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Ideal Selves, Ideal Images, or the Image of God

June 29, 2013

We all have our own stories about who we are, stories that are part fact and part fiction, with the dividing line between the two being less than clear. In order to feel good about ourselves, we sometimes make these stories into an ideal image of who we should be or who we wish we were. Unfortunately, that ideal image can make us, often unwittingly, arrogant in the original sense of the word, arrogating or appropriating qualities that we don’t really fully hold. And also regrettably, this ideal image has very little to do with either the ideals of the Gospel or with the image of God, but rather has everything to do with ways in which we are supposedly superior to others in terms of intelligence, beauty, strength, understanding, and even love. The ideal image is a static weakness that fosters pride, not a dynamic strength that gives rise to humility. And as such, accepting it as reality and making it the basis for our actions can only make us rigid and prevent our growth in Christ into the only image worth striving for, the image and likeness of God that is our rightful goal. The ideal image of our self is not unrelated to the portrayal of Pharisees in the gospel who in their minds considered themselves to be superior to others, and in precisely this way became inferior to publicans who had no high opinion of themselves from a beautified ideal image (See Saint John Chrysostom, Homily 3 on Matthew).

With this prologue in mind, the significance of the fourth choice from Acceptance and Commitment Therapy acquires a uniquely Christian depth: “We can choose to pay attention to our ideal image of our self or to pay attention to the self that notices the thoughts and even the self’s ideal image.” Identifying ourselves too closely with our own story, our own path, and our own choices can make it difficult to identify with Christ’s story, Christ’s path, and Christ’s choices. The self’s ideal image and the image of God are at odds with the one being a delusive form of self-deification and the other being a clarion call to become sons and daughters of Light. Even further, by identifying ourselves with these ideal images, we set ourselves up for being insanely proud in a fantasy world of our own making or for being crushed when reality makes it no longer possible to preserve our fantasies in tact. The other option is at once as easy as a flowing stream and as hard as towering mountain: to simply be ourselves, sinners in need of God’s mercy and recipients of His love. If we only would set aside all the fanciful superiority that our ideal image tries to offer and just be present with God as His servants, we can feel a sense of freedom that lifts us up as on eagle’s wings, for then, we can act not in accordance with the restricting directives of our own personal fantasy, but in accord with God’s expansive commandments under the direction of the Holy Spirit in communion with other real living members of the Body of Christ.

In Ancient Christian Wisdom, I refer to an interesting passage in the writings of Saint John Chrysostom in which the holy bishop “recounts for the faithful two graphic hypothetical examples to teach them about the importance of how they interpret their station in life and the situations that they encounter. First, he has them consider the case of a poor junk collector who is disturbed, because he does not have more possessions. If that person were to receive those desired goods, but continued to interpret his world through the lens of what he does not have, he would still be upset. Saint Chrysostom has this person progressively ascend the political, social, and economic ladder to an objectively and measurably improved status. The saint notes that even if this person were to be crowned king, he would still be distraught, because other kings are greater than he is. Saint John then has the faithful consider the diametrically opposite case of a king who is accustomed to finding solace in the positive aspects of his situation. If this ruler were to be removed from office, but still has his goods and chattels, remembering that fact will console him. If his possessions are taken away from him, but he still has food to eat, focusing on that blessing will comfort him. Inverting the former example, Saint Chrysostom has this figure descend the political, economic, and social ladder rung by rung until the former ruler finds himself in prison. Even there, this truly wise ruler of himself considers that he is alive and finds consolation therein. Thus, the saint concludes, ‘It is not then wealth that is the foundation of pleasure, nor poverty of sadness, but our own judgment and the fact that the eyes of our mind neither see clearly nor remain fixed in one place, but flutter abroad.’”

This passage certainly illustrates that how one’s interpretation of one’s station in life and of personal events affects one’s peace of mind or lack thereof. But I think it also says something about paying attention to the self’s ideal image in contrast to just being one’s self and observing the world with simplicity and trust in God. The truly wise ruler’s ideal image was not attached to his superiority in terms of wealth or even power, something certain rare for those in such high positions. He simply observed the world with a sense of gratitude that was not linked to possessions, but expressed a state of mind that pays attention to the present, not allowing his attention to wander into a land of fantasy furnished by things possessed in the past and now absent in the present.

The choice to simply observe our thoughts rather than to fixate on who we should be or wish to be gives God room to come and act, making us into the people He wishes us to be. Choosing to simply observe is an act of humility, an act of trust, and an act of hope. Turning away from our ideal image of our selves is also an act of renunciation, an act of faith, and an act of love. May we make that choice each and every day, so that it also becomes an act of transfiguration making us both ancient and new in the only image worth embracing, the divine image of God in man traced so perfectly in Christ Jesus our Lord.

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