By Jaymie Stuart Wolfe, OSV News
It’s promoted as total freedom, but the “self-made human” is a myth both futile and stress-inducing. As such, today’s alarming rates of clinical anxiety shouldn’t surprise us. To believe that we carry the burden of our own existence — that we must strive not just to find ourselves, but to create ourselves — is a heavy load indeed.
And as society navigates through difficult and delicate issues of self, including gender dysphoria, it’s hard not to ask whether it’s possible to “know thyself” if we deny the prior existence of a self to discover.
This isn’t just an ambiguous variation on the Delphic oracle. We are a people dissatisfied with ourselves — bewildered about who and what we are, and constantly seeking reinvention. I’m convinced the current riptide of confusion flows from (and reveals) a deep and widespread identity crisis. We have been talking about self-improvement, self-help or self-actualization for decades. It almost seems inevitable that we would now venture on a new quest: self-creation. Rather than receiving who we are as a gift from our Creator, many have discarded all the givens, literally throwing our baby selves out with the bath water. We’ve substituted the journey of self-discovery for one of self-invention.
Yet, as we struggle to define and redefine ourselves, the quest for lasting and transcendent reality is set aside. Instead, there are long, drawn-out projects of intrinsic self-interest, even selfishness. If the thrust of our entire lives is determining what we are, we never quite get around to being who we are, let alone engaging the question of why we are.
Expressing ourselves is a poor substitute for giving of ourselves, but we cannot give what we do not possess. Very few of us are what we used to call “self-possessed.” That’s why our interactions are warped by both an overflow of self-expression and a lack of self-gift. We try on different versions of ourselves, never really delving into who we really are, but letting the response of others define us. We allow the audience to create the character. Perhaps that is why so many spend so much effort to gain an audience and validation on TikTok and Instagram.
Many have stopped asking who they are, preferring rather to focus only on what they want to be without considering any biological, cultural or historical givens, or acknowledging limitations of any kind. This eventually leads to unhappiness and disillusionment. For, as the U.S. bishops’ recent doctrinal note “On the Moral Limits to Technological Manipulation of the Human Body” observes: “there is an order in human nature that we are called to respect. In fact, human nature deserves utmost respect since humanity occupies a singular place in the created order, being created in the image of God (Gn 1:27). To find fulfillment as human persons, to find true happiness, we must respect that order. We did not create human nature; it is a gift from a loving Creator. Nor do we ‘own’ our human nature, as if it were something that we are free to make use of in any way we please.”
Gender ideology asserts a fluidity of sexual identity that simply cannot exist and must therefore divide a person’s body, mind and spirit. The result appears to be a seemingly infinite multiplicity of genders. But it is really only the multiplication of mere stereotypes — an array of self-definitions that confine us to a life of role-playing, complete with costumes and scripts. Rather than defining our masculinity or femininity as individuals, we are encouraged to be defined by the gender stereotype we choose.
We are never freed from imprisoning stereotypes; our only option is to choose a different cell block.
But there is another question no one seems to be asking: Isn’t all this just an insidious form of self-rejection or abnegation? I can think of nothing more tragic than a search that begins by rejecting oneself.
Our faith gives us a healthier alternative: self-acceptance. The first gift God gives each of us is being “fearfully and wonderfully made” (Ps 139). Each one of us has the power to accept all our strengths and limitations, all our past experiences, positive and negative, as gifts from God, who loves every cell of his beloved children.
Genesis gives us one thing that contemporary accounts of humanity cannot: the assurance that we are good (Gn 1:31). We need not be bright, talented or attractive, or even “useful” to be good and to be loved. God has loved and willed us into existence. When we embrace the depth of that truth, identity can only emerge as gift — one that can be freely given because it has been fully received.