Don’t Be True to Yourself
Written along a guardrail near my home in big black letters is the aphorism, “Choose Your Own Path.” Michelle Obama exhorts: “Always stay true to yourself.” Journalist Katie Couric observes: “I’ve always tried to stay true to my authentic self.”
Everyone says it. It’s one of the shared beliefs of our time. And we have to admit, it sounds good. Yet that’s often the very worst thing we can do. I know this because I see it every day with my three children. And I’ve seen it in myself.
Recently my eldest daughter, contrary to my warnings, rode down our street, got off her bicycle, took off her helmet, and tried to do a handstand in the middle of the uneven, gravelly pavement. She was being true to herself, just like Michelle and Katie say. She got nasty cuts on her face. It was especially unfortunate that she had her school pictures soon afterwards!
She’ll get over it, and no one else was hurt. The older we get, though, the greater the consequences of choosing our own path. Consider divorce.
People get divorced for all manner of reasons, some understandable. I bought our leather couch from a couple divorcing because the wife couldn’t deal with the husband’s PTSD, acquired after a year serving in Iraq. Others divorce to escape abuse or protect their children. I’m not talking about them.
Other divorces I’ve witnessed fit quite well under “choosing your own path”: one spouse was cheating on the other; one spouse fell out of love with the other; one spouse wanted to focus more on career than family. They wanted to be “true to themselves,” and felt that required them to stop being true to their spouse.
What happens when one or both parents choose their own path? However bad a marriage may be, the bad effects of divorce, as sociological research have demonstrated, are legion. Children exposed to divorce are more likely than their peers in intact marriages to suffer from social or psychological pathologies. Adolescents with divorced parents are more than twice as likely to drop out of high school compared to children from intact families.
Adolescent girls with divorced parents are three times more likely to become teen mothers, while their male counterparts are twice as likely to spend time in prison. Kids who grow up with a divorce more often repeat grades, get school suspensions, commit delinquent acts, receive therapy, and attempt suicide.
American Sacred Cows
Americans choosing their own path by divorcing “to be true to themselves” have devastated our nation, socially, psychologically, and financially. Yet most Americans believe free divorce must be permitted, precisely because to limit it infringes on our freedom to “be ourselves.” Many believe this about other social ills, like abortion, pornography, and drugs. Those have the same destructive effects as easy divorce. We ultimately destroy ourselves — and others — when we use our freedom to violate the moral law.
To return to my children, their freedom to follow their own path quickly devolves into destruction. When I leave them for only a few minutes — say to use the restroom or take a phone call — anarchy soon ensues: screaming, hitting, crying. Each of them have his own path and none of those paths are perfectly good ones to follow.
If my wife and I let them “stay true to themselves,” they would eat terribly, stay up late, and watch movies all day. This would damage their physical, mental, and spiritual health.
Have you ever considered that grade school-age children, though superior to every animal on the face of the earth, would starve to death in short time without adults’ careful supervision? Or kill each other. Or fall victim to predators. Yet when children are guided to follow not their own path, but the loving wisdom of their parents, they flourish. They learn how to groom themselves and feed themselves, and, in time, to think for themselves and provide for themselves. They learn courtesy and kindness. Because my wife and I feed our kids healthy food and limit screen time, they’ve learned to love fruit and beg to be read books.
Christians know that the moral law is God’s law. In relation to God, we are all children. Not just in the sense that he loves us as his children, but in the sense that he knows what’s good for us better than we do. In original sin man preferred himself to God and by that very act scorned him. He chose himself over and against God, against the requirements of his creaturely status and therefore against his own good. We each do that whenever we sin.
God’s laws don’t limit our potential. They don’t make us false to ourselves. They give us a necessary boundary to live a good life, just like those I try to create for my children. I tell them “do this” and “don’t do that” because I want them to grow into their true selves, the self God created them to be. I want them to know that the God who loves them has already mapped out their own path for them.
God’s laws help us stay true to ourselves by telling us who we really are. That, Holy Scripture tells us, is far more than we could ever conceive for ourselves. The Psalmist writes, “I say, ‘You are gods, sons of the Most High, all of you” (Psalm 82:6). Elsewhere St. Peter tells us, “You are a chosen race, a royal priesthood, a holy nation, God’s own people, that you may declare the wonderful deeds of him who called you out of darkness into his marvelous light” (1 Peter 2:9).
Only when we choose God’s path will we discover our true selves, reflecting that divine light as sons of the living God.