I have been a plague over the last six years of my life—my twenties. Other things changed: I take a new career every couple of years. My faith shifts when I change location, change churches, change friends, and change jobs. But I have remained constant.
I have always believed in a stable Self without realizing I believed it. I was me, and “me” was a thing that was and would always be me: a Self. My Self is distinct among other Selves I could be and others that actually are.
I might be made up of conflicting stories, memories, and identities, but always the sum total of those mini-selves was a Self. If someone were to read all of the stories that make me up, they would understand the Self that I am.
In sixth grade I disliked something about our basketball team, so I dropkicked a basketball and walked out of practice. Half the team followed my bold and meaningless charge, and my identity as a subversive emerged. This, I explain to the reader of my narrated Self, is when I realized that my true Self was a leader. And kind of a jerk.
This is a story of my Self. I contemplate it and others like it as I try to figure out who I am now: am I a fading writer, losing the belief I have anything to say? An arrogant writer, expecting it to be easy? Or a lay writer, writing in holy humility that which God has given me and nothing more?
All of these Self stories feel true enough, but none of them do me much good.
The older I get the more unrealistic the Self is—or rather, tautological. Unprovable. A little bit meaningless. I have lived all of those stories and yet this supposedly constant Self remains a mystery. Worse than a mystery: an obsession.
I hadn’t thought I was obsessing about myself—I hadn’t realized this “Self” had become something of a god to me—until I came across a nugget of gold from G.K. Chesterton in his book Orthodoxy. He writes:
“Christianity came into the world firstly in order to assert with violence that a man had not only to look inwards, but to look outwards, to behold with astonishment and enthusiasm a divine company and a divine captain” (p. 76).
This necessity of looking not just inward, but outwards to the glory of creation and the needs of others is what Chesterton calls “the only fun of being a Christian.” He asks the Christian to both hate the world enough to want to change and it and love it without rationality. I do love and hate the world, I realized as I read, and that is something that matters more than I.
Yet I am drawn inward on myself. Perpetually. Irresistibly. Narcissistically. I want to understand who I am, how I got here, and where I’m going next. In the dark days of my twenties—those times when I got myself into a pickle I couldn’t get out of or when there were no pickles to be seen and my own life had never been so dull—on those days, looking inward is a chosen prison.
I have spent my whole life plagued with myself. Looking outward is unfamiliar to me. What stories do I read to see beyond? What counts as “outward”? How do you ask people to tell you the wild dreams of their hearts so that you can ignore your own for just a short, sweet while?
Elaine Schnabel (’11) spent her twenties traveling, blogging, and earning various master’s degrees. Now earning her PhD at the University of North Carolina in organizational communication, Elaine researches and writes at the intersection of religion and communication. You can find her blogging at Religious (Not Crazy).