The other day I found out a disturbing truth about something deep inside me. Something which will undoubtedly affect my family – and probably your family too while I’m at it.
In a landmark study earlier this year, microplastics have been found in an estimated 80% of people’s blood. i.e. 4 out of 5 people have tiny little particles undetectable to the human eye coursing through their body. And it’s not limited just to adults either, even babies are starting life with this stuff inside them. Now the effects of this are currently unknown, but apparently they can become lodged in human organs and degrade our cells over time. It’s an unsettling discovery, yet something that no matter what you do, it can’t be avoided in this day and age.
Plastic has become such an overwhelming and inevitable part of everyday life, whether it’s in our homes, cars, technology, kids’ toys and food packaging. We have all grown up with these unpredictable, and potentially deadly intruders all around us, in the very air we breathe, and now swimming through our bloodstream doing who knows what.
And yet life will go on and we’ll live with this knowledge, along with that melancholic feeling that there’s seemingly nothing we can do about it – just to add to the other uncomfortable realities that colour 21st century life.
Often we’re resigned to external things that are outside of our control, which is of course perfectly understandable. But many of us are also resigned to things internally, which we do have some level of control over. It could explain why the self-help industry is booming and estimated to be a multi-billion-dollar industry.
A Startling Moment of Self-Discovery
This year our team ran a personality test, which I’ve always found to be a fun and valuable exercise. I’ve done about three or four over my lifetime, and no doubt you have too. But the latest one revealed some uncomfortable home truths about people like me, and unlike other personality tests- this one was brutal in the way they categorised weakness.
How’s this for a volcanic burn:
“Status-seeking and image-conscious, they become fixated with the need to convince others that they are as successful and revered as the image they seek to project. They can become desperate, pretentious, dishonest and superficial, attempting to in?ate their talents in order to bolster their low self-esteem.”
What it’s describing here is the ‘Type 3’ personality, which apparently I fall into.
It’s not unusual for a personality test to dress up your greatest weaknesses as a strength, and vice versa. I’ve been used to words like ‘influential’, ‘persuasive’, ‘charming’, ‘likes to bring others along’ but narcissistic? Ouch. It could be a misdiagnosis. It could be a reality check.
Now, just to be clear I’m not some malignant, solipsistic narcissist, with no shame or empathy. It’s saying that sometimes people like me can exhibit traits which can border on a narcissistic personality. And here, it’s describing what someone with my particular personality type can look like at their worst. Particularly if they are psychologically unwell. I’m definitely on the lighter side, but it’s still uncomfortable knowing that one of the core elements of the Dark Triad lurks within me, and that in a moment of weakness these characteristics may start to pop out of my veins.
But at the very least, it’s good to know.
Good to know where my self-interest hangs out and where it may manifest if I’m not watching it closely. Self-interest is sneaky like that. I’m sure you know what I mean.
A Universal Collection of Self-Interest
We all act from self-interest at times, maybe even most of the time. Our personal needs, fears and insecurities have an outsized influence on our behaviour and relationships. sometimes in unhealthy and even destructive ways. This is why personality tests and self-help gurus are so lucrative.
We all have things we can do better, and we all have things we’re scared of being seen as; i.e. immoral, unloveable, irrelevant, insignificant, boring, needy, unprepared, weak, lazy, burdensome.
Whatever your personal fear is, it will no doubt lead to overcompensation in some way; i.e. virtue signalling, people pleasing, being a perfectionist, flamboyant, impulsive, emotionally unavailable, overly agreeable, distantly stoic and independent (rather than interdependent).
We’re all flawed in our own unique ways, and all of us will have uncomfortable discoveries lying dormant within, waiting to be found and confronted periodically. We can either take them out on other people, or let other people take it out of us through their counsel and help.
“Self-actualisation”, “self-expression”, “self-fulfilment” and similar terms have long been part of the cultural vernacular for much of my adult life. These positive turns of phrase are meant to exude an air of confidence, curiosity, and creativity in a world where failing to stand out means you get left behind. But they’re also trying to capture the personal journey that we go on as we grow, change and evolve through our experiences.
Not all of our experiences are positive, but they are undoubtedly formative – and living with intentionality and contemplation helps us get closer to the fundamental question of who we are, who we want to be, and what our life means.
But it needs a reference point. Existentialism isn’t enough.
You can travel the world, push your body and mind to the limits, and immerse yourself in various love interests and hobbies. But you’ll always be carrying your fears, needs, insecurities and character flaws around with you – as an untethered individual.
And true self-actualisation doesn’t seem to be found in climbing the mountain of personal success or daring experiences, but through the valleys of reality and struggle. Facing suffering, grief, trauma, hardship and loss. Reckoning with our personal failings and inviting others in to help us.
A Different Kind of Self-Actualisation
I’ve been reading David Brooks’ (the New York Times columnist) wonderful book The Second Mountain and he talks about ‘the committed life’; that is the necessity of putting down roots in local communities, investing in relationships, and seeing how the service of others paradoxically helps you find yourself. These commitments can give us identity, a sense of purpose, a higher level of freedom and the tools to build moral character.
“On the first mountain, the emphasis is on the unencumbered self, individual accomplishment, creating a society in which everyone is free to be themselves. This is a fluid society, and over the short term a productive society, but it is a thin society. It is a society in which people are only lightly attached to each other and their institutions. The second mountain is a thick society…A thick society is not trying to serve people instrumentally, to give them a degree or to simply help them earn a salary. A thick institution seeks to change the person’s whole identity. It engages the head, hands, heart, and soul.” (p. 294)
He gives examples regularly throughout his book of what these communities look like:
“A healthy community is a thick system of relationships. It is irregular, dynamic, organic, and personal. Neighbours show up to help out when your workload is heavy, and you show up when theirs is. In a rich community, people are up in one another’s business, know each other’s secrets, walk with each other in times of grief, and celebrate times of joy, help raise one another’s kids. In these kinds of communities – which were typical in all human history until the last sixty years or so – people extended to neighbours the sorts of devotion that today we extend only to family.” (p. 266-67)
And as a Christian, I have no doubt that being part of a religious community continues to be a force of incremental personal progress and change for me. In particular, the spiritual disciplines of confession and repentance offer a regular temperature check on who God wants us to be and how we’re going. It can be done in private, but also in public, in the context of a safe community. We come to the God of the universe with our demons and vices, confessing the things that bring us shame, guilt and regret. The things we know to be wrong. The things that bring discomfort or even misery to those around us.
And God forgives us.
Repentance becomes another form of the committed life, and moral formation in us. We pledge to turn from our self-centred ways -with God as our witness- knowing that love and service of others are at the core of healthy relationships. Something epitomised by Christ’s violently sacrificial death.
And God then helps us change.
Our desires, our needs, our situations, our moods and our impulses. We don’t need to be resigned to things internally because God commits to helping us manage our self-interest and fears.
Brooks eloquently puts it like this:
“Throughout this book I’ve been talking about commitments as a series of promises we make to the world. But consider the possibility that a creature of infinite love has made a promise to us. Consider the possibility that we the ones committed to, the objects of an infinite commitment, and that the commitment is to redeem us and bring us home. That is why religion is hope. I am a wandering Jew and a very confused Christian, but how quick is my pace, how open are my possibilities, and how vast are my hopes.” (p. 262)
I don’t know if you too are a fellow narcissist struggling with delusions of grandeur (tongue in cheek obviously!), but becoming a Christian will always be the moment of self-discovery that matters for me. The hope of the gospel is infinitely vaster than the microplastics clogging up our bloodstreams, and infinitely vaster than the first, second or third mountain we’ll ever climb. No doubt, something worth discovering for yourself.
Feature image: Photo by Fares Hamouche on Unsplash
About the author: Aaron Johnstone is writer with Third Space, with a Masters from Sydney Missionary & Bible College, and a passion for connecting Christianity with culture.