Good News: The Real You is Broken
The day after the 2016 presidential election, my Facebook page was predictably tempestuous. For the most part, I just stayed away, but one post on my feed caught my eye. It started with the line, “I won’t tell you you’re broken.” It reminded me of a good many other quotes over the years – a sweatshirt from the person seated next to me at the airport in Tel Aviv: “free your inner self,” or the refrain, “now don’t you understand/I’m never changing who I am.” (Never mind that growth and change are a primary indicator of whether something is alive.)
This idea that we’d all be better off if we just accepted ourselves has always seemed strange to me. I want to change who I am; there are things I don’t like about myself, things I want to be better. This isn’t because I have a low opinion of myself; that would be backwards. It’s precisely because I have a high opinion of myself that I set the bar high. If a poor student gets a C, we’re happy; if a star student gets a C, we’re unhappy, precisely because we have a high opinion of his abilities in this area. To tell him that a C is excellent isn’t to give him self-confidence and acceptance; it’s to belittle his potential.
In the same way, we need to accept that all of our characters could use substantial renovation. We are all broken, in one way or another; if we weren’t, we wouldn’t have so many TV shows starring bands of misfits with pasts they’d rather forget. We like watching people with flaws and problems precisely because we have them. But that doesn’t mean we need to normalize these flaws and say that, because they’re normal, they’re fine. Normal doesn’t mean fine. Normal is messed up.
Nor is acceptance the answer. Saying that self-knowledge will solve character problems is like saying that accurate scales will solve obesity. Character is developed with time and effort and choice and discipline, just like anything else worth having. To say that we should all just accept each other as we are, or that we shouldn’t acknowledge that there is something wrong with the world and with us, is to cheat ourselves, to degrade our own potential, to be apathetic about the things that matter most. The world is messed up. We don’t need to start accepting that; we need to start fixing it.
The problem that I think these sentiments are trying to address comes when we mix up the meaning of the word accept, when we mistake complacency for kindness. We’ve gotten acceptance backwards, and so we’ve gotten ourselves messed up. We’ve based acceptance and worth on attractiveness or ability or achievement, and so to avoid denigrating someone’s worth as a person, we’re forced to lie about their accomplishments or skill, even if they don’t have any.
This is particularly prominent in the area of physical attractiveness today. For a while, whenever I walked around Cambridge, I was bombarded by signs informing me that “the real you is sexy” (the real me, I finally discovered, meaning my physical body without photo-shopping). I have multiple problems with this. First, not everyone is attractive, and this sign has no idea whether I am or not. But more than this, this sign seems to think that my worth as a person – my real worth – depends on the attractiveness of my body. And this simply isn’t so.
The worth of any person, and our responsibility to love and care for them, is in no way predicated upon talent or attractiveness or achievement. It is not something that is earned; it is an unalienable right we have by virtue of being created in the image of God. If Josie has never accomplished a single thing in her life, if she’s lazy and rotten and spiteful through and through, her life still has intrinsic value, because she, too, was made in the image of God. So there’s no need for artificial inflation of our abilities or accolades; we have nothing to prove. We are all broken, and we are all priceless, as simple as that.
It is thus of the utmost importance that before we openly say that some people are more intelligent, or physically attractive, or talented, or qualified, than others, we establish that these qualities are only of secondary importance. Many of them are not of our own making in any case; we call them ‘gifts’ for a reason. Every person’s worth is immutably established simply by virtue of his or her existence.
This is the paradox of grace and works in Christianity. We are saved by grace alone; our own virtue could not save us, because the standard is perfection; our only act is to accept the grace and entrance into goodness that is given. But we can reject this grace, reject this chance to reach higher, and insist that we’re not broken, and we’re never changing who we are. I’ve met no one yet who thought he was perfect, but I’ve met quite a few people who thought they were decent folks, ‘good enough.’
If you’re good enough for yourself, it’s time to raise your standards. Because the real you is a broken version of a person almost too phenomenal to be believed, and you’re going to miss becoming that person if you keep on insisting that you’re fine.