President Oprah made an appearance on Good Morning America yesterday where she doled out some nuggets of New Age wisdom. Asked to give advice to young girls, she said “be yourself” and “listen to your heart song.” If you follow your heart, says Oprah, “you will be led to your highest good, always.” And remember, “all of the voices in the world mean nothing if your voice is in alignment with all the voices in the world.”
Now, I don’t speak fortune cookie, so I’m not sure what that last part means. How do I put my voice in alignment with all the voices in the world? And why do I want to? And if all the voices in the world mean nothing, shouldn’t my voice be out of alignment with them? Why do I want to be in alignment with meaningless voices? These are questions for another day.
Her other pieces of advice were slightly more coherent, certainly very popular, but also terrible. Kids today are raised on the idea that they should “be themselves” and “listen to their hearts,” but that is basically the opposite of what they should do. Listening to your heart and being yourself is a recipe for misery and failure, or worse. A cheating husband is listening to his heart. An obnoxious, gossiping bully is being herself. Hitler had a “heart song” and he followed it all the way to “his highest good,” or his perception of his highest good, which happened to involve the systematic annihilation of the Jewish people.
Let’s take a closer look at both of these slogans to better understand just how destructive and stupid they are:
1) Be Yourself.
In one sense, of course, we have no choice but to be ourselves. But that’s not what the Oprahs of the world mean when they tell you to “be yourself.” That’s not what a person is trying to say when she tells you that her guiding principle in life is to “be herself.” What the mantra means in common usage can be summed up this way: I am perfect just as I am and everyone should accept me because I am myself.
To “be myself” is to stand in place and look inward. It is to embrace all of my personal characteristics just as they are, right now, and insist that everyone else embrace them, too. “Just be yourself” means exactly what it says. Just be exactly who you are. Aim no higher.
We’ve all had the misfortune of meeting huge jerks who get away with their jerkiness because everyone around them has decided to let them be themselves. “Well, that’s just Jim being Jim,” they say. Yes, that is Jim being Jim. That’s the problem. Jim is the problem. Jim should not be Jim. Jim is pretty awful. Jim is self-centered. Jim is irritating. Jim’s self, as it stands at the moment, is not a good self. It’s a very unpleasant self and he should change it. He should be a better self, not himself.
Self-acceptance is the poison of the modern world. It is the surest recipe for failure. A man who accepts himself will never improve because improvement requires us to look at ourselves critically. It requires us not to love our flaws — as the motivational marketing campaigns instruct us to do — but to wage an all-out war against them. The first step in improvement is learning to truly detest the detestable things about yourself. To become a better self we cannot be satisfied with ourselves.
2) Follow your heart.
The Earth is filled with people who have followed their hearts over a cliff. Shattered lives, broken homes, ruined marriages — these are the fruits of following your heart. Anyone who suggests that “your heart” will always lead you in the right direction obviously has never noticed, well, the entire history of the human race.
Human beings are corrupt. We are weak. We are selfish. This isn’t my theory, or even something I need the Bible to tell me. The news tells me. History books tell me. My interactions with the world tell me. My own life tells me. Every person I have ever met tells me. When we pursue simply our own satisfaction, it always — always, every time — leads us to harm ourselves or other people.
A better strategy, and one that will lead ultimately to joy and fulfillment, is to follow God with our hearts, and our minds, and in our actions. Our hearts by themselves can only lead us back into ourselves, where we will collapse like dying stars. But when we train our hearts on God, and listen to Him in our hearts — your heart really being your soul, in this case — then we will actually be led to our “highest good.” Following our hearts without God is like following a car without a driver. Or following a car with a half-drunk, visually impaired driver. Doing what your heart tells you to do regardless of God's wishes, is like doing whatever your phone tells you to do regardless of who happens to be on the other end.
A similar stipulation should be made about “being ourselves.” We should not simply be ourselves, but become ourselves through God. When I sin, when I put distance between myself and Him, I fade. I get further and further away from the Self that God intends for me to be. If I keep traveling into the darkness, I will lose myself more and more, until I am obliterated in Hell. When a thing malfunctions, it is not being what it is supposed to be. It is not being itself. You cannot be yourself in sin.
I think this is one of the reasons why wicked people are all the same. Every story of adultery is the same. Every selfish person you’ve ever met is the same. Every abusive spouse is the same. Every liar is the same. Every coward is the same. Every tyrant is the same. Every school shooter is the same. These people barely have selves anymore. Hollywood would have us believe that evil people are the most interesting, the most distinct, but the opposite is true. There is nothing remarkable about evil. Evil is an assembly line that churns out a million versions of the same thing.
Virtue, integrity, courage — these come in countless shapes and sizes. The heroes, the martyrs, the saints are as varied as the stars. They are all vibrant and unique. Look at the figures in the Bible. The holy ones are all different and fascinating. Even when we are given only a glimpse of them — as with John the Baptist, for example — still they jump off the page and spring to life, and we wish that we could learn more about them. But what else is there to learn about Judas? He has the distinction of being the worst traitor in human history, yet he is boring. You feel that you’ve learned all you need to learn about him just from the few lines where he is mentioned. He has no features, no personality. He has no self. He is an unself.
Paul is a self. Moses is a self. Jeremiah, Elijah, David, Peter, Mary. They all became themselves through the one Self who made all selves.