Common Wisdom: The E Word

‘Tis the season to be introspective. Or is it? Tradition has it that January initiates a fresh start, a time to rid ourselves of less admirable qualities and strengthen those more commendable. The only question was how long we could persevere. But the impulse to improve, implying recognition of faults, indeed transgressions, seems to be going the way of hula hoops. The whole notion appears dated, relic of unenlightened days before we embraced the cult of self-esteem.

I don’t know when the movement arrived, but popular appetite for the book I’m OK, You’re OK, published in 1969, signaled seduction. By 1989, the self-congratulatory title appears positively limp-wristed. Such indulgence has escalated to the plane where I’m no longer OK, I’m downright special. Here in California it recently generated an entire enterprise instigated by Assemblyman John Vasconcellos, namely a three-year exploration to the tune of $735,000 called the Task Force on Self-Esteem. Its quest was to find out “whether healthy self-esteem relates to the development of personal responsibility and social problems … and how [it] is nurtured, harmed or reduced, and rehabilitated.” Vasconcellos himself, however, harbors no doubt as to the import of “the felt appreciation of my own innate instinctual being.” People can’t follow dicta to just say no “until they say yes to themselves.”

The obvious response to all this dithering is that it is the wrong time and the wrong place. Considering the precipitous plunge taken by civilized behavior, reflected in epidemic rudeness, offensive language, and the general collapse of selflessness, the idea that there are people, not in asylums, who genuinely deem it necessary to promote self-esteem is, to be charitable, ludicrous. We need not so much a cure for AIDS as for rampant egotism.

From the Get-Outta-My-Face insolence of the flexible finger thrown to motorists on little or no provocation, to the I’m Terrific syndrome ubiquitous in advertising, vanity is having a field day. L’Oreal’s campaign for hair products features TV star Cybill Shepherd insisting she buys L’Oreal because “I deserve it.” To mature ears, Cybill reeks of insufferable arrogance, but obviously the copywriter and the client find her conceit appealing. Then, too, there is the pouty woman who gobbles up all the Frusen Gladje dessert, disdaining guilt and proclaiming, “I’d do it again.” These obnoxious attitudes would be hilarious if they did not bear a distressing verisimilitude to daily encounters. What was once indicted as selfish is now endorsed as getting yours. You’re not pushy, you’re assertive. Commercials like these, ads in magazines, could not have been conceived 20 years ago. The postures they represent would have instantly doomed the products. But egotism today is commonly observed, in the media and in society itself.

It is paradoxical that a committee in Sacramento feels it must beat the drums to instill in the citizenry, especially in school children, a sense of self-esteem in a climate where preoccupation with self is obsessive. The prevalent pathology of Looking Out for Number One was noted and reproached even from the unlikely source of our new Miss America. Stanford student Gretchen Carlson said she wants “to see children receive more education on values, teaching them to be less narcissistic.”

As thousands of kindergartners in public schools exited their first day in class in 1973, one of my daughters among them, parents noticed clothes festooned with brightly colored signs declaring “I am special!” It was, of course, the tip of the iceberg, ultimately culminating in Assemblyman Vasconcellos’s Task Force. Catholics among us should have been able to look to the Church to combat the trend, but what did we find? We discovered that those in the Church, with the capacity to do so, were leading us down analogous paths. As discipline and practices of self-denial relaxed following Vatican II, we careened along a giddy road whose directional signals had been altered. Man’s dichotomized nature, the result of original sin, was scarcely mentioned. Actual sin, guilt, the need to repent and make amends, received scant reference.

I know. I taught C.C.D. in three parishes, using standard catechetical texts. Unpleasant realities were eschewed in favor of more palatable fare designed not to turn off the students. Lessons leaned on friendly persuasion about community, generously accompanied by pictures of assorted ethnic children hanging from jungle gyms. One priest, prophetically anticipating today’s most tedious phrase, resisted my efforts to have penance conferred before my daughter’s First Communion because talking about sin might make her “feel bad about herself.”

Meanwhile, over at Sunday Mass, the sermon had been rechristened the less formidable “homily.” Priests veered away from justice, the risks of damnation and hell, to concentrate on God’s mercy. The irony was that if one had no sense of sin, one certainly had no sense of guilt, and naturally did not need to seek forgiveness. God’s mercy is superfluous to the sinless. That tact taken explains why it is today we have long lines for communion and none for confession. Scrupulosity, the overdose of a critical conscience, vanished. While not mourning its demise, its absence is significant.

To be sure, my generation could have used some of those soothing sermons — but I wouldn’t trade places. The majority of middle-aged Catholics today understand that the Church did us a service not fretting about our self-esteem. It enlightened us about man’s duality. We accepted this truth, understood the human condition, and felt gratitude for the sacrament of penance. We could always confront failure, and begin anew. Every confession was January 1.

Considering that eternity hangs in the balance, examination of conscience without rationalization or compromise should exclude self-deception. Mine was not the generation told it was special except for one overwhelming exception: God so loved mankind that He sent His Son to die for each of us, after He showed us the way to live. We were never misled by the current fatuity in vogue among the Self-Esteem Task Force and elsewhere that you can’t love others unless you first love yourself. They’ve got it backwards.

One of our strengths, experientially validated, is that even when we loathe ourselves for a particular offense we know God’s love is steadfast. “Learning to love yourself is the greatest love of all” was not said by Christ; it is sung by rock star Whitney Houston, another victim of the self-esteem ethos. Christ did say, “Love one another as I have loved you” (John 13:34). The message is against self-absorption. St. Paul admonishes, “let each esteem others better than themselves” (Philippians 2:3). The least popular virtue, behind chastity, is humility. Yet Christ said, “The last shall be first” (Mark 9:35). This quote will never make it into self-esteem brochures, or top ten lyrics.

It may be that self-esteem is easy for some, hard for others. The point is, it doesn’t matter. It is a vapid and vainglorious pursuit. The sine qua non is not what I think of myself, but what God thinks of me. As the new year begins, this remains the most timeless and compelling concern, at once a question and an answer.

  • B. F. Smith

    B. F. Smith is a freelance writer and former contributing editor to Crisis Magazine.

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