In our narcissistic age, discovering one's true self has become a major preoccupation of many people.
Joshua Knobe is sensitive to this situation and offered some thoughts recently, outlining the problem in The New York Times ("In Search of the True Self," June 5, 2011).
Is our true self that which we simply allow to come to expression because it most represents the way we feel? Or is our true self the one who works hard to suppress what we feel because we sense we're something more than that? Are we only the sum total of our desires? Or are we the person struggling against our desires in order to present someone who better represents what we value?
Some people insist that the true self "lies precisely in our suppressed urges and unacknowledged emotions." Others say that we find our true selves only when we "stop to reflect" and think about our "deepest values."
Affections or values? Heart or conscience? Where is the true self to be discovered?
Dr. Knobe leans toward values as the real indicator of the true self: "People's ordinary understanding of the true self appears to involve a kind of value judgment, a judgment about what sorts of lives are really worth living." But who's to say which values are best and what judgments are reliable? It doesn't matter. Tests show "a systematic connection between people's own values and their judgment about the true self." Which means, as Dr. Knobe explains, that our ideas about our true self are grounded in nonmaterial, abstract, unseen, and - dare we suggest - spiritual fields.
The true self is not merely material, as many neuroscientists would like us to believe. There's more than brain involved in determining who we are. And the the true self is not defined by emotional reactions, impulses, or mere desires. Something higher is at stake - values, ideals, notions of things good and true and just. Ideas and aspirations we can only imagine, but which we are determined to attain.
Not everybody defines these ideas in the same way, but all agree that they represent conceptions of truth and goodness which, faithfully adhered to, should help us to discover who we really are.
It's not hard to see here the memory, be it ever so faint, of the image of God. Christians believe, as Augustine put it so well, that human beings are made for God, designed to be like Him, and - once redeemed - set on a path to participate in Him, see Him as He is, and refract His glory to the world. The true self is, indeed, to be discovered in values and ideals, but not those concocted by the human mind in moments of quiet reflection. The true self, what we have been put here to be and do, is found in the image of God, and, thus, in knowing God Himself.
Dr. Knobe is correct when he says that the truth about true self "is bound to be quite a bit more complex than it might at first appear." But will he be open to the complexity - and clarity - of the Christian worldview on so important a matter as this?
Whether or not he is, believers do not need to fret about finding their true self. Seek the Lord, know and serve Him, and your true self will emerge as you are transformed into the image of Jesus Christ.
Additional related texts: Psalm 8; John 3.27-30; 2 Corinthians 3.12-18; 1 John 3.1-3
A conversation starter: "Where would you tell a brand new college graduate to look in order to discover his or her true self?"