Jordan Peterson often advises people who want to change the world that they ought to start by cleaning their own room. In giving this advice, he offers at once wise counsel and biting commentary. Bringing order and competence to your own existence is a worthwhile endeavor. But Peterson is also subtly pointing out that it’s easier to point the finger outward than to clean your own mess. In fact, one might be tempted to speculate that people who are most zealous for others to change may be motivated by a desire to divert attention from their own personal failures. Jesus offered similar advice when he suggested that people stop pointing out a piece of sawdust in another person’s eye when they have an entire log in their own.
Changing is hard.
There are two cultural habits that have emerged during my lifetime that I think are related to each other and that also reflect an implicit despair at any possibility of changing for the better. The first habit I’ve observed is a growing tendency to talk about how having good things happen to us is something we deserve. Now, everyone would like for good things to happen. But framing something as a matter of what I deserve alters the discussion from what may only be desirable to a question of my personal worth and virtue. One might even say that it subtly makes the point that my virtue is indistinguishable from my desires. It isn’t enough that I might want a new car, I actually deserve one. It is a kind of micro self-congratulation. A mini celebration of myself as I am. You see this articulation everywhere and applied to highly diverse situations. (Do I really deserve a cupcake?)
The second habit I’ve observed is the inclination to view every human frailty as something to celebrate. At one level, this may proceed from the deeply embedded instinct that human beings are intrinsically valuable. Such instincts reflect the Judeo/Christian understanding that human beings bear the image of God himself. But in our time, there is a propensity to celebrate not only a person’s humanity but his appetites as well. In fact, the culture increasingly equates a person with his appetites. And this without asking awkward questions about the larger moral context of a person’s pursuits. Whereas in the past, morally dubious appetites might be hidden and struggled against, we now encourage unbounded celebration without regard to any pesky moral standards. Moral standards have themselves become the only immorality.
The common thread of these two tendencies is the notion that at all costs I should be celebrated and rewarded because whatever I am is what I was meant to be. (Although the question of who or what meant me to be this way goes begging.)
Having noticed these cultural tendencies over the last few years, I was fascinated to see them explicitly codified in the music of the recent movie The Greatest Showman. Inspired by the story of P.T. Barnum, The Greatest Showman focuses on the lives of the show’s performers, many of whom were side-show attractions due to unfortunate physical conditions. (e.g. The bearded lady, conjoined twins, etc.)
The anthem of the show is a song which has become very popular called This Is Me. The song is sung by the sideshow performers as a vehicle for asserting their dignity and worth in response to a lifetime of shame and ostracization. Here are some of the lyrics.
I am not a stranger to the dark
Hide away, they say
'Cause we don't want your broken parts
I've learned to be ashamed of all my scars
Run away, they say
No one'll love you as you areBut I won't let them break me down to dust
I know that there's a place for us
For we are gloriousWhen the sharpest words wanna cut me down
I'm gonna send a flood, gonna drown them out
I am brave, I am bruised
I am who I'm meant to be, this is me....
and I know that I deserve your love
'cause there's nothing I'm not worthy of...
Taken within the context of the physical challenges of the sideshow performers, these lyrics are mostly understandable and sympathetic. To the extent that the conjoined twins or bearded lady had been on the receiving end of cruelty, you can feel their pain and see justification in the lyrics. Although it is a stretch to buy into the notion that “there’s nothing I’m not worthy of.”
The problem, of course, is that the modern day cultural context in which these lyrics are offered ensures that the use of the lyrics will not be confined to questions of cruelty directed at valuable human beings merely because of their physical deformities. The cultural bait and switch, as always, is to frame the discussion in the context of something which is morally neutral (e.g. physical deformities) but to then apply the resulting moral imperative to an unrelated circumstance that is loaded with moral connotations (e.g. sexual proclivities).
There’s a fascinating recording of the first time This Is Me was performed for the extended cast. It is moving and well worth watching. You can easily see that the lyrics of this song resonated with the participants in a deep way. Tears were being shed. It’s hard to watch it without suspecting that there are keenly felt issues in the minds and hearts of many of those singing.
These lyrics seem to represent a perfect distillation of the current cultural zeitgeist which is a determination, at all costs, to celebrate and affirm ourselves just as we are.
I think there are many reasons for this, not least is the inescapable realization inside the human heart that we are unworthy and in need of redemption. There is whiff of over-zealousness to the cultural pushiness - maybe even a bit of obsession - which carries a hint of desperation. Having jettisoned any of hope of a savior outside of ourselves, the culture is reduced to grasping in forlorn hope at the illusion of our own intrinsic worthiness. It is genuinely heartbreaking to witness the despair and neediness that ensue when a person has only his own goodness to rely on.
But I also think there is real cowardice involved, even if that cowardice is unconscious.
It was Aristotle, I believe, who referred to courage as the first of all virtues, because without it all other virtues are impossible. An unwillingness to face our own flaws - our own unworthiness - is a form of cowardice. It implicitly concedes the field to our shortcomings and to the architect of our fallen nature. Someone has pointed out that power worship is a form of cowardice, because it provides an excuse for inaction. I suspect that some of the cultural desperation to celebrate ourselves, just as we are, is a de facto form of power worship with all the attendant cowardice.
The cultural insistence that we celebrate ourselves is deeply at odds with our own instincts. We all know ourselves to be unworthy. We all recognize that we are deeply flawed. Somewhere deep down, we all know that the great task of our lives is to yield ourselves to the transformative power of our maker.
So the chest-beating by the culture, insisting that we celebrate ourselves - that “there’s nothing we’re not worthy of” - is just a showy display of bravado, but it lacks any actual courage. It’s amounts to an elaborate way of whistling past the graveyard.