The Gospel According To “ME”

The Gospel According To “ME”

Excerpts from Critchley/Webster, The Stone, Opinion, New York Times Online, June 29, 2013

 

The booming self-help industry, not to mention the cash cow of New Age spirituality, has one message: “be authentic!” Charming as American optimism may be, its 21st-century incarnation as the search for authenticity deserves pause. The power of this new version of the American dream can be felt through the stridency of its imperatives: “Live fully! Realize yourself! Be connected! Achieve well-being!” Guilt and alienation must be eliminated, most notably through yoga practice after a long day of mind-numbing work.

 

Despite the frequent claim that we are living in a secular age defined by the death of God, many citizens in rich Western democracies have merely switched one notion of God for another — abandoning their singular, omnipotent (Christian or Judaic or whatever) deity reigning over all humankind and replacing it with a weak but all-pervasive idea of spirituality tied to a personal ethic of authenticity and a liturgy of inwardness. The latter does not make the exorbitant moral demands of traditional religions, which impose bad conscience, guilt, sin, sexual inhibition and the rest.

 

In the gospel of authenticity, well-being has become the primary goal of human life. Rather than being the by-product of some collective project, some up building of the New Jerusalem, well-being is an end in itself. The stroke of genius in the ideology of authenticity is that it doesn’t really require a belief in anything, and certainly not a belief in anything that might transcend the serene and contented living of one’s authentic life and baseline well-being. In this, one can claim to be beyond dogma.

 

This is the phenomenon that one might call, with an appreciative nod to Nietzsche, passive nihilism. Authenticity is its dominant contemporary expression. In a seemingly meaningless, inauthentic world awash in nonstop media reports of war, violence and inequality, we close our eyes and turn ourselves into islands.

 

We may even say a little prayer to an obscure but benign Eastern goddess and feel some weak spiritual energy connecting everything as we listen to some tastefully selected ambient music. Authenticity, needing no reference to anything outside itself, is an evacuation of history. The power of now. “At the heart of the ethic of authenticity is a profound selfishness and callous disregard of others.”

 

With the workplace dominated by the maxim of personal authenticity — Be different! Wear your favorite T-shirt to work and listen to Radiohead on your iPhone while at your desk! Isn’t it nifty? — there is no room for worker malaise. And contrary to popular belief, none of this has assuaged the workplace dynamics of guilt, bad conscience and anxiety, which are more rampant than ever.

 

In fact, the blurring of the boundary between work and nonwork in the name of flexibility has led to an enormous  increase in anxiety — a trend well-documented in the work of Peter Fleming, a professor of work, organization and society at the University of London. Women in particular feel totally inadequate for not being able to have it all — climb the ladder at work, make the same wages as men, have a family, have a voluminous sex life, still look attractive and act as if they are having a great time through all of it.

 

Work is no longer a series of obligations to be fulfilled for the sake of sustenance: it is the expression of one’s authentic self. With the extraordinary rise of internships — not just filled by college students anymore, but more and more by working-age adults — people from sufficiently privileged backgrounds  are even prepared to work without pay  because it allows them to “grow” as persons. Every aspect of one’s existence is meant to water some fantasy of growth.

 

But here’s the rub: “if one believes that there is an intimate connection between one’s authentic self and glittering success at work, then the experience of failure and forced unemployment is accepted as one’s own fault.” I feel shame for losing my job. I am morally culpable for the corporation’s decision that I am excess to requirements. 

 

Even though the Bible does not teach self-love, self-esteem, self-worth, or self-actualization as virtues, helps, or goals, a vast number of present-day Christians have been deceived by the self-teachings of humanistic psychology. Rather than resisting the enticement of the world they become culture-bound. Not only do they not resist the tidal wave of selfism; they are riding the crest of self-esteem, self-acceptance, and self-love.

 

One can hardly tell the difference between the Christian and the non-Christian in the area of the self, except that the Christian adds God as the main source for his self-esteem, self-acceptance, self-worth, and self-love.

 

“If there is one thing the world and many in the church have in common these days, it’s the psychology of self-esteem. Although Christians may disagree about some of the nuances of self-esteem, self-worth, and self-acceptance, and even on some of the finer points of definition and how it is attained, too many have joined forces against what they believe is a formidable enemy — low self-esteem. Yet, even the world cannot justify promoting high self-esteem through its own methods of research.”

 

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