Monday, May 6, 2013

A Few Thoughts on Self-Esteem

"For the highest of human tasks is for a man to allow himself to be completely persuaded that he can of himself do nothing, absolutely nothing."
--Søren Kierkegaard, "Man's Need of God Constitutes his Highest Perfection," Edifying Discourses, Vol. IV

"For it is not the man who commends himself that is accepted, but the man whom the Lord commends."
--2 Cor 10:18

In modern psychology, self-esteem is the big fad.  If we do not feel like we are perfect, if we don't feel like we can do everything, we are considered as broken and in need of fixing.  We supposedly cannot function in the world without being puffed up with self-esteem.  Pseudo-psychology says the same thing: by believing in how awesome we are, we draw good things to ourselves.  (Just think of The Secret and the "law of attraction.")  Yet how true is this drive to self-esteem?

In self-esteem, the goal is to "commend ourselves," as St. Paul would say.  But is that good?  It seems that it is not, according to the Truth.  "Apart from Me you can do nothing" (Jn 15:5).  Is not self-esteem thinking that we can do everything on our own?  Yet, as Kierkegaard says, our true greatness comes from realizing our worthlessness.  "But I am a worm, and no man" (Ps 22:6).  "He must increase, but I must decrease": shouldn't that be the declaration of us all? (Jn 3:30)  As Christians, are we not called to humility?  How does puffing ourselves up with the idea that we are all-powerful consistent with humility?

Isn't pride considered the root of all vices?  Yet isn't self-esteem just a form of pride?  St. John Cassian listed self-esteem as one of the eight vices, calling that we "always reject the thoughts of self-praise that enter our hearts, and always regard ourselves as nothing before God" (On the Eight Vices, Philokalia I:92, paraphrased).

Is there a good use of self-esteem?  I know people that have suffered from depression and can barely function by thinking that they are absolutely worthless, and calling for humility can make them feel horrible.  I can personally attest that the "Litany of Humility" can be excruciating.  But is it because this kind of anti-self-esteem is bad, or is it because we have not fully thrown all of our cares onto God?  Is this rejection of self-esteem and acceptance of humility only truly possible if we fully devote ourselves totally to God?  Without relying on God's grace and power, our rejection of self is unbearable and impossible to live.  But with a true dependance on Him, could this ideal of extreme humility not only be possible but praise-worthy?

I am not certain on this topic, for I have felt the crushing weight of a lack of self-esteem.  Does this mean self-esteem has a legitimate use, for instance, in psychology?  I do not know.  Is the idea of self-esteem abused constantly today?  I would say so.  I do not yet know how to balance humility and self-esteem, or whether there should be a balance.  These are merely some thoughts that have run through my head.  Is self-esteem compatible with Christianity?  I do not know yet.  All I can do is pray and work on relying entirely on God and His Grace.

St. John the Forerunner, pray for us!

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