Saturday, May 27, 2017


It is both odd and tragic in this age of the internet, cell phones, text-messaging, and various forms of e-communications, that we should still be discussing the ills of isolation and loneliness. However, despite all the outlets at our disposal to “reach-out,” the problems seem to be escalating along with the resulting depression. Psychiatrists Jacqueline Olds and Richard Schwartz cite two “major studies” in this regard. In the first:

·       “McPherson found that between 1985 and 2004, the number of people with whom the average American discussed ‘important matters’ dropped from three to two. Even more stunning, the number of people who said that there was no one with whom they discussed important matters tripled: in 2004, individuals without a single confidant now made up nearly a quarter of those surveyed” (The Lonely American, 2).

Many explanations are brought forward to explain our growing isolation. Some cite America’s legendary pioneering spirit and our emphasis on self-reliance. Others suggest that loneliness is a product of our frenetic pace. However, these explanations fail to explain the recent nose-dive in levels of intimacy, since we have always been self-reliant and frenetic! In addition to this, there is the finding of James Buie that “Depression…for those born after 1950 is as much as twenty times higher than the incidence rate for those born before 1910” (quoted from Edward Welch, Depression: A Stubborn Darkness, 113).

What then has happened to us in recent decades? I’d like to suggest that one of the greatest culprits for these phenomena has ironically been the quest for self-esteem. Welch appropriately asks: “What happens when people are raised on a steady diet of ‘You are great, you can do anything, you deserve it, you are the best’…Depression and denial are the only two options left.”

I would add loneliness and isolation to this equation. What happens when we are intent on building self-esteem? We accentuate the positive and deny the negative, since the negative contradicts everything we want to think about ourselves. However, this quest puts us out-of-touch with reality.

Besides, it also becomes increasingly difficult to accept criticism, which tears apart everything that we are trying to achieve, the face that we have constructed for ourselves. In this quest, we have become estranged from our true self and also from others.

From others? Yes! Perhaps the best way to demonstrate how the quest for self-esteem alienates is to compare it to its opposite – self-acceptance – which is the quest to accept reality, which includes the self, the way it is and not the way we want it to be.

When we are self-accepting, we are not defensive. We are not trying to put an image of self out there and, in a sense, require that others accept this image as the price-tag of entry. In The Significant Life, George Weaver cites President Lyndon B. Johnson as an example of the self-aggrandizement of self-esteem:

·       According to one commentator, “It is a curious footnote to history that long before he ran into trouble, Johnson had turned central Texas into a living monument to his heritage and his journey to the summit (the L.B.J birthplace, the L.B.J. boyhood home, the L.B.J. state park, the L.B.J. ranch and more).” (22)

Johnson had presented to the world the face of “heightened significance.” Who else would set up props which essentially say, “Look at me!” In order to affiliate with such a person, we are required to accept this face. If instead, we regard Johnson as just another human being or even criticize one aspect of his façade, any further affiliation, let alone friendship, would be doomed. It is package that we have to buy as is.

I want to make the point that the vast majority of us have a face we are trying to sell, both to ourselves and to the world. Any attempt at friendship must accept this face. When we don’t accept this façade, there will be some degree of underlying conflict. Why? Because our face or has become utterly needful to us, like a drug! Therefore, any criticism or failure to acknowledge this face deprives us of our significance, our necessary sense of self.

This is problematic, because we are not asking the other person to accept us as they see us. We are asking them to accept our inflated concept of self. If this self-concept is too greatly at variance to what we see, there will be disharmony. Just try befriending someone who believes that he is Napoleon. There will be conflict unless you indulge him by accepting his self-concept. However, there will be no basis for true friendship.

The quest for self-esteem is truth-aversive and undercuts the possibility of standing together with others. True human friendship requires some commonality – some common ground where two people can meet, even if it only entails enjoyment of the same food. However, the pursuit of self-esteem and its plume places a demand upon the other person to agree and appreciate it.

In contrast, self-acceptance (SA) has no such demands. SA has a different posture. It says, “I am willing to accept the truth about myself.” Although such a person still enjoys being admired and appreciated, it makes no demand upon the other to provide such commodities.

SA is at peace with itself. It doesn’t have to obsessively defend its image against reality and anything that might threaten it. SA already accepts the fact that it has many undesirable characteristics and is willing to make the necessary adjustments.

I am very sensitive and don’t like criticism, but I know that I need it. This is because I know that I too have my blind spots. I don’t have the most winsome personality – far from it – but people feel that they can be themselves around me, because I can be myself around them. Because I can accept myself as I truly am – and I still have a long way to go – I can also accept others, even if they too have their glaring weaknesses.

Why loneliness? I think that one of the reasons for loneliness is our failure to connect. The quest for self-esteem does not come forth with a bouquet of roses but a list of requirements. It is a walled city that requires the exact shibboleth to gain entry. Besides, it is a shibboleth that few care to learn.

Of course, there are other factors. Our main preoccupation is not to give that bouquet of roses but to receive them. But when both parties are expecting roses, both will be disappointed.

Instead, we need to return to the adage: “It is better to give than to receive.” But how? It is hard to want to give when our needs are so glaring and demanding. I therefore must confess that I was never able to attain any measure of SA on my own. Each one of my five highly-recommended psychologists had left me worse off than I had been before, despite their many positive affirmations. Instead, I needed the confidence in the definitive affirmations that can only come from Christ Himself. Only this was able to interrupt my quest to feel good about myself.

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