As I Was Saying is a forum for a variety of perspectives to foster faith-related conversations among our readers with the goal of mutual learning, even in disagreement. Apart from articles written by editorial staff, these perspectives do not necessarily reflect the views of The Banner.
Traveling abroad a few months ago, I noticed lots of people using selfie sticks. A selfie stick is a portable light-weight rod to which you attach your cell phone. When you take a picture of something—a waterfall, a palace, or some other great tourist attraction—you are always in the picture. It’s all about you.
In his wonderful book The Road to Character, David Brooks talks about this being a selfie age. It’s the age in which our children are told from the earliest age how great they are, how much they have accomplished. The biggest fear is that they may lack self-esteem.
Well, it worked.
The Gallup organization has for a long time been polling people’s attitudes toward themselves. Back in 1950, 12 percent of high school kids would describe themselves as “a very important person.” In 2005, it was a whopping 80 percent.
How can that be? Back in 1950, if a high school kid thought of herself as a very important person, the reaction of her parents and teachers might have been, “Who do you think you are?” But today, parents and teachers are trying to instill precisely the notion that each kid is very important.
On the one hand, every person is important in the sense that they have inherent worth as an imagebearer of God. No one is expendable; no one is worthless. On the other hand, in the larger scheme of things, 80 percent of high school kids are not very important people. They are not extraordinary or highly competent or special. They’re just high school kids.
So what’s wrong with that approach? Isn’t it good for us to have a healthy self-esteem? Well, no, it’s not good, for a number of reasons, the most important of which is that it instills pride, which is the chief human vice, instead of humility, a prized virtue.
Humility isn’t putting oneself down or groveling in the muck of self-loathing. Humility is the sane virtue of understanding that you aren’t the best or the brightest. It’s realizing that you have a lot to learn from others, and you have a long way to go in becoming a full human being.
In his book, Brooks tells lots of stories about great leaders in various fields. One of the striking features of these people is their humility. Very few of them thought of themselves in terms of greatness. Most were deeply aware of their flaws, the the gaps in their knowledge or skills, and the gratitude they owed to others who had helped them on their way.
In Lent we remember that humility is also a prized Christian virtue. We begin by getting some ashes smeared to our forehead, and being told we are dust. In this season we especially focus on our inadequacy, our sinfulness, our failures. We confess that
we have sinned against you
in thought, word, and deed,
by what we have done,
and by what we have left undone.
We have not loved you with our whole heart;
we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves.
That’s our Lenten selfie. It’s not groveling, it’s the simple truth, and without internalizing that truth we distort ourselves. Lent is like standing in front of a full-length mirror under a bright light, revealing all our flaws and flab, our wrinkles and bruises.
As for self-esteem, “Whoever glories, let them glory in the Lord” (2 Cor. 10:17). We have one basis for our self-esteem: we have been loved and redeemed by Jesus Christ, and as we humbly submit to him, he is making us into the the glorious people God intended us to be. The only selfie that counts is one with him in the picture.