian, she acknowledged that the public disappearance of the faith was associated with the growth of social ills:

  • The youth have been taught to think that they are #1 and that they can do all things. Consequently, they can’t deal with setbacks.

She explained that their unrealistically high expectations have not prepared them for failure. Besides, failure undermines the very foundation of their self-concept and therefore, it is too painful to endure. It boldly tells them that they are not superior.

This made me think that Sweden was not very much different from the rest of the West, although it might have played a pioneering role. But why do we find this tendency so prevalent in the West?

It seems that when a culture minimizes God, a vacuum is created – a vacuum that needs to be filled. If the West can no longer rely on God, what then can it rely on if not the self! If God is no longer the answer to our hopes, then we are forced to pick up the reigns. Our dreams and hopes must now be fulfilled by us.

While this “captain of my ship” orientation is greatly esteemed, the costs are seldom considered. Yes, there are costs! My Swedish friend noted a few of them – alienation, loneliness, and the breakdown of community.

However, at first glance, there seems to be no causal link between these social ills and believing in oneself. It would seem that self-trust and self-esteem might even provide some extra confidence in navigating the threatening waters of social interaction, but this might not be the case. A study performed in the U.S. about 18 years ago found that only 10% admitted that they lacked a friend to whom they could share their innermost concerns. When the survey was repeated 15 years later, that percentage had climbed to 25%, despite higher reported levels of self-esteem.

What can account for such a troubling upturn? Self-esteem costs! When we attempt to fill the God-vacuum, we have to deny and suppress disturbing truths about ourselves. These truths clearly tell us we are not gods and can’t trust in ourselves. Instead, we fight an ongoing battle against our perceptions in order to believe the unbelievable about ourselves. It becomes too painful to acknowledge that we have weaknesses and failings that we have not been able to overcome. Consequently, we suppress the painful and accentuate those things that bring us psychological comfort.

This is not guesswork. Many surveys have demonstrated that the mentally “healthy” live lives of self-delusion. For instance, in one study, the subjects were asked to rate themselves according to numerous characteristics. Then others who knew the subject well rated him. The subject’s rating was almost always higher than those who knew him best.

How would a heightened self-image affect relationships and alienation? Here are several thoughts:

  1. If we are in a constant battle to define our artificially high self-image, we might feel threatened by how others would regard us and isolate ourselves. Defensiveness interferes with relationship formation.

  1. It is hard to relate to someone who doesn’t share the same reality, namely, our self-image. This would produce dissonance and consequently, social isolation. Just think of the problems trying to relate to someone who thinks that they are the next Einstein.

  1. When someone is engaged in trying to heighten their self-esteem, we will either feel coerced into helping them or we will also feel the need to prove ourselves in face of such arrogance.

  1. If we feel superior to others, we will not value them sufficiently.

  1. In contrast, humility is self-accepting and non-coercive. It esteems the other. It also allows our associate to lay down his guard and to be himself.

It is hard to play God. It also seems to be costly. We are not equipped to play God but rather to be the beneficiary of His mercy. Therefore, Jesus warned:

  • “For all those who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.” (Luke 18:14)

Consequently, to reject God is to reject ourselves and the hope of real attachments and community.

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